February 6, 2014

THE DISTRICT’S shelter for homeless families is overflowing. Parents and their children have been placed in motels in the city and Maryland and in D.C. recreation centers. As the winter grinds on, the number of people seeking shelter is expected to grow.

“It sounds bad, and it’s worse than it sounds,” was the grim characterization of D.C. Department of Human Services Director David Berns as he told a D.C. Council committee this week, “Right now, I don’t have any fresh ideas.”

Homelessness is a complicated problem with no easy fix, but the Gray administration’s lack of strategies to deal with the immediate crisis is disconcerting. It is not acceptable that so many families — so many children — are living in makeshift quarters with no way out. That’s why we hope the administration takes to heart a set of specific recommendations developed by a group of advocates for the homeless that aim to get people into permanent housing more quickly. Either that, or the city should promptly develop its own plan.

At the same time, city officials need to address the thorny question of whether the District can continue to afford a law that confers an unyielding right to shelter. More specifically, has the District’s policy of guaranteed housing on hypothermia nights created a perverse incentive that actually encourages people to forgo other housing alternatives in favor of emergency shelters?

Mr. Berns explained to the council that thousands of families are doubled up with family or friends. On non-hypothermia nights, the city works with these families to maintain this arrangement until permanent housing can be found. But during hypothermia alerts, the city has no such option under its unique law, which guarantees anyone without a home an absolute right to shelter when the temperature drops below freezing. One reason there are twice as many homeless families this year as last year is the higher number of frigid nights.

“Families have learned,” Mr. Berns said, “that if they claim that they do not have any place to go, we are required to place them.” Once in, the city has no authority to return them to a doubled-up situation, and they get preference for housing placement and assistance. Testimony that the number of families seeking shelter dropped dramatically after the city announced it was offering only cots in recreation centers and not paid hotel rooms suggests there was some ability to find alternative housing.

No one wants anyone turned away in the cold or forever consigned to someone’s couch, but Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) last year pushed for a change that would give the city more flexibility. The right to shelter would continue during hypothermia alerts, but placements would be provisional, with the city having the authority to return people to doubled-up situations if available. The council, in face of opposition from advocates, wouldn’t approve the change. It needs to revisit that decision.

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