“Major Challenges, Major Problems, Major Questions” At Winter Roundtable on Shelter

The Public Roundtable on DC’s winter plan for shelter was held last Wednesday by Councilmember Jim Graham. Dozens of public witnesses testified about shortcomings in the District’s homeless services system, focusing mainly on a looming $7 million shortfall and the District’s refusal to provide families access to shelter year-round.

Councilmembers Graham and Michael Brown repeatedly voiced their concerns about the hundreds of homeless families who have been denied shelter since last April. Director David Berns of the DC Department of Human Services (DHS) testified that between April 1st and October 1st, the city denied shelter to 240 “priority one” families whom the agency determined to have no safe alternative to shelter. Many of these denials took place while the city kept up to 118 shelter units at DC General shelter vacant. DHS claimed these units were kept vacant due to budget constraints, but Councilmember Graham took issue with this claim: “during budget deliberations [last spring], I repeatedly asked DHS if there would be any cuts in family shelter and was repeatedly assured that there would be no cuts…if you’re providing a service, and then you’re not providing a service, that’s a cut. It’s that simple.”

Berns testified that since October 1st, DHS had placed all priority one families (except for one “glitch” that was resolved the next day).This claim was quickly, and quite effectively, refuted by several public witnesses who had stayed in unsafe environments the past week, despite repeated requests for placement in shelter. One witness testified that she had been sleeping in Union Station with her children. Another witness, Ms. Deshaun Brown, testified that she and her three children had spent the night before in United Medical Center after being denied shelter several times by the city.  She recounted how she sat in a hospital chair each night holding her infant, while her two other kids slept upright in the hospital waiting room chairs. You can watch Ms. Brown’s compelling testimony (at the 2:15:40 mark) here.

As Councilmember Graham put it, these families illustrated “the cost of turning families away in July and August. The units [at DC General] have been kept vacant…, but look at what it cost you.”

One of our attorneys, Amber Harding, testified: “In a year when DC is expected to have more than $250 million in excess funds, the choice not to provide lifesaving emergency shelter or housing year-round was not a budget restriction, it was a policy choice.” (The rest of her testimony can be found here.) “Families have been turned away because of budget problems, and now we know there were no budget problems. I feel deceived,” concluded Councilmember Graham.

On Monday, October 15th, Councilmembers Michael Brown and Jim Graham sent a letter to the Mayor requesting that he use some of the city’s surplus money to fill gaps in the social safety net and ensure that all DC residents have access to the services they need. We commend the Councilmembers for their advocacy on behalf of DC residents. Click here to help them convince the Mayor to devote the city’s extra money to services for those who need it the most.

Postscript:

Despite Directors Berns’ testimony that the District would serve every priority one family up to 153 units at DC General, the Legal Clinic has represented 6 families since last Wednesday were staying in a garage, a car, and behind a church, among other unsafe places– yet still have not been placed.

About Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless envisions a just and inclusive community for all residents of the District of Columbia, where housing is a human right and where every individual and family has equal access to the resources they need to thrive. Our mission is to use the law to make justice a reality for our neighbors who struggle with homelessness and poverty. Combining community lawyering and advocacy to achieve our clients’ goals, our expert staff and network of volunteer attorneys provide low barrier, comprehensive legal services at intake sites throughout the District of Columbia, helping our clients to access housing, shelter, and life-saving services. Rooted in the experiences of this client work, we effectively blend system reform efforts, policy advocacy, community education and client engagement to advocate for long term improvements in local and federal programs that serve the low- and no-income community.
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