Homeless families protest mayor’s plan to move them out of shelters


The former D.C. General Hospital now serves as a homeless shelter for several families. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Faced with a homeless population that has quadrupled since the recession of 2008, Mayor Vincent C. Gray is seeking to quickly and without public input change city law to more easily move people out of shelters, such as the crowded and aging former D.C. General Hospital.

The idea, city officials said, is to rapidly get the homeless into stable housing, which will cost the city less and get families on their feet. Without the changes, which would save the city $5.3 million, Gray (D) warned that he would have to restrict three year-round homeless shelters to opening only in the winter.

But advocates for the homeless say the plan, which they contend was “snuck into” the mayor’s budget and took them by surprise, will make it harder for people to get into shelters and easier to get kicked out — with as little as 24 hours’ notice.

Stable housing is exactly what homeless people want, families living at the D.C. General shelter testified at a budget hearing before the council Friday. But the mayor’s reforms, they say, are “misguided and insulting.”

“In spite of what the Mayor believes, we are not a horde of lazy, unmotivated, greedy moochers,” the families said in a statement. “We are families. We are people. We are tax payers; we just don’t make as much money as you do.”

The mayor’s plan calls for giving families “provisional” placements in shelters, requiring them to move into their own apartments, with a temporary rent subsidy, through a “rapid rehousing” program. It also mandates that they save 30 percent of whatever income they receive in an escrow account.

Current law requires the city to place families in shelters before caseworkers can consider other housing alternatives. And once in, the city can’t force people out without cause. That, Gray said, has created a culture of dependence.

The mayor’s budget documents state that in the current system, “there is significant incentive for families to stay in shelter,” with no rent or utility payments, free meals and public assistance. The new plan envisions shelters for emergency use only, “instead of a way of life.”

City officials said shelter residents can now turn down rapid rehousing. Many homeless families, they say, choose to wait in the shelter in the hopes of receiving a permanent voucher for public or subsidized housing. That waiting list is 35 years long.

But families staying at D.C. General said living there indefinitely is the last thing they want to do.

“A shelter, even a well-run shelter, is no place to raise children,” the families said in their statement. “If you could see the number of depressed mothers and sick babies, you would understand that we want to get out of there as quickly as possible.”

LaToya Edwards, 29, showed up with her 3-year-old daughter, Grace, and her 9-month-old baby, Christopher, to testify. In the recession, she lost her $40,000-a-year job, her apartment and her car, and her fiance left her. After a year of living in a one-bedroom apartment with her grandmother and not finding work despite having an associate’s degree, she ended up at D.C. General in January.

“I just need an affordable place to stay. If I can work at Popeyes and pay the rent, I’ll be fine,” she said. “Otherwise, I’ll be in this shelter forever.

But if she did get a job at Popeyes, the problem, Edwards said, is that the salary wouldn’t pay the rent because costs have gotten so high and the city has lost half of its low-cost apartments in the past decade.

“The city is changing, and we are being left behind,” the families said.

A worker paid minimum wage would have to work 132 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Washington these days, said Patty Mullahy Fugere of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “The Gray administration is not acknowledging that reality.”

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) is proposing that the mayor’s proposal be stripped from the budget and considered as separate legislation.

“None of the stakeholders were consulted on the substance of these proposals,” he said. “There may be things we want to embrace. There may be things we want to change. But we should at least have public input.”

David Berns, director for the district’s Department of Human Services, said the administration chose to change the law through the budget rather than a lengthy and contentious legislative process because the situation is dire.

“We have a great sense of urgency,” Berns said. “We have 280 or so families at D.C. General and another 140 sitting in hotels. They’re languishing. Until we can get this reform through and get the authority to use rapid rehousing for them, they’re going to be there, and we’ll have no capacity in our system to place other families.”

One homeless family living at D.C. General costs the city about $50,000 every year, he said. That same amount of money could be used to provide stable housing for at least three families.

Berns said 80 percent of the city’s homeless population could be shifted into a rapid rehousing program and that 91 percent of those who have already been rehoused in low-cost apartments remained in stable housing after one year.

Homeless families like Edwards’ worry that the rapid rehousing program only lasts four months, and if they can’t get back on their feet by then, they’ll be back on the street and, with the reforms, with only a short stay available at the shelter.

But Berns said the rehousing program can be extended indefinitely for occupants if necessary.

“Once you’re in your own housing, you have a much greater chance of getting a job, paying rent, becoming stable,” Berns said. “It’s almost impossible to get a job when you’re in a shelter. You have to do the housing first.”

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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