Right To Shelter In DC Dies On Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day

Yesterday, the shortest day of the year, marked the 20th annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

Around the country and here in Washington, D.C., public officials, advocates, service providers, homeless people and other community members gathered to commemorate men and women who died while homeless during this hard year.

Let’s also pause to mourn the death of major protections formerly provided by the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act. Because, in an unwitting irony, the DC Council yesterday passed Councilmember Tommy Wells’s amendment to the act for the second time.

This virtually ensures that restrictions which expose homeless people in the District to greater — even life-threatening — risks will become law. And Councilmembers were well aware of the impacts.

Opponents warned that the amendment will be “cruel” to District residents, that we’ll be putting homeless people “who arrive at our doorsteps” out into the cold, that we’ll be “dumbing down” standards for family shelter accommodations.

Reminded their colleagues of someone homeless whose birthday we’re about to celebrate.

All over-ridden by self-congratulatory explanations that homeless people have been flocking here because we’re such a “liberal” jurisdiction.

By recurrent references to the prospective funding shortfall and a potential “over-concentration of facilities” in Ward 4 — a fine justification for letting families freeze if there ever was one.

Plus an assurance that the bill won’t take effect until mid-March, so there’s no danger of “immediate harm” — as if that’s the only kind we should worry about.

“These are difficult times we find ourselves in,” says Council Chairman Vincent Gray as a wrap-up. More difficult than someone comfortably housed can imagine, I think.

Debate notwithstanding, positions were already set in stone. The amendment was a done deal before the vote was taken.

So now what?

Councilmember Wells informs his colleagues that DC General is full, that there’s a long line of families awaiting shelter and that the District “can’t even guarantee a private room” — the new minimum standard for family shelter units.

In other words, the District can’t comply with the weakened law. And there’s not a shred of evidence that the problematic proof-of-residency requirements (see here and here) will make much difference.

No difference at all to the homeless families that can’t get into DC General because the Council failed to ensure that the Department of Human Services could in fact cope with needs for shelter beyond the dubious projections in this year’s winter plan.

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