For Homeless Shelter Hotline and Its Drivers, Cold Temperatures Mean “All Hands on Deck”
Yesterday, Vincent "Bones" Blackson worked a 16-hour day, but he's not complaining. "In weather like this, we have all hands on deck, just like the police do," he says with a chuckle.
For the past 13 years, Bones has worked as a driver for the United Planning Organization. As part of the group's shelter hotline program, funded by the District through a contract with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, Bones canvasses the city every day assisting homeless residents in need. Yesterday, from 8 a.m. to midnight, he drove a white van with a "Shelter Hotline" decal picking up homeless people and bringing them to shelters, either because they'd called the hotline themselves or because someone had observed them and called in—or because Bones happened to spot them while cruising around the District.
Bones picked up about 17 people last night, he says. Two people declined to come into the van, so he notified the dispatcher so that they'd be checked on periodically throughout the night, and he gave them supplies to keep them warm: blankets, long johns, hats, scarves, gloves, blankets, Cup Noodles, and more.
"Yesterday I had a couple gents who wanted tarps to collect the warm air coming up from the grates," says Bones, who says no one refers to him by his given name. "Even the higher-ups call me Bones."
As we're talking in the van on Franklin Square—the spot with the biggest homeless population, he says—a woman knocks on the front passenger window. I open the door, and she asks for a blanket, then a second one. Bones hands them over. "What are you wearing under that?" he asks, eyeing her sweatshirt and scarf. "You want a thermal?" He hands her an undershirt, too, just about maxing out her hands, which are already holding two bags and two blankets.
"The homeless population knows these trucks, so if they see it, they know to come to it," Bones tells me as the woman walks off. "She'll be down by the Starbucks at 14th and New York."
At last count (nearly a year ago), there were 6,685 homeless people in the District. But Bones says he and his colleagues know nearly all of them. "Strong people," he says. "I take my hat off to them."
Although Bones has known thousands of homeless residents in his time at the United Planning Organization, he says very few have died. "In 13 years, I couldn't tell you five people that have passed," he says. Despite the perception that they're ill-equipped to handle the weather, Bones says, most are "well taken care of."
Often, people call the hotline to report a homeless person in need of help who turns out to be fine. Today, Bones received a call to assist a homeless resident at 7th and C streets SW, near L'Enfant Plaza, only to find that the man was under eight blankets and didn't need help. Still, he told the dispatcher to make sure the man continued to be checked on. During cold weather, Bones and his colleagues check on homeless people who decline shelter at least three times during the night.
The United Planning Organization has about 30 people on its permanent staff, but brings on another 25 seasonal staff in the winter, according to shelter hotline program manager Allison Smith. Right now, she says, "We have everybody we possibly can have."
Bones says this is the coldest night he's experienced in his 13 years on the job, but not the most hazardous. That distinction goes to the double blizzard of the 2009-2010 winter.
In the morning, Bones and his colleagues bring homeless people from the shelters to So Others Might Eat, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and other locations where they can eat or spend the day. And then they continue to cruise the city, responding to calls or to people they see. For most of the year, they call it a night at midnight; between Nov. 1 and March 31, they work 24/7.
Even though the job ad Bones responded to 13 years ago said "driver," Bones insists he's a lot more than that, checking on people he's known for years, handing out supplies, and making sure everyone's OK. "If you started this job today, by Saturday you'd have a lot more compassion for this job," he says, and lets out a long laugh.
Photo by Aaron Wiener