What’s at Stake in the Debate Over Bathrooms for Homeless DC Families?

As I’ve written before — and as you who live in the District of Columbia have probably read elsewhere — we’re debating accommodations for families in the new, smaller shelters that will replace DC General, where many are temporarily (and horribly) housed now.

Upcoming votes on an amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act will determine whether the Bowser administration can, as it wishes, contract for new shelters that provide most families with only a private room, like what they’ve got at DC General.*

As things have played out, the hottest issue is whether all but a few — selected we don’t know how — will have to trundle down a hall, day or night, parents and children always together, to a bathroom shared with whoever happens to have a room on the same floor.

How We Came to This Pretty Pass

The HSRA requires apartment-style units in the new shelters — separate bedrooms for parents and children, bathrooms and “cooking facilities” for the family only. The Bowser administration contends that’s too costly. So it wants the law amended to permit what’s essentially a dormitory-style design.

Advocates would like all families to have apartment-style units — as would we if we became homeless and had children in our care. But they’ve tried to forge some compromise.

The Mayor kicked the issue to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, telling it to establish a special committee for shelter design guidelines and setting a very tight deadline for “feedback” — only three weeks from the date of her order.

The committee dutifully produced a report. “Bathrooms were the largest source of concern for stakeholders,” it said. No firm recommendations, but options and how members voted.

Many, it seems, were convinced that providing private bathrooms for all families would delay the process of closing DC General, as the Bowser administration claims. But only two of the eighteen members supported its plan to have just one unit with a private bathroom per floor.

What Homeless Families Say

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, with cooperation from the refreshingly collaborative Department of Human Services, recently did what the Bowser administration arguably should have done early on. It asked families the District is sheltering which features they thought shelters should have.

The report it’s produced includes interesting numerical results. Families have somewhat different views on critical features — both generally and according to the length of time a family would have to remain in a shelter before it found housing, with or without help from DHS.

Large majorities of families said shelters had to have private bathrooms, with showers — 77% no matter how short the stay and a somewhat higher percent for stays as long as a year. Only one family surveyed considered a bathroom shared with four or more families acceptable.

The figures seem to me telling. But the personal stories Clinic staff heard are downright compelling.

A mother who was taking a medication that caused her to have to go several times a night, which meant she had to wake her children and take them with her because parents in shelters aren’t allowed to leave their children untended — even if briefly and in their rooms.

Another mom who somehow dressed her young children “in the air” because the bathroom floor was filthy. Still another who couldn’t toilet train her toddler because the communal bathroom terrified him.

And parents with children of the opposite sex constantly forced to choose between bad options inherent in the nature of communal bathrooms, even the cleanest. For example, a mother with a twelve-year-old son who didn’t want him going to the men’s room alone, but couldn’t see taking him into the women’s room either.

The Lesson and the Issue

The debate over bathrooms, kitchenettes and the like has larger implications for how we, through our elected officials, make choices that will affect the lives of community members, especially those who’ve got no choice but to live with them. Likewise, how we, as advocates, choose our causes.

The lesson is to ask the real experts — the people who’ve experienced the programs and services we provide (or don’t) for the poor and near-poor among us. And then to listen with open minds to what they say and take account of it in decision-making.

The debate also raises a much broader issue than shelter features and other conditions — specifically, whether we will offer programs and services that would meet our needs, decently and respectfully, if we should fall on hard times.

This apparently is how Council Chairman Mendelson sees the shelter design issue — up to a point. It “boils down to cost vs. ‘general dignity,'” the Washington Post reports his saying. But also that he hasn’t decided where he’ll net out.

The Legal Clinic contends that private bathrooms wouldn’t cost so much as to rule them out. Figures supplied by the Council’s Budget Director indicate that the square footage required would actually be somewhat less than for communal bathrooms — thus, one infers, also the cost of land to build on and/or buildings to renovate.

But the Clinic makes a more important point. The Mayor recently asked the Council to approve her plan for reallocating $60 million — mostly funds agencies didn’t spend last fiscal year.

Earlier figures DHS presented indicate that this would more than cover the additional cost of apartment-style units for all families in the new shelters. But the plan doesn’t put a penny more into even bathrooms.

So it’s not truly cost versus dignity. It’s rather the value the administration places on a modicum of dignity in living conditions for homeless families versus other projects, e.g., a nice park at an elementary school in a well-off part of town, economic development of some sort in one of the best-off.

This is the basic value question Councilmembers will face when they vote on the HSRA amendment.

* A vote on the amendment is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3. The Council will have to vote on it again, as it must for most legislation.

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