The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness met yesterday to again consider the part of the 2013-14 Winter Plan that’s supposed to address the shelter and service needs of homeless young adults and minor-age children.
This time, it approved the draft, as-is and with virtually no discussion.
More newsworthy perhaps is that it rejected, almost unanimously, an amendment that would have committed the District to ensuring that “no homeless youth is in danger of hypothermia this winter season,” even if the resources identified in the plan prove insufficient.
Two other parts of the Winter Plan — those that identify shelter capacities for homeless individual men and women — include a similar commitment.
The real sticking point was the basis for the commitment, stated in the sentence that preceded it: “The right to shelter during a hypothermia alert applies to all District residents who cannot access other housing arrangements, including homeless youth.”
Those who’ve been following this issue will recall that the first iteration of the youth-children part said nothing about what the District would do to provide shelter in freezing-cold weather for children under 18 who aren’t with an adult family member.
The ICH approved the Winter Plan, but contingent on a genuine plan for unaccompanied minor-age children. The second iteration didn’t pass either — and as I said at the time, with good reason.
Like the first, it reflected the Department of Human Services’ novel view that the Homeless Services Reform Act, which establishes a legal right to shelter in “severe weather conditions,” doesn’t protect unaccompanied minor-age children, except in the rare cases when they’re legally emancipated.
DHS still takes that view. An open letter to the community issued late last month grudgingly acknowledges that “some advocates believe that the District’s Right to Shelter legislation extends to unaccompanied children who have run away from home for issues other than abuse and neglect.”
Unsaid, but obvious is that DHS believes otherwise. The meeting confirmed that it speaks for the Gray administration. City Administrator Allen Lew, who chairs the ICH, objected to the amendment because it would establish “an unsustainable right to shelter.”
In other words, DHS and the Child and Family Services Administration, which has a lead role in the unaccompanied minor part of the plan, will try to ensure that homeless children are safe, even if it’s not clear they’ve been abused and/or neglected. But if the plan, as written, falls short, well, so be it.
The plan itself reflects the administration’s contorted reading of the law. A child who refuses to return to a “safe available home” with his/her family isn’t homeless, it says.
What staff are supposed to do with children if a preliminary screening indicates they could return is unclear. But the restrictive definition clearly implies that ensuring they have shelter from the elements is, at best, optional.
In other ways, the final draft is far better than its predecessors. But that doesn’t mean it’s as clear and apparently sufficient as the portions of the Winter Plan for homeless men and women who don’t have children with them.
Like the open letter, the draft acknowledges funds in the District’s current budget that will support a new six-bed facility where unaccompanied minor-age children can stay for up to three days without parental or court approval and up to two weeks with approval.
DHS says it expects stays to average a week — and thus to have beds available for 300 more children than the roughly equivalent number that led to high turnaway rates last winter.
The total number of beds should be enough to meet the need, the plan says. What will happen if no bed is available when a homeless child needs one isn’t stated.
And what will happen before the new facility is up and running isn’t either. At this point, a contract to furbish and operate it is still pending. DHS Director David Berns said he thought it would open in January. Agency officials are “talking about interim scenarios.”
But we’ve already had weather cold enough to trigger hypothermia alerts. In fact, one was in effect while the ICH met. Kinda late to be still talking, one might think.
I’m not suggesting the Gray administration will cavalierly let kids freeze to death. But if it were absolutely determined to bring every one of them out of the cold, why does it insist that it has no obligation to do so?
Even if the law were ambiguous — and I don’t think it is — why niggle about it when the moral obligation is crystal clear?
I understand that the drafting committees felt they had to confront complex issues. Children aren’t grownups. We can’t just give them a shelter bed and let them be — or tell them to go on home, regardless of whether they’ll be safe and properly cared for.
But all the Winter Plan is supposed to do — for them, as well as for everyone else in the District — is, as the title page says, “protect the homeless during the winter season” from exposure to the life-threatening risks of freezing-cold temperatures.
If it were enough to trust agencies to muddle through somehow, the law wouldn’t require the District to have one.