The Bitter Weather Isn’t Just a Petty Instagram Gripe — It Kills

A conversation with Augustine Frazier, manager of a low-barrier men’s shelter in northeast Washington.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Jan. 7, 2014, 11:15 a.m.

Cold weath­er isn’t just an an­noy­ance. It can kill you. Es­pe­cially if you’re poor.

That’s ac­cord­ing to a study by Olivi­er Des­chenes and En­rico Mor­etti that found the num­ber of an­nu­al deaths at­trib­ut­able to cold tem­per­at­ure is 27,940, or 1.3 per­cent of total deaths in the United States, and that the people af­fected are dis­pro­por­tion­ately from low-in­come com­munit­ies.

“The ef­fect for counties in the bot­tom in­come decile is 66% lar­ger than the ef­fect for counties the top in­come decile,” the au­thors wrote in their 2007 study. The reas­on isn’t dif­fi­cult to de­term­ine: Mem­bers of this pop­u­la­tion fre­quently lack ac­cess to ad­equate cloth­ing and shel­ter.

In Wash­ing­ton, home to an es­tim­ated 6,685 home­less res­id­ents, the city has opened up a hand­ful of emer­gency shel­ters. With the city’s stand­ard shel­ters already near ca­pa­city, such “low-bar­ri­er” shel­ters can save lives, provid­ing last-minute beds, hot food, and some­times clothes to in­di­vidu­als in need. (Dan Dia­mond, a con­trib­uter to For­bes, has com­piled a use­ful list of shel­ter hot­line num­bers in ma­jor Amer­ic­an cit­ies.)

Though these emer­gency shel­ters are typ­ic­ally open for just 12 to 24 hours, they are cur­rently op­er­at­ing around the clock through the dur­a­tion of the so-called po­lar vor­tex, per city or­ders. I spoke Tues­day with Au­gustine Fra­zi­er, man­ager of Cath­ol­ic Char­it­ies’ low-bar­ri­er men’s shel­ter in north­east Wash­ing­ton, about what he’s seen.

What fol­lows is an ab­bre­vi­ated ver­sion of our con­ver­sa­tion.

Na­tion­al Journ­al: How long have you worked at the shel­ter and what do you see in a typ­ic­al night?

Fra­zi­er: I’ve been with the shel­ter for six years and ca­pa­city for us is 360 people. Some­times we run over, some­times we do not. They cue the line up between 3:30 and 5:30 p.m. In­take’s at 7 p.m. and people can typ­ic­ally get a sheet, some soup, a tow­el. They take a shower if they want to and cue up for hot food.

NJ: What hap­pens when you go over ca­pa­city?

Fra­zi­er: We provide cots.

NJ: How many people did you have last night?

Fra­zi­er: We ran up to 370, so 10 over ca­pa­city. We made sure we had staff­ing, made sure every­one got in and at least had some clothes to wear, some food to eat. We have 171 cli­ents in the build­ing as of this in­ter­view.

NJ: How do you see your mis­sion as a shel­ter?

Fra­zi­er: It’s a con­tinuum, the shel­ter is part of the con­tinuum on a long-term plan for hous­ing people. I see my­self as part of that con­tinuum.

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