DC Winter Plan For Homeless Families Falls Apart

A couple of days ago, I observed that the District’s plan for providing homeless families with shelter would fall apart unless the Department of Human Services could deliver on some iffy assumptions.

Well, it seems that DHS can’t — or has decided not to — deliver on the only one that didn’t seem iffy.

So now the part of the Winter Plan that addresses shelter and/or other temporary housing for homeless families has to go back to the drawing board. And a good thing too.

For the plan to work — if only on paper — 57 units at DC General Hospital had to be vacant on November 1, when the hypothermia season officially begins. DHS made sure they would be — by denying homeless families entry even though they had no place else to stay.

Seems that some effective pressure was exerted because on Monday it started admitting these so-called Priority One families again. And, lo and behold, there were a lot more of them than it expected.

We the public and the DC Council Committee on Human Services learned this yesterday at what promised to be a routine hearing on the Winter Plan.

DHS Director David Berns testified that opening the doors to DC General, as they had, will probably mean that all the vacant units are full when the winter season begins. Why the “big flood” surprised the agency is a mystery — at least, to me.

In any event, DHS will need to figure out how to offset the loss of those 57 units — and where the funds to pay for them will come from.

Some discussion about hotel rooms — a costly option, but one DHS reverted to last winter when DC General filled to capacity.

A bit of discussion about lining up some rental units in apartment buildings — more cost-effective, but like hotel rooms, problematic unless DHS sets up systems to ensure that the families it places immediately have food, transportation and access to social services.

Testimony by Washington Legal Clinic attorney Amber Harding indicates that DHS has verbally committed to this sort of backup plan. But, as she says, it’s absence from the Winter Plan is “troublesome.”

Suggests to me that DHS didn’t really put its mind to the logistics — or want to be held accountable for them.

One way or the other, DHS will need to scramble. And higher-ups in the Gray administration will probably need to find some funds — as they seem capable of doing when they choose to.

What if DHS had decided from the get-go that denying shelter to desperate families for seven months of the year was an unacceptable way to comply with its legal obligations during the other five months?

Berns himself termed it a “hideous” choice.

Still, it’s unfair to lay all the blame for the situation on DHS. As Berns said, at the policy level, the real crisis isn’t homelessness. It’s lack of affordable housing.

DHS has more shelter capacity than it did in 2008 — including at DC General.

But once families get there, it can’t move them out fast enough to make room for more because the District has egregiously failed to keep up with needs for more stable, suitable housing alternatives.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight — even if the Gray administration and the Council rethink their priorities.

The problem of how to ensure that homeless families don’t spend more nights in stairwells, bus stations, etc. does have to be solved now — at least for the winter season.

One would hope that, this time, the solution would be year round.

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2 Responses to DC Winter Plan For Homeless Families Falls Apart

  1. D says:

    I’ve been in DCG for 9 months with my children. If they would open all year instead of denying people it wouldnt be that many people left to place. We sat in here all summer with empty rooms. Now they wanna hurry up and move people to other shelters just so the same day they can fill your room with some new family. While im happy to have a place to stay something has to change.

  2. [...] have to seek shelter through an intake center. But even the DC Department of Human Services acknowledges that homeless families were denied shelter, even if they had no place to stay. Like this:LikeBe the [...]

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