By Phinis Jones
Last winter, one of the coldest in history, the District of Columbia struggled to maintain the 723 homeless families that sought shelter.
On April 1, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray launched an effort to move 500 homeless families out of shelters and into subsidized apartments within 100 days.
The program seemed promising, as 26 families had already been placed in apartments before the end of April. But by the self-imposed deadline, July 9, only 187 families had been moved into apartments, according to the Washington Post.
Beatriz Otero, the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, called the program a success, noting that the city had identified 459 apartments, mostly in wards 7 and 8, even though the city has not yet moved the families into the available units.
Still there are hundreds of families living in DC General, and this winter they can expect hundreds more. While city officials want to the makeshift shelter closed, Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) has estimated a rise in the number of homeless families by nearly 16 percent, based on trends measured by the Virginia Family Resource Center of families requesting assistance this past summer.
The District is currently in the process of preparing for hypothermia season, spanning from November through the end of March. While many or most homeless families occupy D.C. General or smaller shelters, a judge in a DC Superior Court ruled last March that nearly 40 units in D.C. General do not meet the proper living conditions for sheltering families.
To handle a large capacity of families and to better living conditions, shelters plan to decrease the number of entries into the units, while speeding up the exits from the shelter, which will boost resources and improve living conditions for each family.
Although this is speculated to increase overall sufficiency, the need for overflow capacity is expected by December, at the peak of hypothermia season. The ICH Shelter Capacity Work group recommends that the winter plan provides for 1,375 available beds and is seeking out further options to address the overflow issue such as recommending the Department of General Services to temporarily lease motels for sheltering.
“I continue to be distressed over the fact that Relisha Rudd remains missing, and my thoughts and prayers remain with her family and loved ones,” Gray said in a statement on the police search that began March 19, when a school counselor inquired about her absence. The last known sighting of the girl occurred on March 1, and the body of the 51-year-old janitor she is believed to have disappeared with was found in a Northeast D.C. park last week.
“While there is no indication that District government agencies or staff failed to fulfill their duties, I will make sure that the District government responded to the facts of this case in a way that was both appropriate and responsible,” Gray continued, promising a thorough review of the District agencies that had contact with the second-grader prior to her abduction.
At Gray’s request, Department of Human Services Director David Berns and Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Beatriz Otero will develop a plan to close the D.C. General shelter and provide alternative emergency shelter options for the city’s homeless families.
“We must continue to do everything in our power to protect the District’s most vulnerable children,” Gray said.
D.C. General sits on Reservation 13, a 67-acre site that’s been targeted for redevelopment. Formerly a 482-bed facility that provided medical and surgical care and substance abuse treatment for D.C. residents, including inmates at the nearby D.C. Jail, the abandoned hospital was at maximum occupancy virtually every night this winter.
In a February interview with CQ Roll Call, Berns said the city was not on track to meet the Gray administration’s goal of placing more than 100 families in more stable housing by the end of fiscal 2014. He cited a 30 percent increase in demand for shelter.