D.C. still lacks enough shelter for homeless families

From foreclosure to food shortages, the economic downturn set in motion by the financial crisis of 2008 is having a broad and deeply-felt global impact.
By Nathan Rott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 10:31 PM

With cold weather just weeks away, the District has shelved a plan to expand its already packed shelter for homeless families at the former D.C. General Hospital, a decision that advocates fear could leave vulnerable families even worse off than last winter.

A month after pledging to do a better job of sheltering the city's homeless this winter, District leaders haven't figured out how best to meet that promise. Meanwhile, the Family Emergency Shelter, which can house 135 families, is nearly full. And last week, 67 more families were waiting for emergency housing, with no place else to go, according to Omega Butler, chief of operations at the Virginia Williams Resource Center, which helps find housing for homeless families.

A city plan to add up to 100 rooms to the D.C. General shelter was abandoned after the idea came under fire last month from advocates for the homeless and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who said it would worsen conditions at the troubled shelter.

Another proposal would have converted a former nursing home and mental health facility on Spring Road NW into a family shelter. But the idea was dropped amid community concerns in Ward 4 about concentrating too many facilities for the homeless in one area of the city.

With no alternatives left on the table, the city will rely on moving families out of D.C. General as quickly as possible and into 185 transitional apartments, said Laura Zeilinger, who oversees homeless programs for the city's Department of Human Services.

"We're going to take all of our resources and put them into permanent housing," she said.

Once hypothermia season begins, Nov. 1, the city is legally obligated to assist anyone seeking shelter.

The number of homeless families has climbed from 703 in 2009 to 800 this year, according to an annual survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Those families include more than 1,500 children.

The city is bracing for a 10 percent increase in shelter need this winter, according to the Department of Human Services. With that expected increase and family shelters already near capacity, Patty Fugere of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said she is "not completely confident that [city officials] will be able to move families fast enough to ensure adequate spacing."

"A year ago, they had 35 rooms filled in D.C. General at this time," Fugere said. "They started the winter with ample space."

By March, the shelter was overrun by 200 families. Women and children were forced to sleep 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, was supposed to hire a new contractor by Tuesday to operate the shelter, which has been run temporarily by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. There was no announcement of a contract Tuesday.

The city has a total of 257 units for homeless families, including the facility at D.C. General. Not having more shelter capacity this winter is a "troubling concern," said Wells, whose human services committee oversees services for the homeless.

Even so, Wells adamantly opposed adding more units to the D.C. General shelter, arguing that housing more than 135 families there "would be disastrous."

"We must find the most humane facilities in the District's inventory for housing our families, and D.C. General is not it," he said.

At a hearing last week, DHS Director Clarence H. Carter said that the agency searched for an alternative location to shelter families and that the best facility was at 1125 Spring Rd. NW, a former Hebrew Home for the Aged and more recently a mental health center.

It would have cost an estimated $800,000 to renovate the building for 75 families, roughly what it would have cost to add on to the D.C. General shelter.

But the Spring Road building has since been removed from consideration, Carter said during the hearing.

Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) said that her community has an "inordinate amount of group homes" and that Spring Road has two homeless shelters: a men's transitional shelter and an 88-room family shelter.

"How could a government agency ask people in a two-block radius to support three homeless shelters?" Bowser said.

She agreed that more shelter space is needed and suggested that other options, namely expanding D.C. General, be reevaluated.

"This is a very tight, dense residential neighborhood," she said of the Spring Road community. In contrast, the D.C. General shelter is on "a wide-open campus, a campus that, given the resources could accommodate these people."

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