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Reston Shelter Hosts Homeless on Coldest Days

How to Help

If you see someone who is outside during hypothermia season, contact the county non-emergency phone line at 703-691-2131. More information about Embry Rucker Shelter is available at http://www.corner...

“You talk about the building basically being able to deal with 40 at any given time, and we have an additional 30 people in the building, then that’s going to create an additional tension. … But overall we have to do it.”

— Director Vincent Jenkins

Large numbers of Reston’s homeless at risk of contracting severe frostbite or hypothermia from subzero wind chills sought refuge at the Embry Rucker Community Shelter this past week.

On Jan. 7, temperatures dropped to a record low of three degrees, with wind chills as low as 10 degrees below zero, according to a National Weather Service advisory from that day. The official record low for Reston on Jan. 7 was previously set at 8 degrees in 1988. Frigid conditions caused many to pack into the shelter from Jan. 6 to Jan. 8 due to sub-freezing daytime temperatures.

During the months outside of the hypothermia season, which lasts from Nov. 1 to March 31, homeless clients regularly leave the shelter during the day. However, it is much safer during these colder months for homeless clients to remain indoors.

“Hypothermia season doesn’t mean clients just stay overnight when the temperatures are 32 degrees and below,” noted Embry Rucker Shelter Director Vincent Jenkins. “We allow clients to stay here in the facility literally all day.”

From Nov. 1 to March 31, the shelter’s 40 available beds are split between 29 for unaccompanied adults, 20 of those for men and nine for women, and another 11 for families. However, during the “deep freeze” on the nights of Jan. 7 and 8, an additional 29 people were welcomed into the building’s main floor to sleep on blankets and mats, bringing the total number in the shelter to 70.

“You talk about the building basically being able to deal with 40 at any given time, and we have an additional 30 people in the building, then that’s going to create an additional tension,” says Jenkins, adding, “But overall we have to do it.”

In addition to the shelter space, Embry Rucker also operates a Hypothermia Unit during cold weather season that provides space for 24 additional people. During the severely cold weather, the Hypothermia Unit and the shelter managed to accommodate almost all who sought an escape from the cold.

Ken Hinkle, the community outreach specialist for Embry Rucker Shelter, manages the Hypothermia Unit across the street at 1850 Cameron Glen Drive and shuttles clients over from the shelter during the evening.

The facility opens every night at 5 p.m., though a core group of regulars usually starts lining up around 4:30 p.m. It features one main room where 24 people can spread out on mats overnight, as well as two kitchens, bathrooms and a TV.

“For the entire season of four months, the food is donated by individuals and churches,” explains Hinkle. After meals, around 9 p.m., everyone cleans up, brings out the mats, and plays cards, watches television or gets on their laptops, sometimes joined by volunteers who work late.

Among its 40 overall beds, the shelter has six hospital respite beds available for people recently released from hospitals all over Fairfax County, along with a nurse who takes care of them.

One client, Russ, recently underwent a triple bypass heart surgery, and is staying warm inside of the shelter during his recovery. It is particularly necessary for Russ to stay out of the cold, as extremely cold weather puts his health at even greater risk than the average person.

Russ recalls one woman who stayed at the shelter about five days before as the temperature was beginning to change with the cold wave, who opted to leave the shelter for her campsite.

“When you tend to lead a particular type of lifestyle, you seem to close down and hide,” he says. “Because of the authorities and privacy issues, people find very unique ways of hiding and they don’t share that.”

Russ has still not heard from her and does not know where is she staying. She is one of three clients who did not come back to the shelter after leaving before the extreme temperatures arrived on Jan. 7. Aside from those three, however, Russ does not know of any who opted to stay outside during the record-breaking low temperatures.

Director Vincent Jenkins adds that for several years now, the shelter has maintained open four drop-in days each week on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, during which clients who do not to stay at the shelter can come in to take advantage of basic services.

“During these times clients are allowed to come in and utilize those opportunities to take showers, eat, get a towel, and are able to wash their clothes,” says Jenkins. “We take those opportunities to reach those clients to find out where they are, so that when the temperatures are really low we can try to talk them in.”

While Embry Rucker Shelter, operated by the non-profit Cornerstones, receives money from local businesses and private citizens, the majority of its funding comes from Fairfax County. Still, local residents can make a difference by donating hot meals – “primarily what they need, especially in the evenings,” notes Jenkins – as well as thermal underwear, hats, gloves and other outerwear.

“I am so grateful for Cornerstones, shelters in Fairfax County, and for the county putting together programs to help re-establish people like myself back into the workforce,” Russ said. “I am unbelievably thankful, and this shelter really is an oasis.”