Last Friday, Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, held a hearing on emergency shelter capacity in the District. He wanted to know if the system is in crisis.
The figures certainly suggest it is:
- Between April 1 and June 17, women’s shelters were full beyond capacity more than half the time.
- In June, there were, on average, four vacancies per night for women and just one for families, indicating there were probably nights when people were turned away.
- About 30 families are still in what’s supposed to be additional cold weather space at DC General–as Wells says, “an awful place for children to be.”
- At least 285 families are on the waiting list for shelter. The usually-reliable Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says it’s actually 311.
- No one knows how many families didn’t register when they found out how long the waiting list is.
But Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, doesn’t see a crisis because he’s got a plan to relieve needs for emergency shelter. He says that:
- Within months, the department will be using $7.4 million it’s received through the economic recovery act to provide more short-term assistance to families on the verge of homelessness.
- It will also be coordinating planning so that individuals discharged from institutions have a place to live.
- In upcoming months, the District’s Housing First initiative will expand to provide long-term supportive housing for 160 more individuals and 24 more families, thus shifting long-term users out of the shelter system.
But what will happen to homeless women and families in the meantime? And what if needs for housing assistance continue to grow? Carter says not to worry. The department has enough funds to cope.
Of course, that’s what agency heads are supposed to say when an administration has no intention of requesting more funds–let alone when it’s trying to close a budget gap with virtually no tax increases.
Still, it’s disturbing to hear such optimism when all the evidence indicates that needs for emergency shelter and affordable housing will continue to outstrip resources for some considerable time to come.
More disturbing yet when the Mayor’s gap-closing plan would eliminate the modest increases approved for Housing First and the Local Rent Supplement Program–funds that could help some homeless or about-to-be-homeless people get an affordable place to live.