Gray steps back on unpopular D.C. homeless legislation


Homeless men try to get sleep at a Metro station entrance as temperatures dipped into the single digits on Jan. 7 in Washington. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
February 25, 2014

Less than a week after he sent the D.C. Council emergency legislation on homelessness, Mayor Vincent C. Gray on Tuesday backed off, saying he is no longer requesting a vote on the controversial measure before the city’s April 1 Democratic primary.

Gray (D) had responded to an unprecedented 135-percent jump in homeless families entering city shelter this winter – as well as criticism from his Democratic challengers – by sending the council a request for new powers to decide if families truly have no other place to stay.

The city isn’t facing a crisis of homelessness, Gray and his aides have asserted, but a crisis of families seeking city paid-for motel rooms to escape overcrowded living conditions.

Under Gray’s tough-love plan, a version of which the council had previously rejected, the city would have placed families in shelters temporarily but then kicked them out within 24 hours if social workers determined they had somewhere else to go, such as the couch or floor of a family member or friend.

The council rebuffed a similar request by Gray last spring, saying it would have fundamentally eroded the city’s right-to-shelter law, which guarantees accommodations on freezing nights.

The mayor’s prospects for success next week at the council’s March 4 meeting, likely it’s last before the primary, appeared increasingly slim. On Monday, council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the committee with jurisdiction over city homeless services, canceled a hearing on the mayor’s proposal.

In a letter Tuesday to Council Chairman Phil (D), Gray did not mention the legislation’s long odds for passage. He said he had another reason for pulling back: Fewer families have sought shelter since the city ran out of motel rooms it could rent for families. and began housing them, barracks-style, in recreation centers.

More time is needed, Gray wrote, to study if emergency measures “are needed as urgently as previously believed.”

“We’re pressing the pause button; it’s not a withdrawal,” said mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro. “We have seen a remarkable decline in the number of people showing up – like 90-plus percent decline – which raises some interesting questions.”

D.C. is one of only a handful of jurisdictions nationwide that guarantees residents open-ended access to shelter when they seek a room on a freezing night. At the beginning of the winter, the city still had nearly 300 families packed into its shelter from the previous winter. Since then, more than 400 additional families have sought shelter, and with no place to put them, the city began renting motel rooms.

At the end of January, however, the city said it could no longer find additional rooms to rent long-term and opened two shelters of last resort: recreation centers with Red Cross partitions separating cots.

Only a handful of families have stayed nightly at the recreation centers, which families have to vacate each weekday morning and return to at night.

An administrative law judge ruled Monday that the recreation centers, at least as initially configured, violated city law to protect the privacy and well-being of children.

The city has said it has recently purchased sturdier partitions that offer families more privacy from one another. Officials plan to continue using recreation centers pending the outcome of another legal challenge.

Ribeiro said the marked decline since the city moved away from motel rooms undermined the notion of a “crisis.”

“We know that there is a housing crunch,” Ribeiro said. “If there is a family out on the street, we want to provide shelter for them. If people are coming in who don’t have that high a need, they are taking up spots and that’s’ a problem.

Graham said he found the falling number of new requests for shelter “encouraging.” He said he had talked with Gray and came to a “meeting of the minds” that the number of additional families seeking shelter nightly no longer appeared to be of crisis proportions.

Graham also said he could not support the mayor’s legislation for provision placements of homeless families without major changes. It won’t be introduced this Tuesday, or perhaps any Tuesday,” he said.

Mendelson said it appeared the mayor had not had the “necessary conversations” with lawmakers and homeless advocates to gain council support for the measure. The chairman said even if the mayor’s legislation is not up for a vote, he plans to bring up the topic for discussion Tuesday.

“Our homeless shelter system is not working the way anyone wants it to, Mendelson said. “Clearly there is a problem.”

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.
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