DC Human Services Director Ducks Responsibility For Family Shelter Crisis

Last Wednesday, the end of the District’s hypothermia season, the DC Council’s Human Services Committee revisited the vexed matter of the 2009-10 Winter Plan for homeless services.

The hearing went on for about seven hours. Though officially billed as a review of how the winter plan had been implemented, most of it was devoted to testimony by parents housed or formerly housed at DC General–the only facility dedicated solely to winter-only space for homeless families.

Thanks to persistent investigative reporting by Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper, the rest of us already knew a good bit about major problems there–mold, leaks, peeling paint (maybe lead-based), pest infestations, food that apparently sickened some children, workers who propositioned residents and/or sold drugs, caseworkers who failed to screen incoming residents for potential mental health problems or to help residents get the heck out of the place.

Still, it was acutely distressing to hear residents speak of their personal experiences.

  • A pregnant mother in a room too hot to stay in because the window wouldn’t open and whose four-year-old couldn’t play on the floor because of the rats, droppings and roaches.
  • Another mother who couldn’t get food for her wheat-intolerant son or access a kitchen so she could prepare food for him.
  • A disabled woman who had to walk down four flights of stairs because the elevators were broken.
  • A woman who told her caseworker she wanted to get out and was asked, “How are you going to do that?”

Many viewed the hearing as a proceeding against Families Forward, the nonprofit contractor for managing the family shelter portion of DC General. Supporters showed up in tee shirts reading “Support Families Forward.”

Staff praised the leadership, spoke convincingly of how they cared for the residents and had guidance about what to do in cases of untoward events, like the deaths of two newborns in the last 12 months. Some clients also spoke favorably about operations at DC General, especially the kindness and helpfulness of caseworkers.

All for naught. The Families Forward contract expires at the end of the month. Mayor Fenty has announced it won’t be renewed–a belated effort at damage control.

It’s hard to argue that Families Forward should retain responsibility for the day-to-day operations at DC General. But the problems there didn’t originate with the contractor. Nor will they be resolved by bringing in another.

When the Interagency Council for Homelessness issued its draft winter plan last summer, advocates questioned its proposal for family shelter space. So did I. The numbers just didn’t add up. Nor did they seem realistic in light of the rising tide of family homelessness and dismal projections for the economy.

Yet Clarence Carter, head of the Human Services Department, insisted that all would be well–that DHS had “identified all the needed resources to meet the full demand for homeless services during the hypothermia season, as outlined in the District’s 2009-2010 Winter Plan.

Some ambiguity there. But notwithstanding the $12 million cut for homeless services, both he and the final winter plan itself repeatedly committed to opening additional facilities if needs exceeded projections.

Winter set in. The temperatures dropped–also record-setting amounts of snow. In mid-February, 170 families were crammed into a facility with 124 contracted units. Nine units were added. The snow melted. And, in mid-March, there were 75 more families than units–some on cots lined up in activity rooms, some bedded down in hallways.

Yet apparently no one from DHS went out to look at the situation. Indeed, Carter testified that the prime contractor for homeless services, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, was responsible for monitoring homeless shelters, not DHS.

And who was monitoring to make sure the that Partnership had the resources for the task? Who was checking on whether the agencies responsible for the physical conditions at DC General were doing their job? Apparently no one.

The District is legally responsible for the safety and well-being of its most vulnerable residents–not the Partnership nor its subcontractors. It shouldn’t take a public relations disaster and the threat of a lawsuit to trigger action on problems that anyone could have identified some months ago.

Contract monitoring is a basic agency function. If DHS didn’t have the resources for it, then someone should have come forth and said so.

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