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

November 2, 2015

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.


DC Mayor Wants Law Changed to Allow New Dorm-Style Family Shelters

October 1, 2015

Mayor Bowser has formally asked the DC Council to approve two changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act — the law that establishes the framework for the District’s policies and programs for homeless people.

One would allow the administration to open new family shelters without apartment-style units. The other would alter the regular appeals process in cases where the Department of Human Services shelters families temporarily and then denies them shelter for a longer term.

The administration links the changes to the recently revived policy of sheltering homeless families with no safe place to stay year round, rather than admitting them only in freezing-cold weather, when the law says it must.

Seems the Council — and the rest of us — are to view the changes as an “all or nothing at all” package, though the bill itself would leave in place the current, much more restrictive right to shelter.

I want to give the issues the space I think they deserve. So I’ll confine myself here to the shelter units. Still a lot to grapple with, as you’ll see.

Why the New Shelter Plan Hinges on an Amendment

The HSRA generally requires the District to provide apartment-style shelter units for homeless families — separate bedrooms for parents and children, plus bathrooms, “cooking facilities” and related equipment for only the family. This has been honored more in the breach than the observance for a long time.

Families at DC General, the main family shelter, are in single rooms, barely converted from what were once hospital rooms. The motel rooms DHS puts homeless families in when DC General is full are just that — not suites with kitchenettes. The legal out in both cases is that the HSRA permits private rooms if no apartment-style units are available.

The administration plans to replace DC General with smaller shelters scattered around the city, picking up on the plan of sorts issued late in the Gray administration. It too wants only private rooms in the shelters.

No legal out in this case, since a shortage of apartment-style units wouldn’t apply. So the administration wants a change in the law that would allow it to choose either apartment-style or what’s essentially dormitory-style.

Why the Administration Has Opted for Private Rooms

The bottom line is the bottom line, as DHS Director Laura Zeilinger’s presentation to a “listening session” made clear. The choice, in other words, is cost-driven — in two ways.

The first is what the administration would have to pay for shelters built from the ground up or created by renovation. They’d obviously cost more if all the units were apartment-style, as the HSRA defines it.

Yet a slide in a series Zeilinger used at the session indicates that the extra cost wouldn’t be all that great. We see estimates for 200 units, equally divided into four new shelters. Apartment-style units for all of them would cost roughly $16.6 million more.

Not chump change, but hardly beyond the pale, since the capital budget — the source of the new shelter funds — is about $72.3 million. On the other hand, the Mayor can’t just dip into that budget for anything she chooses.

Cost estimates, of course, reflect not only the type of units, but the number. DHS claims it would need more if they were apartment-style because they wouldn’t turn over as fast. It’s got several slides showing that families stay longer in them.

The only local data presented do seem to support this. But they don’t necessarily indicate that families feel so at home that they don’t try to find housing — or accept it when offered.

The data could instead reflect where DHS has focused its housing placement efforts and/or the fact that families got apartment-style units for reasons that make affordable housing for them unusually difficult to find.

“I’m not saying we want to make shelter uncomfortable,” Zeilinger told us at the listening session. But it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

What Troubles Advocates

Attorney Amber Harding, speaking for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says they’re concerned about “lowering the floor for health and safety.” Health because germs spread — endangering all, but especially parents and children with conditions that compromise their immune systems.

Also because families would have to eat whatever DHS provides. Parents at DC General have long complained that they or their children can’t eat what the agency has trucked in for them, in part because of food sensitivities or special dietary needs.

Safety refers partly to the fact that children would have to share bathrooms with adults who may have perverse sexual proclivities and/or uncontrolled tendencies to violence. Unreasonable to expect them to use a bathroom only when a same-sex parent can chaperone.

Beyond the issue of actual physical danger, we should consider what Tamaso Johnson at the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence referred to as “acute concerns for safety.” These are understandably common among victims of domestic violence, as well as people, including children who’ve experienced other traumas.

For them, strangers in the bathrooms they’d have to use and in other “intimate settings,” as Johnson called them, could trigger anxieties they wouldn’t experience in apartment-style units — or at the very least, less communal arrangements.

What Standards Would Apply

Zeilinger says we need to look at the bigger picture. The flexibility the administration wants if part of “a larger plan to improve resources for struggling families,” including “better quality rooms” than what they have at DC General.

This seems to me a very low bar. And, in fact, the amendment the administration seeks would license another warehouse for homeless families because it sets no minimal standards.

DHS has shared two possible layouts, reflecting “principles” or “prototypical design elements” of a new shelter. These include several types of bathrooms, including at least one unit per floor with its own.

