By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009
The city's network of homeless shelters has started to overflow, with space especially tight for women and families, who have been turned away by the hundreds and are sleeping on friends' couches, on sidewalks, in cars and in parks, officials and advocates said yesterday.
Advocates said it is troubling to see shelters filled to capacity in midsummer, which raises concern about how the homeless and the District will cope when the weather turns cold. The District's rising unemployment rate, nearing 11 percent, also might worsen the situation.
At a public hearing on the issue held yesterday by D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), Department of Human Services Director Clarence H. Carter said 285 families are on a waiting list for shelter beds. Activists said the true number seeking shelter is probably 10 times higher.
People who contact family shelters often choose not to join the waiting list, a process that can take up to three hours, activists said. Carter later said that "no public system knows all of the need" because "the rate doesn't factor in people who stop trying."
The city provides about 1,500 beds nightly, about two-thirds of which are for men. Women get about 350 beds, and 164 beds are provided for families with children. The average number of vacant beds nightly is four for women and one for families, according to the Human Services Department.
The District has 703 homeless families with more than 1,400 children, according to a survey this year by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. A HUD study said the number of homeless families is increasing.
Carter said the shelters are at capacity but not in crisis. Wells disagreed, and asked what was being done to track families on the waiting list. Carter said the department had the resources to track families.
"I'm going to be investigating what it means to have 285 families on the waiting list," the council member said. "You are welcome to join me in that investigation."
The hearing followed the death of Renee Paige, a homeless woman with AIDS who died June 7 while waiting for a bed at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter at Second and D streets NW.
Homeless advocate Eric Sheptock said the system failed Paige by turning her away. The shelter's interim director, Bernard Robinson, denied that Paige was rejected. Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said Paige decided to sleep outside.
Carter said the city is exploring ways to whittle down the waiting list, including rent vouchers to help families on the verge of losing their apartments. A recent $7.4 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development should help the city reduce the number of homeless families, Carter said.
"We work every single day to try to break this cycle, but we have not been able to end homelessness yet," Carter said. "But we've made strides the city has never made before."