I’ve received an e-mail from DC Councilmember Tommy Wells telling me that the Washington Legal Clinic’s action alert about his amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act doesn’t accurately reflect what he’s proposed.
This is true, but only because the bill he has introduced is significantly different in several respects from the emergency legislation he’d drafted. The latter is what the Legal Clinic analyzed — and what I wrote about, based on my own reading.
Here are what seem to me the biggest differences. The current bill:
- Exempts victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking from the residency requirement. Thus, as Councilmember Wells says, it “protects individuals and families who may be in the District solely for safety reasons, or fled their homes without identification or withhold that information for safety purposes.”
- No longer covers access to low-barrier shelters. In his e-mail, Wells defines them as shelters that “exist for the sole purpose of providing overnight shelter without identification, time limit, or program requirements.” Under the HRSA, only shelters for individuals can qualify. This would apparently remain the case.
These differences may have been in the final draft of the emergency legislation as well, since Councilmember Wells says it had “changed significantly” from the draft the Legal Clinic saw and shared with me.
Councilmember Wells asserts that the new residency requirements are basically the same as those the District uses for enrollment in the DC HealthCare Alliance — the publicly-funded health insurance program for low-income residents who aren’t eligible for Medicaid.
They were adopted, he says, because the program was found to have “many Maryland and Virginia residents enrolled … and stretching resources intended” only for D.C. residents. A similar situation applies now, he says, in the homeless services program.
The evidence for this? Between June and September 2010, the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the central intake point for homeless families, identified 180 families as Priority One, i.e., families who had no place to spend the night unless the District provided shelter or other housing. Nearly 10% of them, Wells says, were from outside the District.
According to the Legal Clinic, the actual percentage is 8.3%. In other words, all this fuss is being made about 15 families over a four month period. It’s not clear they all crossed the border at the point they needed publicly-funded shelter. Some of them could have been living doubled up with friends or relatives in the District for a considerable period of time.
But say, for the sake of argument, that they were all truly out-of-state residents who’d come to the District to take advantage of its homeless services. And say the Wells bill would exclude twice as many during the five-month hypothermia season.
Would this ensure that the District could immediately provide shelter for all homeless D.C. families who will need it in the months ahead?
Councilmember Wells says, “Family shelters are operating at capacity and the District is experiencing serious budget shortfalls.” This surely seems to suggest that resources will not be available to cope with the expected rise in demand as winter sets in.
Would conserving the resources needed to keep a hypothetical 30 families out of the cold justify the roadblocks the bill would erect — roadblocks that could very well deny shelter to D.C. families?
And what justifies the proposal to let the District indefinitely house homeless families in spaces with no privacy, protection from cross-infection or facilities that would allow them to maintain some modicum of normal life? Nothing I can see except the unspoken expectation that the Council will deny the homeless services program the funds it needs.
The Committee on Human Services will hold a public hearing on the proposed new limits to right to shelter on November 8 at 11:30 a.m. A good opportunity for those of you concerned about the impacts to testify — and for all of us to learn more about the District’s family homelessness crisis.