City Plans to Increase Beds For Families During Winter

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009

D.C. officials unveiled a plan Thursday to expand the number of beds available to the homeless in winter by 10 percent to ward off cases of hypothermia.

But activists feared that the increase won't be enough as District residents continue to lose jobs and families are thrown out of their homes in a troubled economy. Space is tight in the city's network of shelters in summer, when demand is typically low. The need for shelter usually spikes in winter.

The District has 703 homeless families, with more than 1,400 children, a 20 percent increase over last year, according to a survey by the Metropolitan Council of Governments, which counts the homeless population annually.

From Nov. 1 to March 31, the city will offer at least 75 more family beds and hundreds of beds for individuals.

The plan was announced two weeks before the city's Interagency Council on Homelessness is scheduled to meet to approve it. The public hearing, at a church near Judiciary Square, was sparsely attended by homeless people and their advocates.

During the hour-long hearing, homeless people asked what they should do if a shelter shuts its doors in their faces, how well the 311 service number is working and why men had to stand in line for two hours in the cold to get through a security checkpoint and into a shelter on New York Avenue NE.

Nassim Moshiree, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the officials who presented the plan seemed overconfident. "This past spring, 88 families were living at the family shelter at D.C. General Hospital when the capacity was 75," Moshiree said. "Some had to stay in the cafeteria. They say they'll only need 75 beds there in the winter, when demand is high now. Where is their Plan B? They need a Plan B."

Fred Swan, family services administrator for the Department of Human Services, said Moshiree voiced a common complaint. "To a certain extent, we hear that every year," Swan said. "We'll make adjustments as needed."

Swan said the plan takes the sour economy into account. "The way they're predicting it now is that we're going to have an overflow because people are losing their jobs and their homes," he said.

The city's 10.9 percent unemployment rate is expected to pass 11 percent in December. Last month, the city received $7.4 million in federal stimulus funds to help homeless families and families in danger of becoming homeless.

That point was driven home last month at a public hearing on homelessness, when Human Services Director Clarence H. Carter told D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) that 285 families are on a waiting list for beds, a stark number in the warmer months.

Wells vowed to investigate the effect of such a large waiting list. At Thursday's meeting, Yvette Oakley said he could start with her. Oakley said she went to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, which assigns beds to homeless families, and "was told there was no space" for her and three children.

Oakley said they are sleeping at a friend's home but are welcome for only one more night. "I don't know where I'm going to live," she said.

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