DC Department of Human Services Plans to Leave Homeless Children Out in the Cold

The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness recently met to discuss, among other things, a revised section of the 2013-14 Winter Plan — specifically, the part that deals with homeless youth and young adults.

Once again, the ICH sent it back to the drawing board. And a good thing too. Because it isn’t merely lacking in specifics, like the family portion I complained about. It’s a tacit denial of a responsibility that everyone, to my knowledge, assumed the District had.

The Department of Human Services now takes the view that the District doesn’t have to provide emergency shelter for homeless children who aren’t with a parent or other caretaker — and that the Winter Plan, therefore, should do nothing to ensure that they have a safe place to stay in freezing-cold weather.

This novel interpretation of the Homeless Services Reform Act is apparently quite new. And it’s not directly stated in the revised section presented to the ICH.

The portion that deals with “unaccompanied minor children” says that the Child and Family Services Administration, i.e., the District’s child welfare agency, will provide 24/7 safety for those it determines were victims of abuse and/or neglect.

Not, I should note, an assurance of immediate shelter or housing.

For children generally, the draft says, “there is not a separate low barrier shelter system in the District” — in other words, no network of publicly-funded providers to ensure that they can get shelter with meeting requirements that might exclude some of them, e.g., showing an ID.

This is a mere statement of fact, not a reason for a “plan” that’s no plan at all.

As the draft indicates, there are two local nonprofits that provide emergency shelter for youth — only one of them for the very young. But, as the prior draft said, “capacity in these programs is limited and slots are quickly filled.”

You’d think DHS would have done something about such an obviously urgent problem. The shortage of shelter beds for kids is hardly new.

The DC Alliance of Youth Advocates alluded to it in a report issued nearly two years ago. Last February, the ICH Youth Sub-Committee reported that 80 youth had been turned away from emergency shelters the month before.

Preliminary data cited by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless indicate that at least 150 minor-age children were turned away during a three-month period, including two months of last year’s official winter season.

DHS could have sounded alarm bells. It’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t have gotten the funds to significantly expand emergency shelter capacity for children who’ve been thrown out of their homes or fled.

Instead, the agency secured a legal analysis to justify the “proposed framework for serving unaccompanied minor children” that’s reflected in the Winter Plan.

Which prompted the Legal Clinic’s own legal analysis.

As it says, the framework asserts that DHS has no legal authority to shelter homeless unaccompanied minors who would otherwise be exposed to dangerously-cold temperatures. Nor, “by extension,” do the providers it contracts with.

This is merely an administrative issue — a way of shucking off responsibility to other agencies, most of which serve on the ICH and, therefore, have responsibilities for a Winter Plan that purports “to protect the lives of those who are homeless.”

The more important claim is that the HSRA doesn’t require the District to shelter unaccompanied minors — except in cases where they’re legally emancipated, i.e., have a court order granting them freedom from parental control (and parents freedom from responsibilities for their care).

The reasoning here is pretty contorted. I’ll leave it to the Legal Clinic to explain the details.

For our purposes, it’s sufficient to say that the legal opinion the framework cites relies on the fact that the HSRA doesn’t specifically say that unaccompanied minor children have a right to shelter — or define the term “individual.”

It does, however, clearly say that the District must provide “appropriate space … for any person in the District who is homeless and cannot access other shelter” whenever “the actual or forecasted temperature, including wind chill factor falls below 32 degrees.”

And there is nothing in the law to justify some of the exclusions the DHS framework establishes for any homeless services to minor-age children. For example, the proposition that they’re not homeless if they “have a house to return to but … no place to stay for the night.”

Say, for the sake of argument, that the law were sufficiently ambiguous raise doubts about the District’s legal obligation to provide children with a safe place to stay when they’d otherwise be on the streets in freezing-cold weather — and highly vulnerable to predators who offer to take them in.

Wouldn’t we still want some of our taxpayer dollars going to remedy a long-standing weakness in the District’s publicly-funded network of shelters, housing and other services for homeless people?

But I’m persuaded that the law isn’t ambiguous on the fundamental issue here. So the real alternative is having our taxpayer dollars wasted in defending the District in a lawsuit for violation of a basic right established in the HSRA — a likely possibility, the Legal Clinic’s brief implies.

But, in the meantime, there will be a lot of young people at unnecessary risk of harm.

The DC Council’s Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on the Winter Plan next Tuesday morning. One can only help that it will firmly reject the pseudo-legalistic evasions and tell the Gray administration to do what it should have done some time ago.

And do it PDQ because, as you may have noticed, it’s getting cold outside.

NOTE: The Legal Clinic tells me that the timeframe for the turn-away estimate is five months, not three, as the source I link to indicates.

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One Response to DC Department of Human Services Plans to Leave Homeless Children Out in the Cold

  1. […] unaccompanied minor-age children. The second iteration didn’t pass either — and as I said at the time, with good […]

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