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District gets winter plan for sheltering the homeless

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By Nathan Rott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 9:12 PM

The homeless will increasingly be placed in apartments and single rooms in the District this winter, under a plan approved Tuesday, with barely a week to go before the city's cold-weather season officially begins.

The plan approved by the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a coalition of D.C. agencies and nonprofit groups, lists 185 units that will be used for families when emergency shelters are full. Some advocates for the homeless say they are worried that number will be insufficient, but D.C. officials say it's a better use of city money to put people in more permanent housing instead of temporary shelters.

"We know this is a big jump" because of the "limited resources," said Laura Zeilinger, who oversees homeless programs for the District. The city has budgeted $2.2 million to house the homeless this winter.

Under D.C. law, the city must provide emergency shelter to homeless people during the coldest months, from Nov. 1 to March 31.

The District has about 6,500 homeless people, including 800 families with more than 1,500 children, according to a census taken this year by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

In recent years, the city has been following the Housing First Initiative, trying to fight homelessness with permanent housing and support services instead of temporary shelters.

Advocates at the meeting said they support the initiative, but some expressed concerns that the city is being rash in implementing it.

"We're trying to do something we've never done before, without a safety net," said Scott McNeilly, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and a voting member of the Interagency Council.

An earlier version of the plan proposed adding 100 units to the Family Emergency Shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. It was rejected after advocates for the homeless and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said that adding beds would cause even more crowding. Because of community complaints, city officials also dismissed a proposal to convert a former nursing home and mental health center on Spring Road into an emergency family shelter.

McNeilly, who voted against the final plan, said several times during the meeting that he was concerned about the lack of an overflow shelter to be opened when other shelters have reached capacity.

Zeilinger said about 35 families are on the waiting list at Virginia Williams Resource Center, the city's intake center for homeless families. The Family Emergency Shelter, the city's largest family shelter, has been nearly at capacity for a month, and the city still hasn't chosen a contractor to operate the shelter, which has been temporarily run by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness since the spring.

The city's Department of Human Services is bracing for a 10 percent overall increase in the need for housing for the homeless this winter, and it anticipates a 31 percent increase for homeless families.

rottn@washpost.com


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