Amendments to DC Homeless Rights Law That Shouldn’t Be Needed, But Are

The DC Council Committee on Human Services will soon hold a hearing on a couple of bills affecting homeless families in the District. At least one — the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act — shouldn’t be necessary. But it is.

The bill doesn’t do something else that shouldn’t be necessary, but also is. Advocates will argue strongly for an amendment. And the committee should adopt it.

The bill clarifies what the Homeless Services Reform Act means when it says families should be sheltered in a private room, if no apartment-style units are available.

A “private room,” the bill says, has to have “four non-portable walls, a ceiling and a floor that meet at the edges,” a door, with an inside lock, as its main point of access, lights that occupants can turn on and off from within the room, and so forth.

Well, whoever thought a private room was something different? Apparently the Department of Human Services.

In late January, it resorted to warehousing homeless families in recreation centers, separated from one another by flimsy partitions on the sides, but open at the top — and to anyone who felt like walking in.

Families got a reprieve when an administrative law judge ruled that the spaces weren’t rooms. Shortly thereafter, a Superior Court judge told the agency it couldn’t place any families in rec centers — at least until he issued a final decision in the case.

But the Gray administration has said it will contest the rulings, indicating that it wants to preserve the option. No surprise here, since families placed in the rec centers generally stayed only a couple of nights, if that. And others, hearing of the placements, decided not to ask for shelter.

Some I’ve heard went back to dangerous situations, including living with abusers. One mother and her children started spending nights in a stairwell again. And so the Mayor’s people concluded that the homeless family crisis was over — or had never existed.

The bill’s sponsors clearly want to put a permanent end to this form of diversion. But, as I mentioned, they’ve got more work to do.

Because long about the time DHS came up with the rec center “solution,” it also began requiring all newly-homeless families to reapply for shelter every day — and re-sheltering them for another night only if it had no legal alternative, i.e., because the outdoor temperature put them at risk of freezing to death.

The HSRA doesn’t unequivocally grant homeless families a right to remain in a shelter — or a motel room — once they’ve been placed there. This, however, had been government policy since at least 1996, shortly after the law was passed.

One can understand why. Homeless families face many risks besides freezing when they have no safe place to stay —  abuse by people in homes they’ve perforce returned to or by strangers who come upon them in stairwells, for example.

Parents can’t look for work — or keep the jobs they have — if they have to spend part of each day sitting around in the intake center.

Those who participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, as many do, can’t comply with their work preparation requirements — something you’d think would concern DHS, which has made such a much of its efforts to help “more families in making the climb to self-sufficiency.”

Bad as these things are, the harms to children are probably worse. We know that homelessness itself puts them at high risk of emotional and behavioral problems. For this reason, as well as others, many fall behind in school — and eventually drop out.

A root cause is the stress and insecurity children experience when they don’t have a stable home base. How much greater when they have to pack up every morning and don’t know where they’ll spend the night.

The big picture, of course, is that the District must do more to prevent family homelessness — and more to ensure that when it’s unpreventable, it’s brief and non-recurrent. Both will require larger investments than the Mayor and the Council seem prepared to make.

But at the very least, the Council can accord families the “dignity” of a genuine private room they can stay in until they’re able to move into an affordable place of their own.

Better for them, especially the children — and ever so much better for our community than the efforts, abortive and otherwise, to keep them out of the shelters that are supposed to protect them from harm.

 

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