February 28, 2014

THE WORST of the District’s homeless crisis may well be over for this year. Officials report a dramatic decline in the number of families entering emergency shelter, and hypothermia season is — we hope — nearing an end. So improved is the situation that D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) asked council members to hold off on his recent request for emergency powers to deal with shelter placements.

That’s fine, but the issue should not be placed on the back burner. The District was caught flat-footed this year by record numbers of families entering shelter. Officials need to devise a better strategy before next winter — and before the next crisis.

Mr. Gray on Feb. 20 submitted emergency legislation to the D.C Council to deal with the surge of homeless families that filled the city’s emergency shelter and overflowed to area motels and city recreation centers. The plan included enhanced efforts to help families move from shelters to housing, but reaction focused on a proposal to give the administration flexibility in providing shelter when there are alternatives for families, such as doubling up with relatives or friends. The council had previously rebuffed the proposal, and another contentious debate was in prospect before Mr. Gray asked the council to defer consideration pending further study. He told the council that fewer families sought shelter once hotel placements were discontinued in favor of emergency shelter at rec centers and that more families are exiting shelter.

There is merit to the administration’s argument that the D.C. law granting an absolute right to shelter on freezing nights has had unintended consequences, but more than a tweak to the law is needed in dealing with the problem of homeless families. The city’s rapid rehousing approach needs to be shored up, and new strategies are needed to help families headed by young, single parents. The shortage of affordable housing for families remains a challenge.

Given how politicized the issue became leading up to the April 1 mayoral primary, with Mr. Gray and his rivals on the council trading barbs and blame, there is scant chance of constructive work being done. We hope, though, that once the political dust settles, the mayor and council come up with a plan that better uses city resources to help families become self-sufficient.

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