No Shelter For Homeless DC Families At Risk Of Harm

Two recent postings on the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless blog have me brooding about our priorities.

Kate Gannon, a legal intern at the Clinic, tells us about counseling a mother with three young children who’s understandably incredulous and upset when told that the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center can’t arrange any place for them to stay because the temperature is a few degrees above freezing.

Staff attorney Marta Berensin reports an outrageous threat to a homeless mother who’d gone back to the Center once again in hopes of help: Get on a bus to a shelter outside the District or lose your children to the foster care system.

The episode, she says, may be partly attributable to the recently-enacted residency verification requirements.

But the “myriad barriers” to shelter that families are experiencing are rooted in a shortage of family shelter units. Notwithstanding warnings, the Department of Human Services again failed to plan for enough capacity this winter.

I’ve been told that the District used to provide some form of shelter for all so-called Priority #1 families, i.e., those who have absolutely no place to stay.

Now it seems to have reverted to its minimal legal obligation. Homeless families are left to fend for themselves — on the streets, in abandoned buildings, who knows where? — unless the effective temperature is 32 degrees or colder because that’s all the Homeless Services Reform Act requires.

DHS apparently feels it has no choice. DC General — the only emergency shelter for families — has been full or nearly so for many months.

It announced last fall that it wouldn’t open more units there because that would run counter to its long-term strategy. But it apparently can’t open alternative housing units fast enough to keep up with rising need.

Nor do they provide a stable housing situation for the majority of homeless families. I understand that it’s now offering only short-term, phased-out rental assistance — obviously suitable only for families that are temporarily short on cash.

The hypothermia season officially ends on March 31. For at least the past two years, DHS  has kept what are technically winter-only units at DC General open longer to accommodate the ongoing stream of Priority #1 families.

Looks as if this year will be different. An e-mailed action alert from the Legal Clinic says that DHS plans to stop sheltering any more homeless families until next November, when the next hypothermia season begins.

It’s as if freezing to death is the only harm we need concern ourselves about.

Gannon writes that virtually every mother she interviewed was a victim of domestic violence. We know — or ought to know — that domestic violence victims often return to their abusers when they feel they’ve got nowhere else to go.

Homeless mothers sometimes give their children up or parcel them out among relatives if they can. How can young children understand this as anything except desertion?

Homeless children generally suffer psychological damage even when their parents manage to find safe places where they can all stay together.

They develop physical as well as mental health problems. Their schoolwork suffers. They feel isolated from their peers — as indeed they are, since they’ve few opportunities to socialize.

How much worse when they’re spending the night in a bus station or under a bridge.

I understand that the District had a large budget gap to close — and that it’s facing another. But I refuse to believe that our policymakers have no choice but to neglect the urgent needs of homeless families in our midst.

The Legal Clinic asks us to e-mail or call Mayor Gray and urge him to propose an increase in local funding for homeless services for Fiscal Year 2012.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute explains, $25 million will be needed just to keep funding level because the District won’t have certain federal funds to shore up the program.

Seems to me that’s not enough, given what’s been going on this winter. And what will happen to Priority #1 families before the new budget kicks in?

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9 Responses to No Shelter For Homeless DC Families At Risk Of Harm

  1. Galaxian says:

    The phased rental assistance you refer to is “rapid rehousing,” a one-time HUD program that was part of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. When monies from this are gone, no more clients will be enrolled. Each locality decides for itself how to use its grant, but rules specified that 60% had to be spent within two years.

    What is really sad about homelessness is that it is a complex problem for which solutions in public policy are relatively expensive, and for which required political will is unlikely to be mustered in this country.

  2. Goldilocks&3bears says:

    I am in DC General as I write this. I have 3 young kids and a baby due soon. I had to fight to get in a hotel for a month and now they finally had space to put me here. Im glad I have somewhere to go but at the same time I am left wondering where do we go from here. You see a caseworker every week but the discussion about housing is always its full or you need to try to get a job so you can get an apartment because the transitionals are choicy and packed. I wish that I had a job because I would save every penny to get out of here. I hate being homeless I hate crying every night. I hate it here. As soon as I get a place I will make sure I never go through this again. Well back to waiting:-(

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    Goldilocks, your story makes a better case for more homeless services funding than I ever could. It pains my heart. I truly hope you and your children can get into a better housing situation soon.

  4. [...] million — this when the current funding shortage has led the Department of Human Services to deny shelter to homeless families who’ve got no place to [...]

  5. [...] District is already denying shelter to families who’ve got no place to stay. It’s a good bet there will be more of them if the Council [...]

  6. [...] however, whether all homeless families were accommodated during the peak. They certainly weren’t a short time later. And maybe not now, since the Winter Plan assumes that 57 units at DC General [...]

  7. [...] DHS has again stopped providing shelter for newly homeless families. Official end of the winter season means [...]

  8. [...] DHS has again stopped providing shelter for newly homeless families. Official end of the winter season means [...]

  9. […] wrote some time ago that DHS had reverted to the District’s minimum legal obligation under the […]

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