By Marta Beresin, Staff Attorney
Officials at the DC Department of Human Services (“DHS”) recently announced they plan to reduce the number of units of emergency shelter for families from the present 300 down to 150 by November 1st. They will do so by letting the 150 units at DC General Family Shelter remain vacant as families move out over the next 7 months.
You may ask why? Is homelessness among families on the decline? Has the demand for shelter by families in DC gone down in recent months? Are we planning to invest more in homelessness prevention or affordable housing instead? Answers: No, no and no.
Homelessness among families in the District has increased steadily since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008. We don’t yet have results from the January 2011 count, but the number of persons in homeless families increased by 25% from 2008 to 2009 and by another 10% from 2009 to 2010. And there is strong evidence that the steep incline has not abated: at this time last year, 292 families were on the District’s wait list for emergency shelter at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (“FRC”). As of March 20th, there are 571 families on that waiting list. And the District has announced no plans to increase funding during the next seven months for homelessness prevention or affordable housing – in fact, it is likely that the budget released tomorrow by the Mayor will have severe cuts to affordable housing and homelessness prevention.
In order to achieve the goal of emptying DC General, the District has admitted it will have to change a long-standing policy that has been in the forefront of protecting the District’s most vulnerable children and families. Until recently, DC has placed “Priority 1” families – those with no safe place to stay – in shelter, regardless of the weather. Families must go through a rigorous application process at the FRC, but if there is no doubt they will be on the street or in another place not meant for human habitation or that’s unsafe for children, they are bumped in front of the hundreds of other families on the wait list and placed in shelter. That is, they WERE. Under the District’s new plan, they will be out of luck…
Like the two families the Legal Clinic spoke to last week: One had been sleeping for a month with her young son in the waiting room of a local hospital. The other had been living in an apartment, but the District government had condemned the building due to dangerous housing code violations. Both families were told they could not be placed because it was not hypothermic. DHS’ statistics indicate that during the prior week, 23 “Priority 1” families like these sought shelter and were NOT placed.
So why is the District closing 150 family shelter units? It’s pretty simple: times are bad for the District’s budget and when programs need to be cut it’s usually those that serve the most vulnerable (and least vocal) that are cut first. Our children may be our future, but right now District officials certainly aren’t acting like it. And what about revenues – the other side of the budget equation? Mayor Gray says he “can’t envision raises taxes”.
Tell Mayor Gray that you can’t envision children living on our streets. As the Mayor and DC Council deliberate on these important budget decisions, tell them that you – like most DC residents – would like to see revenues (taxes and fees) raised rather than emergency services such as shelter cut. You can email the Mayor at: firstname.lastname@example.org and all DC Councilmembers at: email@example.com.
 When it is below freezing, the District by law must place any single person or family in shelter.
 In 2010, an average of 5 “Priority 1” families sought and were placed in shelter per week during non-hypothermic months. The fact that 23 such families applied in one week is unprecedented and could foretell a looming crisis.
 See Mayor Gray’s budget survey results here: http://dc.gov/DC/Government/Data+&+Transparency/Budget+Survey+Results.