But all the administration would have to comply with is the “private room” definition the Council set after the Gray administration contended that screened-off spaces in recreation centers qualified — four permanent walls, a ceiling, a door that locks, lights that can be turned on an off from inside the cubicle and access to a hot shower.

The heart of the debate, I think, is how much more flexibility the DC Council should build into the HSRA. The Mayor and her lead officials may have all the best intentions. They may tweak the design principles to accommodate some concerns.

But who knows that will happen to them, tweaked or otherwise, if officials can’t contract for enough replacement units without compromising them?

The proposed amendment does require the administration to maintain apartment-style units. But there’s nothing to ensure it will lease up enough for all the families that would suffer harm during even a brief stay in a single room. Zeilinger’s focus on lengths of stay could make one queasy.

In short, it seems prudent for the Council to balance relief from the apartment-style unit mandate with some legally-binding constraints.

Alternatively, it could find the funds for apartment-style units or, at least, some compromise. What about rooms with private bathrooms, plus some food storage and prep equipment, for example?


Dreaming of a Freezing Cold Christmas

December 22, 2012

Jesse, my husband, hopes for a white Christmas, as he always does. I, a California child, like the Christmas card prettiness of a fresh snowfall. But I hate cold weather. Always have.

I find myself hoping for another cold snap nonetheless — preferably with snow, for my husband’s sake, but without if that’s the best the weather gods can do.

Because unless the forecast calls for freezing temperatures — 32 degrees or less, including wind chill factor — some homeless families in the District of Columbia may have no safe place to bed down tomorrow night.

Nor any night thereafter until we get that arctic blast.

Time was not so long ago when the District’s shelter doors were always open to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay, i.e., those the intake system ranked as Priority One.

Then came a significant increase in family homelessness — an acute symptom of recession-related job losses, stagnant (or reduced) wages for those still working and rising rental costs.

What didn’t come were increases in funding for housing vouchers beyond what was needed to pay for those already in use.

So once homeless families were admitted to DC General — the main shelter for them — they tended to stay there longer than they had in the past.

A whole series of failures to fully come to grips with this problem.

Insufficient funding — both local and federal — to support services for the growing number of homeless families.

Formal plans for sheltering homeless families during the winter season that attempted to make everything look okay, funding constraints notwithstanding.

Large costs incurred for motel rooms and related needs because the plans really weren’t okay.

A sharp drop in funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing. First, because the designated revenue stream shrank when the real estate market went south.

Then because the Mayor, with the Council’s consent, tapped the recovering revenue stream to cover the costs of locally-funded housing vouchers. But only those already issued.

For homeless families, the District had some Recovery Act funds for short-term housing vouchers. But for a variety of reasons, including the terms, they proved only a limited substitute.

So, at some point, the Family Services Administration, which administers the District’s homeless services program, changed the policy for Priority One families.

Henceforward, they’d gain shelter only when they were legally entitled to it, i.e., when the effective temperature was expected to drop to 32 degrees before the following morning.

Now, I’m told, it will also shelter them in less frigid weather if there’s room for them at DC General. Midweek, units were filling up fast. So I don’t know whether any will be vacant by the time you read this.

Jesse and I don’t see homeless families when we take our pre-dinner strolls around the neighborhood. I doubt residents in most other parts of the District do either.

The families are scattered in the safest, warmest places they can find — in their cars, if they’re fortunate enough to have them, in hospital waiting rooms, bus stations, stairwells, etc.

So they probably don’t weigh heavy on our consciences as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of someone whose mother was given shelter when there was no room at the inn.

But I think of them now and hope the forecast for the upcoming week is wrong.

DC Winter Plan For Homeless Families Falls Apart

October 21, 2011

A couple of days ago, I observed that the District’s plan for providing homeless families with shelter would fall apart unless the Department of Human Services could deliver on some iffy assumptions.

Well, it seems that DHS can’t — or has decided not to — deliver on the only one that didn’t seem iffy.

So now the part of the Winter Plan that addresses shelter and/or other temporary housing for homeless families has to go back to the drawing board. And a good thing too.

For the plan to work — if only on paper — 57 units at DC General Hospital had to be vacant on November 1, when the hypothermia season officially begins. DHS made sure they would be — by denying homeless families entry even though they had no place else to stay.

Seems that some effective pressure was exerted because on Monday it started admitting these so-called Priority One families again. And, lo and behold, there were a lot more of them than it expected.

We the public and the DC Council Committee on Human Services learned this yesterday at what promised to be a routine hearing on the Winter Plan.

DHS Director David Berns testified that opening the doors to DC General, as they had, will probably mean that all the vacant units are full when the winter season begins. Why the “big flood” surprised the agency is a mystery — at least, to me.

