Two recent postings on the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless blog have me brooding about our priorities.
Kate Gannon, a legal intern at the Clinic, tells us about counseling a mother with three young children who’s understandably incredulous and upset when told that the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center can’t arrange any place for them to stay because the temperature is a few degrees above freezing.
Staff attorney Marta Berensin reports an outrageous threat to a homeless mother who’d gone back to the Center once again in hopes of help: Get on a bus to a shelter outside the District or lose your children to the foster care system.
The episode, she says, may be partly attributable to the recently-enacted residency verification requirements.
But the “myriad barriers” to shelter that families are experiencing are rooted in a shortage of family shelter units. Notwithstanding warnings, the Department of Human Services again failed to plan for enough capacity this winter.
I’ve been told that the District used to provide some form of shelter for all so-called Priority #1 families, i.e., those who have absolutely no place to stay.
Now it seems to have reverted to its minimal legal obligation. Homeless families are left to fend for themselves — on the streets, in abandoned buildings, who knows where? — unless the effective temperature is 32 degrees or colder because that’s all the Homeless Services Reform Act requires.
DHS apparently feels it has no choice. DC General — the only emergency shelter for families — has been full or nearly so for many months.
It announced last fall that it wouldn’t open more units there because that would run counter to its long-term strategy. But it apparently can’t open alternative housing units fast enough to keep up with rising need.
Nor do they provide a stable housing situation for the majority of homeless families. I understand that it’s now offering only short-term, phased-out rental assistance — obviously suitable only for families that are temporarily short on cash.
The hypothermia season officially ends on March 31. For at least the past two years, DHS has kept what are technically winter-only units at DC General open longer to accommodate the ongoing stream of Priority #1 families.
Looks as if this year will be different. An e-mailed action alert from the Legal Clinic says that DHS plans to stop sheltering any more homeless families until next November, when the next hypothermia season begins.
It’s as if freezing to death is the only harm we need concern ourselves about.
Gannon writes that virtually every mother she interviewed was a victim of domestic violence. We know — or ought to know — that domestic violence victims often return to their abusers when they feel they’ve got nowhere else to go.
Homeless mothers sometimes give their children up or parcel them out among relatives if they can. How can young children understand this as anything except desertion?
Homeless children generally suffer psychological damage even when their parents manage to find safe places where they can all stay together.
They develop physical as well as mental health problems. Their schoolwork suffers. They feel isolated from their peers — as indeed they are, since they’ve few opportunities to socialize.
How much worse when they’re spending the night in a bus station or under a bridge.
I understand that the District had a large budget gap to close — and that it’s facing another. But I refuse to believe that our policymakers have no choice but to neglect the urgent needs of homeless families in our midst.
The Legal Clinic asks us to e-mail or call Mayor Gray and urge him to propose an increase in local funding for homeless services for Fiscal Year 2012.
As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute explains, $25 million will be needed just to keep funding level because the District won’t have certain federal funds to shore up the program.
Seems to me that’s not enough, given what’s been going on this winter. And what will happen to Priority #1 families before the new budget kicks in?