Homeless DC Families Just Have To Wait For Shelter

I recently got a blast e-mail from an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. He wanted to know if anyone could help a homeless mother with two young children who had no place to spend the night. The Department of Human Services had told the Clinic it couldn’t help because there was no room at DC General. All other family shelters have been full for many months now.

Happily, SAFE stepped up to the plate with arrangements for a hotel room. Why, I wonder, did the family’s safety have to depend on the generosity of a fairly small nonprofit. Is this what the funding constraints on homeless services have brought us to?

Apparently so.

As of June 20, there were still (or again) no vacant units at DC General. The Legal Clinic tells me there are now at least eight and maybe as many as 25 families who urgently need shelter because they’ve got no place else to stay. In recent weeks, the attorneys have spoken with families who’ve spent nights in the open air, on the subway and at Union Station.

Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper reports that Fred Swan, head of the Family Services Administration at DHS, admits that the agency can’t provide any timetable for moving families out of DC General so that other families can get in. It’s got no intention of exceeding capacity again — understandable, given the bad publicity and threat of litigation that got it moving on the problem in March.

So homeless families just have to wait while the agency makes case-by-case placements contingent on available units in transitional or other subsidized housing. Where are they supposed to wait? In the home of a family or friend? That’s where the homeless mother and her children were until the friend’s landlord told her she was violating the terms of the lease? In a car, if they have one? Under a bridge or in a park?

And what will happen as these dog-days of hang on? The District, after all, has a legal obligation to ensure that all homeless residents have shelter in extreme weather conditions — heat as well as cold.

DHS has no solution. And it’s not the agency’s fault. It’s got to operate its homeless services program at the same funding level as in Fiscal Year 2009.

What will happen when the new fiscal year opens and winter sets in? Mayor Fenty proposed no increase for homeless services, despite the large spike in family homelessness and the egregious over-crowding at DC General. The DC Council went along with this, though it did find funds to share up some other under-funded safety net programs.

It’s not as if the Council had no choice but to let homeless families fend for themselves. It just put a higher priority on keeping high-income residents and businesses like health clubs and yoga studios happy.

The Council’s Committee on Human Services will hold a hearing on shelters and other housing for homeless people this Friday, June 25 at 10:00.

Maybe some of the questions here will get answered. I hope they at least get asked.

6 Responses to Homeless DC Families Just Have To Wait For Shelter

  1. Diane Nilan says:


    Thanks for beating this drum, although to advocates like us if feels like beating a dead horse.

    When people ask me about the administration’s latest plan to address homelessness I would like to be hopeful, but I’ve been around too long to do double-back flips.

    Here’s another version of your post, from outside the beltway. http://uspoverty.change.org/blog/view/can_public_housing_change_its_stripes


  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thanks for the link to your posting, Diane—and for your thoughts about the new federal homelessness strategy. I’m still chewing over it. But, like you, I’ve got my doubts about how much difference it will make. Keep asking myself, So where’s the money going to come from?

    Case in point: Here in the District, we’ve got one of those 10-year strategies that the National Alliance to End Homelessness thinks so highly of. It’s supposed to end homeless in D.C. by 2014. Look where we are now.

  3. […] from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Same issue as the e-mail that triggered my last posting on the District’s homeless family […]

  4. […] sure as can be is that neither the President nor any of his people ever suggested leaving homeless families out on the streets so that some kids can have summer-long subsidized jobs that could have gone to poor jobless […]

  5. Tracey Williams says:

    I am wondering what happened to affordable housing in Washington, DC. I am a 49 year old mother of two twin boys. I have recently run into some difficult money problems. Tried to get assistance from various organizations but if you are elderly, HIV Positive or on welfare. You can’t get any assistance in Washington, DC. I am a little upset by this because the people that go to work everyday and pay taxes what happens to us when we need assistance.

  6. Kathryn Baer says:

    You’ve put your finger on a big problem, Tracey. I wish I could advise you. I believe there are programs that provide help with rent to people who aren’t elderly, HIV positive or dependent on other public benefits. But they are chronically short on resources. This is also the case for programs that support the development of affordable housing.

    As you may know, we are actually losing units that are affordable for working people like yourself. The District was making some investments, but has cut back now. We taxpayers have got to speak out!

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