Every year, the District contracts for extra emergency shelter space during the hypothermia season. The idea here is to provide more beds for the extra-cold nights when people who ordinarily sleep outdoors seek refuge or are taken to shelters by rescue teams.
The contracts for extra bed space expired on March 31, as they do every year, when the hypothermia season officially ends. (Mother Nature apparently doesn’t respect this timeframe. I understand a hypothermia alert was called on April 7.)
Still, the cutback in bed space would make sense if the shelters were–and could be expected to remain–below capacity. Why pay for beds that aren’t needed? But they are.
On March 31, the shelter summary reports produced by the Community Partnership for Homeless Prevention show that the shelters for women were just about full, and the shelters for families were slightly over capacity. We don’t know how many families were turned away because the shelters just couldn’t cram them in.
What we do know, thanks to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, is that on April 1 at least 355 D.C. residents had no place to stay. A week later, on the hypothermia night, shelters for men, as well as women and families, were over capacity. And, again, we don’t know how many people were turned away.
The District hasn’t eliminated the winter-only space for families yet, but says it will do so soon. It seems not to understand that these aren’t ordinary times–perhaps especially for families.
Preliminary data from the D.C. Metro area homeless count show a 15% increase in homeless people in families since last year. That’s 5,098 parents and children. We’ll need to wait till next month to find out how many of them were in D.C. Last year, it was about 40% of the total for the region–587 families.
Since then, the unemployment rate has risen. Comments by the city’s Chief Financial Officer suggest he expects it to go even higher. Foreclosures are still leaving renters, as well as homeowners, with no place to live. About 26,000 families are already on the waiting list for affordable housing, and the proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget won’t support any more housing vouchers.
Given all this, it seems reasonable to assume that the 128 family shelter units that will still be available after the seasonal cutback won’t meet the need. Indeed, as recently as last Friday, D.C. General, where the family units will close, was four families over capacity.
Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless urges us to raise concerns with the Mayor and Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the Human Services Committee. The number for the Mayor’s call center is 202-727-2980. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact information for Councilmember Wells is on his website.
We’re likely to be told that money is tight. No question about that. But surely leaving homeless people on the street is no way to balance the budget.