Last Wednesday, November 13, the Interagency Council on Homelessness convened a special meeting to discuss and vote on the addendum to the District’s Winter Plan that would guide how homeless youth should be served this winter. The Legal Clinic, along with many others in the community, had expressed concern that the prior draft did not adequately plan to meet the need of unaccompanied youth, and that no District agency was embracing responsibility for serving these children in need if they were on the street with no safe place to stay in freezing temperatures.
From the Legal Clinic’s perspective, we were particularly concerned that DC government officials believed that unaccompanied homeless youth have no legal right to shelter when it is below freezing, unlike every other homeless person. The Department of Human Services had released a “framework” document implying that this population was not entitled to the legal protections of the Homeless Services Reform Act, and the agency also released an “open letter” to the DC Council indicating only that “some advocates believe” that this population is entitled to shelter on freezing nights.
That worried us. The Winter Plan has always been the implementation document for the right to shelter in below-freezing temperatures, with the explicit statement throughout that more space will be acquired if the plan fails accurately to anticipate the need. But this year, the Administration presented the Interagency Council with a draft plan for homeless youth that advocates and youth providers worried would not meet the need, without any corresponding commitment that no homeless youth would be forced to sleep outside in freezing conditions this winter if the plan ultimately turned out to be inadequate.
Scott McNeilly, our Legal Clinic staff attorney who sits on the Interagency Council on Homelessness, proposed the following amendment to the youth section of the Winter Plan:
“The right to shelter during a hypothermia alert applies to all District residents who cannot access other housing arrangements, including unaccompanied youth. If for some reason the resources outlined in this protocol do not meet the need for this population, then the District will respond accordingly to ensure that no homeless youth is in danger of hypothermia this winter season.”
Out of all the Interagency Council members, only Scott McNeilly and Luis Vasquez of Catholic Charities voted for this amendment, i.e. to affirm the legal right of homeless youth to safe shelter on freezing nights. The amendment failed, and the Winter Plan passed as proposed with no such assurance. The Plan that passed does include an additional six beds to serve youth, but these beds are not expected to go online until at least January.
Ultimately, it is the Homeless Services Reform Act that establishes legal rights, not the Winter Plan. And ultimately, it is the Court’s interpretation that counts, not the ICH’s. As lawyers, we stand ready to fight for those youth to access basic lifesaving emergency shelter this winter, and we welcome any youth to contact us directly for representation.
In the meantime, we urge you to join Covenant House Washington and other community partners for a Candle Light Vigil for homeless youth this Thursday, November 21, at 7:00 P.M. at 2001 Mississippi Ave, SE. Homeless youth need your support now more than ever.