Better winter for homeless families?
District officials vowed Thursday to do a better job housing homeless families this winter, promising that they would not allow a repeat of the disastrous overcrowding and poor conditions at the city's Family Emergency Shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital.
But Laura Zeilinger, who oversees homeless programs for the Department of Human Services, said the city will have to continue to rely on the much criticized D.C. General facility to shelter the District's growing number of homeless families. She spoke at a public hearing on the city's annual winter plan for the homeless, which is still being finalized.
Earlier this year, the city was forced to cram upwards of 200 families into the D.C. General shelter, a facility equipped for 135. Women and children slept in common rooms and hallways, and residents complained of mold and swarms of fruit flies, roaches and other insects.
In April, Families Forward, the nonprofit group that had a $2.5 million contract to operate the shelter, was fired after allegations that two male employees were having sex with female residents.
The District, which has budgeted $2.2 million for the hypothermia season, is still in the process of hiring a new contractor to operate the shelter, which has been run temporarily by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
The number of homeless families has risen in recent years. It climbed from 703 in 2009 to 800 this year, according to an annual survey by the Metropolitan Council of Governments. Those families include more than 1,500 children.
The District is required by law to provide shelter to the city's homeless during the hypothermia season, which runs from Nov. 1 to March 1.
Advocates for the homeless said they were disappointed that plans to open a new family shelter in Ward 4, a battleground in the Democratic mayoral primary, had been dropped. Scott McNeilly, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said earlier drafts of the winter plan had called for a new facility, which he described as badly needed.
Instead, Zeilinger said, the city is working to move 100 families into transitional housing by Nov. 1 and build additional shelter units at D.C. General.
"The only space we've been able to identify and to make available to [shelter families] is more space at D.C. General," Zeilinger said. "We have set aside plans and resources to - if needed - renovate and quickly bring online up to an additional 100 units of capacity at D.C. General."
D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose human services committee oversees services for the homeless, said D.C. General cannot be part of any real long-term plan for the city's homeless families.
"The fact that we have to use D.C. General is a failure," Wells said Thursday during a break at a hearing on juvenile justice. "What we need is a substantial expansion of transitional housing. But I realize the huge numbers are a challenge for any city, including our own."
Kelly Sweeney McShane, the executive director of Community of Hope, also expressed reservations about the continued reliance on D.C. General.
"We want to keep families safe, and for various reasons, I don't think that [D.C. General] is the best facility for that."
Zeilinger acknowledged that the city's plan for families isn't ideal. "We are 100 percent dedicated to moving families to housing as quickly as possible," she said. "It is not good for families - and I think we can all agree on that point - to live in shelters."
But, she said, the city is better prepared this year for the fallout from the recession. "Last year, we had a very difficult time anticipating the family need," she said. "We had families coming in at a volume that I think was beyond what anybody predicted. This was true not only here, in the District of Columbia, but as we talk to people in other major cities across the country, it was a phenomenon everyone was experiencing."
This year, they are bracing themselves for an even tougher winter.