It was a bitterly cold night in December, and Maddie was concerned about the man in the orange sleeping bag. He had shed his hat and gloves and seemed to be struggling to respond to her queries. She withdrew with our team to a safe distance and reviewed the options.
Ideally, the man — whose speech was slurred and who seemed to have trouble focusing — would have accepted a ride from the District’s shelter hotline vans, but Maddie was unable to get a clear answer from him. Should the team call the hotline anyway? Skip the hotline and call 911? We decided to call the hotline and give them a description and location. It was going to be a long night, and there were a lot more people out on the street to check on.
Maddie is a Hypothermia Outreach Team (HOT) leader. HOT, a collaboration between Georgetown University’s Center for Social Justice (CSJ) and Georgetown Ministry Center, trains and organizes members of the Georgetown University community to perform outreach on the coldest nights of the year. Volunteers check in on people on the street, connect those who are willing to free transportation to shelter, and assess hypothermia risk. HOT members also distribute cold weather gear like hats, scarves, gloves, socks, hand warmers, and sometimes blankets or food.
Although a call to the hypothermia van was the most serious intervention we made on that night in December, Maddie remembers one night when her team had to call 911. “That was really impactful for me,” she says. “If we hadn’t run into that guy, would someone else have called? Would he have made it through the night?”
A sophomore in Georgetown’s pre-med program, Maddie has been volunteering with HOT since her freshman year. She appreciates the opportunity to be in direct service “right in our backyard” in Georgetown, where the homeless population can sometimes be hidden from view. After a year of consistent volunteering through CSJ and GMC, Maddie says she appreciates that she now recognizes people on the streets and in the day center.
This year, more than 250 students, staff, and faculty have been trained as HOT members. The trainings are conducted by Melissa Bernard, a Jesuit Volunteer who works for the CSJ and Campus Ministry at Georgetown University, and also serves as GMC’s volunteer coordinator. Participants learn the basics of outreach, signs and symptoms of hypothermia, and information about Georgetown Ministry Center.
Ultimately, it doesn’t take special training to care for our neighbors experiencing homelessness. “Anybody can save a life just by being aware of the circumstances,” says Gunther Stern, Executive Director of Georgetown Ministry Center. Just a few weeks ago, Gunther was on street outreach with Dr. Ron Koshes, one of GMC’s consulting psychiatrists. They were near Washington Circle when they spotted a solitary figure sitting on a bench with a gray blanket draped over him. When Dr. Koshes’ verbal queries went unanswered, Gunther says he “did something I counsel against. I reached out and touched him.” The man stirred and said he was OK, but he was visibly shivering. “That’s actually a good sign in terms of hypothermia,” Gunther says. “It’s the first stage. Not generally serious but in this case, given that this person didn’t seem to have shelter, we were concerned.” When it became clear that this individual couldn’t stand, Gunther called 911 and the pair waited for a fire engine to show up. It was a simple bit of extra effort for Gunther and Ron, but they very well might have saved a life.
Anybody can save a life. Whether it’s just by being aware, or by supporting Georgetown Ministry Center’s medical outreach and drop-in center, we can help make sure that nobody has to suffer alone on our streets — even on the coldest nights.
— David Finnegan-Hosey
Want to support the collaboration between Georgetown Ministry Center and the Center for Social Justice at Georgetown University? Check out the Georgetown 5k Race Against Homelessness!