Under District law, homeless residents have a right to shelter in severe weather. The law requires a multi-stakeholder group–the Interagency Council on Homelessness–to develop an annual plan for ensuring that enough shelter space in available during winter months.
Advocates who monitor shelter space have raised serious concerns about current capacity. So what ICH plans to do for the upcoming winter months, when people without shelter are at risk of freezing to death, should get a careful look.
I’m told that ICH projected shelter space needs for individuals based on peak use during the 2008-9 winter season. So let’s do the same for families.
On peak use night, 211 families were in shelters provided by nonprofits the District contracts with. The draft plan for this winter calls for 75 units, plus 25 in reserve when these are full.
The plan also includes new supportive housing units. The District expects to have 80 more units for families open before November 1. Only 28 are open now. But let’s assume all the rest open on time. That’s still a total of only 180 units for families–about 85% of peak use during the 2008-9 winter season.
It’s hard to know how many units would be enough. What we do know is that, in mid-July, there were at least 285 families on the waiting list for shelter space.
We also know that the unemployment rate is expected to rise and that breadwinners who’ve been jobless for a long time may not have any unemployment benefits after December. So it seems reasonable to expect that more families will find themselves without the money for rent or mortgage payments.
Fred Swann, head of the Family Services Administration, discounts concerns about inadequate family shelter space. “We hear that every year,” he says. “We’ll make adjustments as needed.” Well, they haven’t done it for the families on the shelter waiting list. So what will they do that’s new and different in the months ahead?
I’m told there’s a group working on a plan to reduce needs for emergency shelter by maximizing use of transitional housing. I wonder how many vacant transitional housing units for families the District will have to work with at any given time.
Crunching the numbers, it would seem that, at peak, there should be 54–or about 10% of all the transitional housing units in D.C. That seems like a lot of vacant units to count on. If it isn’t, then we need to know why–and when the transitional housing plan will be in place.
The District should be proud of creating a right to shelter in severe weather. But having a right isn’t going to keep a family safe and warm. Only a realistic plan can do that.
To my mind, the draft winter plan doesn’t make the grade. The numbers for families just don’t add up. But maybe we’ll be offered something better in the days ahead.