D.C. to put newly homeless families into 2 rec centers

D.C. officials, faced with an unprecedented explosion in family homelessness, said they will no longer have the option of putting people up in Maryland motels after reaching an agreement Friday with Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

Instead, newly homeless D.C. families are being put into two city recreation centers that have been converted to emergency shelters on cold nights, said David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services.

“We’ve done this before with earthquakes, snow emergencies and other times when large numbers of people have been displaced,” Berns said, although it will be the first time that rec centers, which are typically used as emergency shelters for homeless singles, will be used to house homeless families. “I don’t have another option at this point.”

The District is in the midst of what Berns called a “severe crisis” of unclear origin, although the severely cold weather and the drop in affordable housing in the city are thought to be factors. Although the city projected that it would need to find shelter for 500 newly homeless families this winter, Berns said the actual number will be double that by the time hypothermia season typically ends, April 1.

The 110 city homeless families staying in two Maryland hotels were to be moved as soon as space opens up in D.C. motels or the family shelter, according to the agreement. Berns said the District has 60 days to move the families out of a motel in Silver Spring and has committed to moving the families out of a Cheverly motel by spring.

Berns said the agreement not to place more D.C. homeless families in Maryland motels came after Maryland officials learned of the family placements in news media reports. “They started expressing concerns, and it kept escalating and elevating to the point where there were decisions made to try to correct the problem,” Berns said.

Barry Hudson, spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, said county officials were “caught by surprise” that so many D.C. homeless families were in the county and worried that county services could be “overburdened.”

“It wasn’t, ‘Don’t send folks over here.’ It wasn’t, ‘Send them back as soon as possible,’ ” Hudson said of conversations between officials Friday. “It was, ‘How soon will you be bringing them back into the city,’ because these people are displaced, the kids are far from schools, people are being transported, and moving people out of the city, then having to travel back in, is an extra burden to families.”

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs the Human Services Committee, said he was perplexed by what he called Maryland’s “heartless” response.

“I don’t like it one bit,” he said. “What’s the problem with using their hotels? What are they afraid of? Infection? Plague? Why wouldn’t they want to have the humanitarian thing done in their county? Especially when D.C. is paying for it.”

The District is one of a handful of jurisdictions in the country that give residents a legal right to shelter on nights when the temperature drops below freezing.

Berns began sending homeless D.C. families to the Maryland motels earlier in January, when D.C. General, once the city’s family homeless shelter, and the inexpensive D.C.motel rooms the city uses as overflow were filled.

“I don’t regret that decision,” Berns said.

Although family homelessness dropped last year, officials expected a 10 percent increase this year. But it now appears it will be a nearly 100 percent increase.

“We were projecting we’d have 509 newly homeless families, but we’re already at 600,” he said. “If the rate keeps up, we’re looking at 1,000 new homeless families by the end of hypothermia season in April.”

No one is sure why. Graham is convening a special roundtable Monday to try to not only figure out why, but also, more important, what to do about it.

Some, like Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), said the city’s right-to-shelter law is drawing families from around the region.

“We definitely believe that this is a regional issue and requires a regional response,” Berns said. “But we don’t think the vast majority of our increase is attributable to other jurisdictions coming in.”

Instead, the unprecedented number of super cold days appears to be playing a role, as does the fact that fewer people than the city anticipated are leaving the shelter to try the District’s only permanent housing option for most families, a new program called Rapid Re-Housing. The program offers a four-month subsidy on a market-rate apartment that can be extended up to about two years.

Landlords, Berns said, have been reluctant to take such short-term leases. So instead of 60 people leaving the shelter every month and making room for newly homeless families, the numbers have been closer to 40 a month.

But homeless advocates said the alarming rise in family homelessness is most likely because the affordable housing stock has dropped in half in recent years, as the city has torn down old public housing units and built condominiums and as more permanent federal housing subsidies have dried up.

“The numbers are going in the wrong direction,” Berns said. “The inability to get people out of shelter has been predominantly driven by their inability to find affordable, appropriate apartments.”

At the same time, a lack of affordable housing has led many families to double and triple up, often in violation of public housing rules. DHS reported that 6,000 families receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families are what they call “precariously doubled-up,” advocates said.

That’s what happened to Breana Dawkins, 19, who has been living with her 2-year-old son, Dreon, in one of the Maryland hotels.

Dawkins has been homeless since April, when she was evicted from her apartment. She quit two low-paying jobs to take a better-paying job at CVS. But getting full-time hours required her to work overnight, she said, and arranging child care became impossible.

She moved back in with her mother and siblings, she said. But since her name was no longer on the lease and she was older than 18, her mother worried that her presence would get her and Dawkins’s three younger siblings kicked out of their public housing unit.

“I had no choice but to come to shelter,” she said, fixing Dreon a TV dinner in the motel microwave in her room.

Thursday night was the first night families were referred to a rec center. Seventeen were referred, and nine wound up staying. And by Friday, the number was down to one.

Brigid Schulte writes about work-life issues and poverty, seeking to understand what it takes to live The Good Life across race, class and gender.
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