D.C. falls short on moving 500 homeless families; conditions ripe for winter crisis

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s effort to move 500 homeless families out of shelters and into subsidized apartments in response to last winter’s crisis fell far short of its goal, administration officials said Wednesday.

As of early this week, 187 families had moved into apartments, and officials said they were confident they would reach the 200 mark by Friday, the end of Gray’s 100-day campaign.

Gray had promised in March to identify and lease 500 apartments by June, and he said in April that 500 families would be “housed” by the end of the campaign.

Beatriz “B.B.” Otero, Gray’s deputy mayor for health and human services, said Wednesday that it was the department’s intention all along merely to identify 500 units — not to move all of the families that quickly. By that lower bar, she claimed a grade of “nearly an ‘A’ ” because the city has found 459 available units.

In addition to the impact on families awaiting housing, the administration’s failure to meet its goal complicates the city’s budget for the spending year beginning in October. The administration assumed in the budget that it would meet the goal. The mayor and D.C. Council allocated no money for the backup use of motel rooms during the winter months, when housing needs peak. And they assumed that with the city’s main homeless shelter, the former D.C. General Hospital campus, nearly cleared out through the initiative, the District would have space available for more than 150 new homeless families at the start of hypothermia season.

Otero said Wednesday that the administration now believes it will still be housing hundreds of families that first entered shelter last winter. She said that by late October, D.C. General will have room for perhaps 50 families — or less, if the administration isn’t successful before then at further ramping up placements to apartments.

Under D.C. law, the city is obligated to house families that request shelter when the temperature falls below freezing. Last year, D.C. General housed 262 families on the first freezing night in late October. By January, more than 400 families had flooded into overflow motel rooms before the administration turned to makeshift shelters in recreation centers, separating families with partitions borrowed from the Red Cross.

“I guess the question is, what’s Plan B?” said Jenny Reed, policy director for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which analyzes the city’s budget through the lens of services to the poor. “If D.C. General is fairly near capacity and the District isn’t going to budget any money for motels . . . this feels a lot like last year, but with fewer options.”

The typical profile of the apartments the city has leased under Gray’s initiatives point to a longer-term issue for the city’s poorest and often unskilled and unemployed parents with young children.

The average rent of the units the city has leased is $1,100 a month. The District often subsidizes all but a few dollars a month for homeless families for up to a year. After that, the rents reset at market rate and families are often forced to find other places to stay.

Most of the 187 families housed have also been placed in vacant units east of the Anacostia River, where limited day-care options, access to full grocery stores and transportation to more plentiful minimum wage jobs downtown can exacerbate challenges for families.

Landlords offered the city 532 apartments during the 100-day campaign. The Gray administration rejected 73 after inspections, for a usable total of 459 apartments. Otero also said landlords have suggested that additional units may become available at the end of the summer, potentially meaning the city could get closer to opening more space at D.C. General.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chair of the committee that oversees homeless services, applauded Gray’s administration for finding 459 available apartments but said he fears the city is on course to repeat its troubles from last year. Graham has scheduled a hearing for Thursday on the outcome of the mayor’s effort.

He said he intends to move legislation in the fall that would prevent the city from again using recreation centers as family shelters. Graham also wants the council to move toward closing D.C. General but has stepped back from proposing a hard date to do so.

As of Tuesday, the city had 240 families at D.C. General and another 220 still in motel rooms from before it cut off access to those open-ended placements in January. That is a total of 630 adults and 890 children.

“In a nutshell, we still have a lot of work to do, there’s no question.” Otero said. “I would probably say, ‘Yeah, I wish I had all 500 families in units right now,’ but what I feel very good about is I have the units to put families in and it’s now moving them through the process.”

187

Number of homeless families in apartments so far

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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