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Amid huge budget deficit, D.C. sheltering many homeless people from outside city

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 6, 2010; 9:57 PM

About 10 percent of families receiving emergency shelter in the District live elsewhere - a phenomenon that city officials say they are now noticing in the midst of the city government's projected $175 million budget deficit.

A study of the rolls at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the central intake center for families seeking emergency housing, showed a significant number of nonresidents using city services, said Clarence H. Carter, human services director.

The District must "jealously guard those resources for those people who wake up and go to sleep in D.C.," Carter said. "The District does not have the capacity to share its compassion with the region."

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on Human Services, called Wednesday for residency restrictions and relief from surrounding communities that appear to be sending their homeless to the District or are offering lesser services.

Wells made his plea during a hearing in which representatives of the Department of Human Services and advocates for the homeless testified about the District's plan for the hypothermia season that begins Nov. 1.

Advocates for the homeless confirmed that non-District residents seek shelter in the city, but said that stems from close proximity and family ties.

"The larger, more global issue is that people who experience homelessness travel through the tri-state region," said Michael Ferrell, director of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, noting that Maryland and Virginia report similar patterns.

"That's not disputing [the city's concerns]. That's just saying it's not one-dimensional," said Ferrell, who is also chairman of the homeless services committee for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

But according to a recent COG report, the District is "one of the few jurisdictions in the region to dedicate sizable additional resources for families during the winter."

And that's a draw, said Fred Swan, the District's family services administrator. "They have family, friends in D.C. who tell them you can get more services in D.C.," he said.

The city's winter plan, which generally extends through the end of March, will cost about $3.7 million to increase the number of shelter beds and provide transportation and other services, according to the human services staff.

Wells said he is fighting to protect the human services budget as his colleagues scour the city's budget for potential cuts as revenues continue to decline. But Wells said it's hard to argue with complaints that valuable city dollars are going to nonresidents.

A woman and her seven children recently showed up in his office seeking help, telling him she had been referred from neighboring Prince George's County.

His office, at the city's expense, found them temporary housing at a hotel in Silver Spring because they could not find one in the District.

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