In any event, DHS will need to figure out how to offset the loss of those 57 units — and where the funds to pay for them will come from.

Some discussion about hotel rooms — a costly option, but one DHS reverted to last winter when DC General filled to capacity.

A bit of discussion about lining up some rental units in apartment buildings — more cost-effective, but like hotel rooms, problematic unless DHS sets up systems to ensure that the families it places immediately have food, transportation and access to social services.

Testimony by Washington Legal Clinic attorney Amber Harding indicates that DHS has verbally committed to this sort of backup plan. But, as she says, it’s absence from the Winter Plan is “troublesome.”

Suggests to me that DHS didn’t really put its mind to the logistics — or want to be held accountable for them.

One way or the other, DHS will need to scramble. And higher-ups in the Gray administration will probably need to find some funds — as they seem capable of doing when they choose to.

What if DHS had decided from the get-go that denying shelter to desperate families for seven months of the year was an unacceptable way to comply with its legal obligations during the other five months?

Berns himself termed it a “hideous” choice.

Still, it’s unfair to lay all the blame for the situation on DHS. As Berns said, at the policy level, the real crisis isn’t homelessness. It’s lack of affordable housing.

DHS has more shelter capacity than it did in 2008 — including at DC General.

But once families get there, it can’t move them out fast enough to make room for more because the District has egregiously failed to keep up with needs for more stable, suitable housing alternatives.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight — even if the Gray administration and the Council rethink their priorities.

The problem of how to ensure that homeless families don’t spend more nights in stairwells, bus stations, etc. does have to be solved now — at least for the winter season.

One would hope that, this time, the solution would be year round.

DC Winter Plan Comes Up Short On Shelter For Homeless Families (Again)

October 19, 2011

My, how time flies. Here we are once again less than two weeks from the official beginning of hypothermia season in the District of Columbia. And once again, we’ve got a Winter Plan that’s, at the very least, problematic.

A big issue, once again, is whether the plan provides for enough units to ensure that homeless families have shelter during the cold-weather months.

Last year’s plan made some assumptions that didn’t pan out — as I, among others, thought they wouldn’t.

The Department of Human Services ultimately had to open more units at DC General, the main emergency shelter for families. Still not enough room at some points, however.

According to planning documents I’ve seen, emergency family shelter needs peaked during the first two weeks in March. “Emergency” here means the families had no place to stay unless the District provided it.

During the peak period, a total of 224 emergency units were provided, including 31 community-based units, i.e., units temporarily rented in apartment buildings, and 40 rooms or suites in hotels.

Unclear, however, whether all homeless families were accommodated during the peak. They certainly weren’t a short time later. And maybe not now, since the Winter Plan assumes that 57 units at DC General will be vacant on November 1.

All told, 264 families spent time at DC General last winter, not counting families who were there when the hypothermia season opened. This served as the baseline for work on this year’s Winter Plan.

The Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the Winter Plan for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, projected a 7% increase in emergency shelter needs for the upcoming hypothermia season.

This seems a reasonable, conservative figure since it reflects the percent increase in emergency shelter requests received at the Virginia Williams family intake center during the 2010-11 season.

Nevertheless, the new Winter Plan provides for fewer family units than last year’s plan.

For seasonal emergency shelter alone, the plan provides for only 159 units — 65 fewer than were needed during the peak.

The plan, however, also again identifies housing units — 150 of them. These, I’m told, are short-term vouchers that homeless families can use to rent apartments in the private market.

That will certainly take them off the homeless rolls for awhile. But they’ll be back unless they manage to increase their incomes enough to pay full market rent, plus utilities within a pretty short period of time.

Possible for some perhaps. Unlikely for many, I think, especially when jobs are so much scarcer than job seekers and rental rates in the District so high.

But the Winter Plan looks ahead only as far as next March. From that perspective, the 150 family housing units belong — assuming, of course, that DHS has funds for the vouchers.

Count them all and the Winter Plan still provides for six fewer family units than last year. Factor in the projected 7% increase in need and the plan is shy 57 units — unless certain conditions are met.

The first, as indicated, is vacancies at DC General. This condition has already been met — by denying families shelter. The others are, to my mind, iffy.

Specifically, the average stay at DC General can be no longer than it was last winter season. And DHS has to get families into non-shelter housing at the same rate it did last winter season, if not quicker.

A hitch — or an anticipated number of homeless families — and the scheme falls apart.

Last year, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who then chaired the Human Services Committee, thought there ought to be a backup plan, as did some witnesses who testified at the Winter Plan hearing.

Seems to me that would be a good idea now.