I never thought I’d welcome freezing-cold weather, especially in mid-April. But last week I did because I knew the District would have to shelter homeless families who have no safe place to stay.
I assumed that, as in the past, it would continue to shelter them until they could move into actual housing, with or without its assistance. I’ve learned I was wrong.
Since some time in January, the Department of Human Services has kicked newly-sheltered families back out onto the streets as soon as the forecasted temperature, including wind chill was above 32 degrees.
I was wrong about that too because I was referring to its decision to give homeless families access to shelter only in freezing-cold weather, rather than whenever they’d otherwise be at risk of immediate harm.
Now DHS truly has reverted to what the narrowest reading of the law requires — protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions” and, for families, a private room, if an apartment-style unit isn’t available.
The District is now contesting the privacy requirement, claiming that a partly partitioned-off space in a recreation center is a private room. The judge thus far is having none of it. So DHS has been putting newly-homeless families into motel rooms — something the city’s attorneys said it couldn’t possibly do.
But, as I said, they’re sheltered only very temporarily. As soon as the freezing-cold spate is over, they’re out and on their own.
And if hypothermic conditions are forecasted again, they have to return to the Virginia Williams intake center and apply for shelter all over again, as if they were in need for the first time.
They might have another opportunity, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper notes. But pretty soon we won’t have any more freezing-cold nights. The District apparently feels no responsibility for the families then.
What will they do? If they’re lucky, probably double up with one family and then another — or quadruple up for that matter.
Or in a laundromat. “You sit in a chair and fake like you are washing clothes,” explained a grandmother who did — and may again if the only alternatives are returning her grandson to his unstable mother or giving him up to the child welfare agency.
An attorney who worked on the HSRA told me that everyone involved assumed that families would have continuous access to shelter, since that was already the operative policy. And it remained so until three years ago.
The DC Council will be considering an amendment to the HSRA that spells out what a private room is — pathetic that such legislation should be needed.
It could use the occasion to also explicitly require year round shelter for homeless families who’ve no other safe place to stay, thus making the law work as intended.
There are actually cost-saving arguments that can be made here, but I’ll refrain because the fundamental issues are human costs.
We need only imagine what it’s like for a parent who’s got to worry about where she and her kids will sleep, how to protect them, what to do with their belongings, what to do now that she’s lost her job because she had to spend so much time dealing with their here-and-there housing, the kids’ school arrangements, etc.
The multifarious damages to children are also easy to imagine — and supported by lots of research.
It tells us, among other things, that the traumas of instability put them at much higher risk of problems in school — something Mayor Gray seeks to compensate for with targeted boosts in public education funding, but not to prevent by minimizing the instability to begin with.
I started the internal rant that’s externalized here the day after the last hypothermia alert was called. It was Emancipation Day in the District.
Now, I like a parade as much as anyone. Balloons and free concerts too. But I couldn’t help thinking about better uses for $350,000 — and about how Mayor Gray covered an extra $116,000 when Councilmember Orange and his fellow organizers ran through their budget.
And I couldn’t help thinking that the Mayor’s proposed $10.8 billion budget apparently consigns homeless families to more of the same.