DC Homeless Family Crisis Reaches New Level

As the polar vortex approached, Washington City Paper’s Aaron Wiener reported that the District was housing 243 homeless families in hotels because all its publicly-funded shelter units were full.

By the next arctic blast, there were 83 more in hotels — some of them out in Maryland. And then 110 in Maryland alone, according to a fine update by Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte.

Well, the Department of Human Services won’t send any more homeless families to Maryland because officials there don’t like them in their backyard, though they put other spins on their interventions.

So when homeless families seek shelter in freezing cold weather now, DHS will put them up in city recreation centers — just cots lined up in a big open space. This, whether intended or not, is a mighty successful way to keep homeless families with no safe place to stay from seeking the shelter they’re legally entitled to.

I’ve referred before to the homeless family crisis here, but this is bigger and more urgent. The 2013-14 Winter Plan for families projected 306 newly-approved requests for shelter by the end of last month.

But DHS has already had to shelter or house about 700 newly homeless families — more than the total projected for the whole winter season. As of February 2, it was sheltering a total of 754 families — 469 in hotels. This is more than 10 times the number that were in hotels at this time last year.

No one knows how to account for such a big spike, though a couple of witnesses at last week’s DC Council on Human Services Committee roundtable hearing had some ideas. Only Mayor-hopeful Tommy Wells, for obvious reasons, said it “should have been anticipated.”

The pressing issue now is that DHS faces problems it doesn’t know how to solve, except in what Director David Berns referred to as “horrid and deplorable” ways, e.g., by simply closing shelters and/or ceasing to pay for hotel rooms.

Perhaps also, he hinted, by resurrecting a coercive provisional shelter arrangement the Council rejected last year. Mayor Gray seems ready to give it another try.

If newly homeless families continue to seek and qualify for shelter at the current rate, DHS will have well over 1,000 in hotels and DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, by the end of March, when the winter season officially ends.

But as many as 150 of the hotel rooms that families are in now won’t be available during the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival because they’re already reserved for tourists. What will DHS do with those families?

Though part of the problem is the unprecedented inflow of homeless families, another part — not unprecedented — is that DHS can’t move enough of them out of shelter fast enough.

As I’ve written before, its strategy relies chiefly on rapid re-housing — temporary subsidies that cover at least part of market-rate rents. The subsidies are initially good for four months and renewable for up to a year (maybe longer Berns has suggested), so long as families are complying with the rules and the self-sufficiency plans developed for them.

Some families have rejected rapid re-housing — largely, it seems, because they doubt they’ll be able to pay the full rent when their subsidies expire. They’re “scared,” one homeless mother testified, because “a lot of families that tried rapid re-housing are back at DC General.”

But DHS has run into larger problems — a shortage of reasonably well-maintained units that currently homeless families might be able to afford and landlords willing to rent to them when they’ve no assurance of getting paid for more than four months.

The agency has aimed for 60 placements a month. It’s averaging 37 a month, Berns testified. If it can’t ramp up placements, it will by shy some $20 million because sheltering families at DC General and in hotels costs about three times as much as rapid re-housing subsidies.

“It sounds bad,” he said, “and it’s worse than it sounds.” He’s looking toward the next winter season, when he’ll potentially have no money for newly homeless families because he’ll still be paying shelter costs for so many who are being sheltered now.

And he’s apparently stymied. “I don’t have any fresh ideas,” he answered when asked what he planned to do.

Some leading advocates and service providers have stepped into the breach with a multi-part strategy to address the family homelessness crisis. I’ll have more to say about it in a separate post.

Will merely note, at this point, that it’s offered as a basis for “community conversation” — and even in its current form a whole lot better than letting the crisis play out. Berns would do well to get moving on it PDQ — and to tell his higher-ups to forget about those provisional placements.


5 Responses to DC Homeless Family Crisis Reaches New Level

  1. dnilan says:

    The lack of urgency–illustrated by the inexcusable bungling of this crisis–bespeaks a cruel insensitivity to the plight of homeless families and an immoral dereliction of duty in protecting the wellbeing of vulnerable DC families. I’d like to think there will be hell to pay.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    I agree, Diane. But right now we’ve got to focus on solutions. Stay tuned …

  3. […] at the DC General family shelter weren’t opening up fast enough — in part because DHS couldn’t rapidly re-house as many families as it needed […]

  4. […] you may recall, the Department of Human Services was overwhelmed last winter by homeless families it couldn’t legally turn away because they’d sought […]

  5. […] I wrote at the time, the ICH basically threw up its hands because the homeless services budget clearly fell […]

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