Don’t give D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray the power to turn away the homeless

Petula Dvorak
Columnist February 20

Good thing the Statue of Liberty welcomes the tired, poor, huddled masses to New York City instead of the District. Because our mayor, Vincent C. Gray, doesn’t want the “homeless, tempest-tost” sent to the nation’s capital.

He’d just as soon turn them away. “No more room here,” he’s basically saying. “Can’t you just sleep on Nona’s couch?”

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

This, more or less, is his latest strategy for dealing with an astonishing 135 percent increase in homeless families entering city shelters since the fall, a crisis that his own director of Human Services says is “worse than it sounds.”

Gray (D) is proposing that D.C.’s right-to-shelter law — which requires the city to give shelter to anyone who needs it during the cold winter months — be modified so that social workers can try to get a homeless family to shack up with someone else when they want in from the cold.

“If someone is doubled up in a safe situation that is determined to be appropriate, we think that is acceptable,” Chris Murphy, Gray’s chief of staff, told The Washington Post’s Aaron Davis. “Families have done it for generations. Immigrant families do it. It’s not an unacceptable situation.”


(The Washington Post)

Is he serious?

Has he ever hung out in the depressing lobby of D.C. General Hospital at night, when an exhausted mother is left at the curb, plastic garbage bags full of her life’s possessions, her toddler slumped over, having cried himself to sleep?

She’ll get turned away by the guards, then she’ll probably grab her child, go sit on the curb and cry.

If she had any safe place to go, a grandma’s house with a soft bed or a kind friend’s apartment with a pullout couch, why on earth would she show up at D.C. General? In most cases, believing she has alternatives is fiction. No woman would bring her child into an abandoned hospital with sketchy water and a rat problem unless she’s used up all her options. She may have been kicked out of Grandma’s or Mom’s apartment because the landlord said there were too many people living there. “Do all of you want to get kicked out?” he surely said.

As for the baby’s father? If he’s in the picture, it’s not always a safe situation for her to stay with him. Social workers say domestic violence has something to do with homelessness about 30 percent of the time.

But Gray wants the city’s overworked, underpaid social workers to put more of a premium on saving taxpayer dollars than on keeping women and children safe.

The District Alliance for Safe Housing gets about 30 women a month who are fleeing domestic violence and need a place to stay. If the law changes and Gray has his way, social workers may tell them they have no choice but to return to someone they fear.

“And most of them will just go back,” worried Peg Hacskaylo, the alliance’s executive director.

I talked to one former social worker who will never forget the case of two children who were living in just the kind of “immigrant” conditions the mayor suggests. Without proper bedrooms with doors or locks, forced to share beds or sleep on couches, both children were sexually abused by others in the house.

If safety isn’t an issue, what about legality? A lawyer was horrified that the city may consider encouraging families to “double up” and possibly break a lease. Most affordable housing has occupancy limits, the lawyer reminded me.

Before they launched this brilliant idea, city officials held a couple “listening sessions” with families last week. Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the family members who came in told officials: “We would love not to be here” and “I don’t have family who can help me out” and “We don’t have alternatives.”

Then, Fugere said, “a staff member from [the Department of Human Services] told them: ‘We hear you loud and clear. If we had 15 days, if we had 30 days to help you find alternatives, we couldn’t. It’s about affordable housing.”

Yes, it’s about affordable, available housing. Not a mythical grandma’s house or stopgaps that might be good for reducing the numbers on paper but won’t go toward solving the real crisis in the gilded capital.

Why the 135 percent increase? Because of the District’s skyrocketing real estate prices and average monthly rents. The city is getting 1,000 new residents every month, remember? But we’re adding only about 5,000 more units every year. So who gets squeezed? The poorest and most vulnerable, of course.

In the end, the victims in all of this, the ones who didn’t ask for any of it, are children.

School social workers have been seeing the rise in homeless kids over the past five years, and they see the toll it takes on the children.

“With no safety net that gives children a warm, safe place when things don’t work out with families, the kids are put in danger,” said a school social worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because city employees aren’t allowed to talk to the news media.

The social worker — besides having to help homeless kids change schools and try to make sure they have food and clothing — had to file a report recently because a homeless woman was forced to move back in with the father who had molested her. “The woman was afraid for her daughter, but she had no place to go.”

Just more wretched refuse on the District’s teeming shore.

petula.dvorak@washpost.com

Twitter: @petulad

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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