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?