Hypothermia shelters are filling up as winter begins. But there is still room.


Rising Hope Mission Church provides overnight emergency shelter for up to 24 individuals experiencing homelessness from December through March. (Credit: Erika Christ)

Fairfax County hypothermia shelters are filling up but have room for more people to come in out of the cold, according to figures provided by the Fairfax County Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) just before the longest night of the year — Dec. 21, 2023.

On the Route 1 corridor, during the week of Dec. 11, an average of 53 men and women per night slept in hypothermia shelters, according to HCD. Of those, 34 were at the Eleanor Kennedy Shelter at 9155 Richmond Highway, and 19 were at Rising Hope Mission Church at 8220 Russell Road.

Hypothermia services along Route 1 are coordinated by the nonprofit New Hope Housing with participation from many faith communities in the Ventures in Community network.

Throughout the county, an average of 264 individuals per night were sheltered at all facilities during the second full week of December: 111 individuals on average per night in the winter seasonal overflow space at the three adult shelters— Kennedy, Baileys and Embry Rucker Community Shelter — and 153 on average per night at Hypothermia Prevention Program sites in other county facilities and houses of worship.

Of the four Human Services Regions in Fairfax County, the region that includes Richmond Highway — Region 1 — had the lowest average number of individuals seeking winter shelter during the week of Dec. 11 — 53 per night. Other regions reported between 62 and 75 people on average seeking winter shelter per night for the second full week of December.

Credit: Fairfax County

An HCD spokesperson said that although current demand is high, they have been able to accommodate “any adult in need of immediate shelter.”

Getting a spot in a hypothermia shelter doesn’t mean getting a bed. It means getting a sleeping bag and a spot on the floor either at one of the three county shelters for homeless individuals or at a faith institution that has opened its doors during the winter.

The coordinated hypothermia program between the county and the faith community that began in 2005 usually includes overnight shelter, a hot meal, a cold breakfast and maybe a bag lunch to carry away in the morning. Volunteers cook and serve the dinners at the faith-based shelters, many of which are open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

The hypothermia program is for singles only. Unhoused families are given immediate shelter in hotel rooms if no other facilities are available.

Hypothermia shelters are open from Dec. 1 through March 31. The number of people seeking shelter usually climbs as the weather gets colder. Nevertheless, some individuals stay out in tents, usually in wooded areas, for assorted reasons.

If you see someone who is unsheltered and you think they are at risk of hypothermia, the county recommends that you call its non-emergency police number: 703-691-2131 for a wellness check. Individuals in need of help can call 703-222-0880, the coordinated social services hotline. For more information, see the county webpage on hypothermia. Rising Hope welcomes donations of warm socks, hats, gloves, scarves, underwear and jackets, as well as transit cards and cash.

“We work in collaboration with our nonprofit and faith community partners to ensure that no one must sleep outside during the winter months and be at risk of serious injury or death due to the cold,” an HCD spokesperson said.

The average number of individuals in hypothermia shelters is not the same as the total number of unique individuals who are homeless.

On Jan. 25, 2023, Fairfax County had 555 homeless individuals (households without children, including adults with beds in county shelters), down slightly from the year before, and 1,310 total homeless persons (including family members), up 10% from the year before, according to the metro-area compilation from the annual nationwide count of homeless people.

In the United States, more than 650,000 individuals were homeless on a single night in January 2023, up 12% from the previous year, according to the recently released national Point-in-Time count from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That number includes people in hypothermia shelters, standard homeless shelters and temporary housing.

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