We’ve had ample opportunity to learn about homeless families here in the District. We’ve read about the increasing number, about the District’s struggles to shelter them when it must, about its struggles to move them out of shelter into housing they may not be able to pay for when their short-term subsidies expire.
We know — and have known for some time — that conditions at DC General, the main family shelter, are awful.
But as of the latest official count, there were somewhat more homeless single men and women, i.e., those who had no children with them, than adults and children together as families. And there have been considerably more in years past. What about the singles?
A briefing last Monday provided some answers. Nothing definitive, but more than I knew before. You too perhaps.
Here then, briefly, is what we learn from the experts — the homeless men and women who spend (or formerly spent) their nights in shelters and from a social worker for Catholic Charities, which operates five shelters for singles under contract to the District.
Also, briefly, the conclusion I reached and a brand-new development that should point the way forward.
Awful physical conditions. Like DC General, most of the shelters for singles are “aged buildings,” as a former shelter resident called them. Sometimes the electricity works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s heat and hot water. Sometimes not.
And, as at DC General, the singles’ shelters are reportedly infested with vermin — bed bugs in the mattresses, rats and roaches scuttling about, etc.
Bad food. Shelter residents complain of spoiled food, just as they do at DC General. There seems to be something to this. The social worker reported that staff examine the food delivered by the District’s contractor to decide whether it can be served. Sometimes not, one infers, since he spoke of going to other sources.
Not enough help getting out. Singles in the shelters say they can’t see the caseworkers who are supposed to help them develop and carry out plans to become job-ready and/or find paying work.
Some back-and-forth at the briefing about whether the caseworkers are on duty when the shelter is open — and allegations that they won’t always see clients when they are. What seems beyond dispute is that there aren’t enough of them.
Catholic Charities has one caseworker for every 100 clients. And the ratio would be higher if it didn’t use donor money to supplement the staff covered under its contract. No way that a caseworker, however diligent, could effectively assess, refer and guide that many clients.
Uncaring treatment. For the homeless and formerly homeless singles who spoke, both on the panel and from the audience, none of the above triggered as much outrage as the way shelter staff treated them.
There’s a “disconnect” about weather, one said. Shelter residents are turned out onto the streets when it’s raining. If they try to remain, someone calls the police. If it’s raining — or even snowing — when they’re lined up waiting to get in, staff still keep the doors shut until official opening time.
When it’s bitter cold, residents have a right to remain in shelter during the day — and apparently are allowed to. But they may have to sit in some sort of outer room, on uncomfortable chairs, for many hours because their regular rest areas don’t get promptly clean.
One resident spoke of waiting for eight hours — not only he, but people in wheelchairs. Desperate offers to clean their own rest areas were curtly dismissed.
It’s not only such particulars that make sheltered singles feel they’re treated like lesser beings. Staff have a “drill sergeant mentality,” one woman said. They “bark.” She further objected to their assumption that every resident — obviously herself included — is a drug addict, an alcoholic or mentally ill.
“They need to put humanity behind what they are doing,” she concluded. “We are individuals.” One hears a plea for recognition that homeless people are as different from one another as shelter staff members know they themselves are.
Beyond that, however, a recognition of common humanity. Panelist Carol Doster, formerly homeless and now a poignant advocate, put it well. “In practice, we do not consistently afford our homeless neighbors with the level of respect, dignity … or human rights that we Americans and D.C. residents indicate we stand for.”
Or, I would add, that we would expect — and be shocked not to find — if we became homeless and had no friends or family to turn to.
Management issues. Several of the speakers called for better staff training. The remedy, I think, must be broader. The District has contracted out responsibility for the single adult shelters — ultimately to the Community Partnership to End Homelessness, which lets and manages contracts with the nonprofits that operate them, as well as with the food service providers.
Manifold problems at DC General have prompted some advocates to say that the Partnership should be replaced — at least, in its capacity as the shelter manager. Seems to me someone needs to look carefully at how it’s managing the rest of the homeless services system it’s responsible for too.
We now have the results of an audit, thanks to an inquiry from Councilmember Mary Cheh. These, at the very least, cast doubts on the Partnership’s financial practices — and controls over at the Department of Human Services.
But the issues our homeless singles experts raised call for another sort of investigation. Who, if anybody, is visiting the shelters (unannounced), examining the meals delivered, finding out how staff are trained and supervised, etc.? And who, with clout, is raising holy hell about the building systems and maintenance?
“I had an instinct that no one was minding the store sufficiently,” Cheh says. She was referring to the money matters, but we’ve got more than instinct to tell us it’s true for shelter operations as well.