As I recently wrote, Councilmember Tommy Wells made changes in his proposed amendment to the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act before the Committee on Human Services and then the full DC Council approved it.
I’ve already tried to account for changes related to eligibility for shelter. Here are the other big changes I see.
Families can’t be sheltered in barracks-style facilities. Like the original version of the bill, the final allows the District to place families in non-apartment style shelter units during severe weather conditions if no apartment-style units are available.
However, the final version says that families must be given private rooms. This seems to address some of the most urgent health and safety concerns about eliminating the apartment-style housing requirement.
Or maybe not. Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis acutely notes that it doesn’t say that each family must have its own room. On the other hand, the Homeless Services Reform Act doesn’t say that each family must have its own apartment-style unit either. I doubt we’d have the outcry now if it weren’t understood that way.
However interpreted, the provision clearly relieves the District from any obligation to move toward more suitable shelters for families. Professor Matt Fraidin’s testimony about conditions at DC General should give one pause.
I’m thinking here particularly about conditions that can’t be remedied by improving maintenance and investing in some modest remodeling, e.g., refrigerators that all parents can use 24/7.
Such upgrades would still leave children with no quiet place to do homework, no safe place to play, limited opportunity to socialize and exposure to a host of rules that undermine a healthy relationship with their parents.
As Fraidin recently told Cherkis, even a good communal shelter, which DC General isn’t, “is a bad place for kids” and will probably cost the District more in the long run than moving away from institutions like DC General.
Homeless people may, in some circumstances, receive other services without proving residency. The original version of the bill would have required proof of residency for all homeless services — even a blanket, a warm drink or a lift to a shelter to ward off hypothermia.
The final version of the bill allows the mayor to exclude certain homeless services, provided he publishes a notice identifying them. This could ultimately take care of the ban on crisis services.
Till then, it seems that, as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has said, the proof of residency requirement is “akin to requiring an ID before administering life-saving medical emergency services.”
Methods of proving residency have been expanded. In the original version of the bill, only someone who lived in the District — and could present the requisite proof — could verify the residency of a homeless person who couldn’t present other acceptable evidence.
The final version includes someone who is not a District resident, but works for a service provider in the District. But only if he/she produces evidence of such employment.
No indication of what evidence would qualify. So we don’t know whether an employee could satisfy the requirement without setting aside services to other clients to take an ID or whatever to a shelter or the Virginia Williams intake center for families.
The final version of the bill also either expands or clarifies another proof of residency option. Now someone may “demonstrate” residency by “reporting a mailing address in the District, valid within the last two years.”
That could certainly take care of documentation problems that service providers and advocates have raised. But are we to understand that this will be a trust, don’t verify situation? If it is, then what’s the point of the other residency proof provisions? If it isn’t, then the problems seem as great as ever.
Bottom line. Councilmember Wells seems to have made an effort to address some of the concerns that services providers and advocates raised. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t make a silk’s purse out of a sow’s ear.
The law is going to be a deuce to administer — mainly because Wells would only tinker at the margins. And it’s still going to put our most vulnerable residents at even greater risk of harm.
All because of some fragmentary evidence that some non-resident families might have been given shelter in one of the soon-to-be-legal single rooms at the warehouse the District now has less incentive to remodel or replace.
NOTE: The Legal Clinic reminds us that the final vote on the amendment is this Tuesday, December 21. It urges us to e-mail or call our Councilmembers and ask them to vote “no.” E-mail addresses and phone numbers are at the end of its action alert.