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Homeless shelters bogged down as cold snap continues

Thursday - 1/23/2014, 8:55am  ET

WASHINGTON - Homeless shelters throughout the region are scrambling to fill the high demand for beds created by freezing temperatures.

In the District, emergency services have been expanded through Thursday. This includes providing five warming buses throughout D.C. and opening recreational centers to people in need.

"With the snow and cold weather, there is increased demand, but we haven't had an issue with capacity," says Michelle Williams, chief of systems integration for the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

While the city has been able to find beds or shelter for many in need, Williams says the number of homeless families in D.C. has risen 30 percent since last winter. The number of homeless single people has largely remained the same, she says.

"In the past few years, we've lost hundreds and thousands of affordable housing units. And this is what you see as a result," Williams told The Washington Post. "People are getting displaced."

One immediate answer has been to utilize open hotel rooms to address the overflow. And Tuesday night, when the storm dumped up to 11 inches of snow in parts of the region, 130 people took advantage of the warming buses.

Still, "the District is looking at what improvements we can make to our winter plan," Williams says.

In Arlington, Va., the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network (A-SPAN) has averaged about 70 clients per night since winter started. Tuesday, the shelter saw 71 clients. But on Jan. 7, when the polar vortex slammed into the East Coast, 89 people competed for the 73 shelter beds.

"We never turn anyone away," says A-SPAN spokesman Jan-Michael Sacharko.

Instead, the shelter teams up with the Arlington County Sheriff's Office to find additional shelter for those in need.

Fairfax County, Va., uses Cornerstones, a Reston-based nonprofit, to help prevent hypothermia as temperatures dip below freezing.

Spokeswoman Angela Suarez says she is not aware of any hypothermia victims this season, but says that homeless clients have been taking advantage of the 40 beds available to them through the the North County Hypothermia Prevention Program located in the North County Human Services Building in Reston.

The shelter, one of three hypothermia prevention centers in Fairfax County, opens at 5 p.m. every night, but people have been lining up well before then, she says.

The program begins Dec. 1 and ends March 31 and, like in Arlington, "no one is ever turned away," she says.

Suarez urges people to call a non-emergency police line if they see someone in need of shelter.

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