Last week, the DC Council passed Councilmember Tommy Wells’s amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act. This was the first of the two votes generally required for District legislation. The second is scheduled for December 21.
The bill, as you’ll recall, aims to reserve publicly-funded homeless services for District residents. It also, as Wells now acknowledges, seeks to protect the District from lawsuits based on its failure to provide homeless families with apartment-style accommodations, as the Homeless Services Reform Act requires.
The final version of the amendment is different from the bill Wells originally introduced. You can see the differences in the marked-up version I’m linking to.
I’ll leave the legal analysis to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which still finds the amendment thoroughly objectionable. Will instead confine myself to remarking on what seem to me the biggest changes.
There are quite a few of them. So I’ll review only the provisions related to eligibility for shelter here. A followup posting will deal with the rest.
Shelter in severe weather is no longer absolutely restricted to District residents. The final version of the bill would allow the District to make shelter space during severe weather conditions available to non-residents so long as priority is given to residents.
This surely sounds less harsh than the original. But it’s hard for me to see how it would work out in practice.
Would non-resident families have to wait until the Virginia Williams Family Resources intake center made sure there would still be space if more resident families asked for shelter? Would a non-resident family get kicked out if a resident family showed up the next day?
I’m focusing on families here because the final version of the bill expands the earlier exemption for low-barrier shelters, i.e., shelters for individuals that, by definition, require no identification. Responding to testimony and/or the Legal Clinic’s analysis, Wells added an exemption for severe weather shelters that operate as low-barrier shelters.
Homeless people may be admitted to a shelter in severe weather without first proving residency. In the final version of the bill, a homeless individual or family seeking shelter in severe weather may be afforded a three-day grace period to prove residency.
Note that this is a contingent grace period. No indication of who would make the decision or on what basis. Seems to me an open door to inconsistency and confusion.
How, for example, does one reconcile this provision with the required priority for District residents? How reconcile it with a separate provision that establishes a priority for all homeless services to those who can prove residency at the time they apply?
But homeless people can’t get shelter until they’re actually in danger. The final version of the bill restricts eligibility for shelter to people who are homeless and “living in a place not intended as a residence,” e.g., on the streets, in a car, or “in any situation that is dangerous to the health or safety of any household member.”
Clarence Carter, Director of Human Services, indicated in testimony that he wanted such a definition because, he said, it would conform to the definition of “homelessness” in federal law. Unless I’m much mistaken, it’s more restrictive.
Last year’s HEARTH Act, which reauthorized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homelessness programs, expanded the definition of “homeless” to include, among others, individuals and families who’ve been notified they’ll be evicted within two weeks and those who are living in a hotel or motel but don’t have the resources to stay there for more than two weeks.
The District’s definition would deny shelter to these people until they’d already spent at least one night without a roof over their heads — unless, of course, the place they were living was so bad as to endanger health or safety.
If this itself isn’t a major health and safety risk, then I don’t know what is.