Individuals experiencing homelessness in Washington, D.C., faced increased risk of hypothermia from freezing temperatures and extreme wind chill brought by last week’s polar vortex.

The Arctic cold front plunged 72 percent of the continental U.S. population into record-breaking freezing temperatures, according to CNN. In D.C., temperatures dropped to a low of 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 29 and a low of 12.02 F on Jan. 30.

Polar vortexes — wide expanses of cold air swirling around the North Pole — usually remain stable, resting 60,000 feet high in the atmosphere. However, when the vortex is disrupted, it can bring large amounts of Arctic air to the Northern Hemisphere, according to The Washington Post.

These freezing conditions are of particular concern for those experiencing homelessness in the District due to prolonged exposure to the cold. The recent polar vortex put them at an increased risk for experiencing hypothermia.

Homeless shelters in the District have taken extra measures to accommodate these especially low temperatures, according to a spokesperson for the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.

“We have more capacity for hypothermia nights and extreme cold nights, which is the highest level of concern,” the spokesperson said in an interview with The Hoya. “We plan for increased numbers during times like the polar vortex to accommodate those that don’t normally seek out shelter in other conditions.”

COMMUNITY CHURCH OF CHRIST | Temperatures dropped to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit on Jan. 29. The city gave a cold weather emergency alert because of the low temperatures, opening all low-barrier shelters during the extreme weather period.

As of Feb. 1, 1,765 beds were occupied in D.C. shelters by individuals seeking safety from the conditions outside, according to the Office of the Deputy Mayor spokesperson. Last winter, the city estimated its homeless population to be at approximately 7,000 people.

The District government activated a cold weather emergency alert Jan. 31 due to the temperature and wind chill drop. When the alert is activated, all low-barrier shelters — shelters that house individuals without requirements such as sobriety or a drug test — remain open 24 hours a day for the duration of the extreme weather conditions.

The Washington, D.C. Congregation of the Church of Christ, which provides shelter for up to 30 women on a nightly basis, experienced an influx of individuals seeking shelter during the recent polar vortex, according to church spokesperson Kevin Bryant.

“The operation of the shelter continued through the polar vortex to provide maximum support during those most brutal days,” Bryant wrote in an email to The Hoya. “Attendance at the shelter did increase beyond the norm on those days.”

Bryant said that he had spoken with individuals who feared for their safety and knew others who had died during the polar vortex.

The Department of Health and Human Services has a call center that works to increase accessibility to shelters by providing rides to individuals who either contact the center themselves or are identified by a member of the public as needing assistance.

Using this resource, the public can play a role in aiding those experiencing homelessness, according to a spokesperson from the Office of the Deputy Mayor.

“We call on members of the public to be our partner to call a shelter hotline when the see someone who needs help outside,” the spokesperson said in an interview for The Hoya.

Georgetown students can volunteer for the Homelessness Outreach, Meals and Education program through the Center for Social Justice. The program promotes advocacy campaigns and service opportunities, according to the program website.

The program includes a Hypothermia Outreach Team that focuses on aiding those experiencing homelessness during the winter months, according to the HOME program coordinator.

HOT teams walk in and around Georgetown on cold nights when individuals staying outside might be in danger of hypothermia and frostbite. The students call the shelter hotline to request a transportation service for anyone who wants to go to a shelter, provide warming supplies to those who wish to stay outside and call emergency services for those experiencing illness or hypothermia.

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