By. LeMara Perry
In March, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray launched an initiative aimed at creating a solution to the growing number of homeless families living in the District.
Gray vowed to speed up the process of moving families out of shelter and into apartments by locating 500 apartments for the city’s homeless families within 100 days; however, the goal has not been met.
Under D.C. law, city officials are mandated to provide housing for families that request shelter when the temperature falls below freezing. Last year, the shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital housed more than 260 families on one of the first freezing nights in late October, but by January, over 400 additional families had flooded into overflow motel rooms before the administration turned to makeshift shelters in recreation centers, separating families with partitions borrowed from the Red Cross
Since the program’s kickoff, the city and homeless families have located 532 units since the initiative began, said B.B. Otero Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, but 73 did not meet the city’s requirements, leaves 459 eligible units, or about 92 percent of the target. “I’ve been out of school for a while, but I believe that’s close to an A,” she said.
But the city hasn’t moved nearly that many families from shelter into housing. By the ending of the 100 days only 187 families had been moved into housing since the start of the program, although officials were confident that number would hit 200.
But according to Otero, has been some confusion about what Gray’s initiative actually entailed. The mayor’s goal was simply to locate the housing units, not have them all filled within 100 days.
Otero insists it was simply to locate the housing units, and the initial announcement of the program said the same. But Gray seemed to have a different understanding.
In a May 23 letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Gray wrote, “Our goal is to help 500 families exit shelter by July 11,” but noted that “we are currently on a trajectory which would fall well short of meeting our goal to exit 500 families by July 11.”
There are still 486 families being sheltered by the city as of July 3: 244 at the D.C. General shelter, and 242 at the motels used as overflow while D.C. General’s been at capacity. Otero says that if the city continues housing those families at the current pace, by the time winter begins and the city is again obligated to house families in need—a legal requirement when temperatures drop below freezing—the motels will be empty and there will be about 30 rooms available at D.C. General. Of course, if the number of families seeking shelter this winter is anything like the number last winter, 30 rooms won’t be nearly enough to hold them all.
But Otero hopes that the extensive landlord outreach through the 100-day initiative will provide momentum that will allow the city to house increasing numbers of families. Deborah Carroll, recently appointed interim director of the Department of Human Services following the departure of David Berns, added, “The goal is to be leaner, meaner, and get families in more quickly.”
If the city wants to avoid the glut of homeless families that overwhelmed the shelter city last winter, it’ll have to.
In addition to the impact on families awaiting housing, the administration’s failure to meet its goal complicates the city’s budget for the spending year beginning in October. The administration assumed in the budget that it would meet the goal.
The mayor and D.C. Council allocated no money for the backup use of motel rooms during the winter months, when housing needs peak. And they assumed that with the city’s main homeless shelter, the former D.C. General Hospital campus, nearly cleared out through the initiative, the District would have space available for more than 150 new homeless families at the start of hypothermia season.