On Monday, we got an urgent action alert from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
They’d just learned that DC Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, planned to introduce — and seek an immediate vote on — emergency legislation to roll back protections for homeless people established in the Homeless Services Reform Act.
Under the Act, the District must make shelter available for “any person in the District” who would otherwise be exposed to severe weather conditions — an actual or forecasted temperature, including wind chill factor or heat index, below 32 degrees or above 95 degrees.
The Act also requires the mayor — in practice, his Department of Human Services — to place homeless families in apartment-style shelters — housing units with separate cooking facilities and bathrooms, plus separate sleeping quarters for the adults and children in the family.
The bill that Wells wanted the Council to pass on Tuesday — on a single vote, rather than the customary two and with no advance time for consideration — would change all this.
It would require individuals and families seeking shelter to provide proof of D.C. residency — a mailing address “dated” within the last two years (whatever that means), “evidence” that they’re receiving public assistance from the District or attending a D.C. school or written verification by someone who concurrently produces documentation that he/she is a D.C. resident.
During severe weather conditions, individuals and families could get shelter for three days without such proof of residency. After that, they’d be out in the cold. No provisions for any extenuating circumstances.
What if a woman fled her home because she was at imminent risk due to domestic violence? Is she supposed to back to the house to pick up some document proving a D.C. mailing address?
What about chronically homeless people who ordinarily live on the street? How likely are they to have proof of a mailing address or a relationship with someone who’s in a stable housing situation and willing to rush to a shelter to verify their residency?
No need, I hope, to belabor the “proof” problems or the health and safety risks they pose.
Turning now to accommodations, the bill would allow the mayor to place families in non-apartment style spaces during severe weather conditions. It says nothing about the length of such placements.
So presumably parents and children could be warehoused in rooms with dozens of cots until the winter season ended, at which time the District could legally turn them out to fend for themselves.
What the heck is this all about? A resolution Wells planned to introduce along with the bill gives us a partial answer.
The hypothermia season will officially begin on November 1, and DC General is still nearly full to capacity. Seems that the DHS plan for clearing families out isn’t going as well as department representatives said it would.
Wells understandably doesn’t want a repeat of last year’s over-crowded, unhealthful conditions at DC General. And he’s dead set against expanding family shelter space there. So he apparently wants to pave the way for some other communal style shelter for families.
More importantly, he’s rivited on some information he got indicating that 10% of families who sought emergency shelter, saying they had no other place to stay came to the District from some other jurisdiction. Reports (or rumors?) that agencies in nearby communities were sending their homeless families here.
How many families we’re talking about is an open question. Enough to justify leaving them outdoors to freeze so that we’ll have enough space to house “our own?” Enough to justify jeopardizing the lives and safety of our very own who can’t prove they deserve our care?
Happily, Wells now says he plans to hold a hearing on the legislation — something he should have built into his game plan from the get-go. Also says, via Twitter, that he’ll work with advocates so long as they’re “reasonable” about defining the right to shelter so that “we have resources to serve neediest DC families.”
In short, he seems to be setting the stage for budget cuts in one of the relatively few major areas under his committee’s jurisdiction that isn’t already under court order for egregious mismanagement and damage to vulnerable people. Also trying to protect that area from a successful legal challenge when families aren’t housed appropriately.
This isn’t the end of the story, though it would have been without quick action by the Legal Clinic and other advocates to responded to the call. But what’s going to happen on the first really cold day is anybody’s guess.