By K. Levek
The District of Columbia has seen a rise in homeless families entering shelters or emergency temporary shelters by 135 percent since the fall. Most homeless residents go to DC General, the city’s former all-purpose hospital. There is now a growing number of families who are facing homelessness. DC’s Department of Human Services (DHS) Director, David Berns, has called the problem a “crisis,” citing many unforeseen factors for the rise in the homeless population. Staggering to say the least, Mayor Gray has recently called upon the District City Council to approve emergency legislation that would allow families to maintain provisional placement in temporary shelters.
This controversial legislation aims to keep the District’s shelter doors closed, but spend taxpayers dollars to place families in hotels and other forms of temporary housing that has recently included churches, gymnasiums and community centers. Last year Mayor Gray asked the Council to provide provisional placement funding for this crisis and the Council rejected it. Gray’s proposal would fundamentally alter a District law that grants any resident a “right to shelter” on nights when the temperature drops below freezing and the city declares a hypothermia alert.
Mayor Gray’s Chief of Staff, Chris Murphy has said, “Our goal is to get people out of shelters . . . or never into shelters in the first place, even if that means living with a grandmother, a sister, whatever. If someone is doubled up in a safe situation that is determined to be appropriate, we think that is acceptable. Families have done it for generations. Immigrant families do it. It’s not an unacceptable situation.”
In a recent mayoral debate, where Gray is running for reelection, he blamed the crisis on the Council’s refusal to adopt his previous plan proposed last year. His current legislation seeks to provide provisional placement for families in shelters who can prove that they have no place to stay. However, their provisional placement will be limited while homeless services staff seek alternative placement for them with relatives, further diverting them from the overcrowded shelters. Gray has said that this plan wants to “push families toward self-sufficiency.”
The mayor’s 2013-2014 Winter Plan, developed by the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), for families projected 306 newly approved requests for shelter by the end of January 2014. However, the DHS has said that it has already doubled that number, housing more than 700 newly homeless families, more than the total projected for the entire winter season. DHS officials say that much of the rise in numbers is due to the polar vortex temperatures that have hit the region this year.
If newly homeless families continue to seek and qualify for shelter at the current rate, DHS will have well over 1,000 in hotels and DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, by the end of March, when the winter season officially ends. Recently the department has moved families into temporary shelters- recreation centers lined with cots and hotels in Maryland, but that won’t last for long. Maryland officials have begun to raise issue with District residents in their hotels and as many as 150 of the hotel rooms that families are in now won’t be available during the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival because they’re already reserved for tourists.
Mayoral hopeful and Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells has said, “Not since the Reagan administration have we seen so many homeless families needing shelter in our city.” Part of the problem is the cold and the influx of families seeking assistance, another part is some families have rejected rapid re-housing — largely, it seems, because they doubt they’ll be able to pay the full rent when their subsidies expire, which are set on four-month terms. Still DHS has a shortage of reasonably well-maintained units that current homeless families might be able to afford and landlords are unwilling to rent to them when they’ve no assurance of getting paid for more than four months.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness, using its own count, estimates that the D.C. area currently has the fifth largest homeless population in the country, surpassing bigger cities like Los Angeles and New York. Homeless advocates say Gray’s plan does not account for what happens when a family sent to live temporarily with friends or relatives exhausts that option.
On March 4th the City Council will hold one of its regular council meetings and the mayor has said he will ask for them to vote on the emergency legislation then.