Homeless in D.C.

Saturday, October 30, 2010; 7:02 PM

RESIDENCY REQUIREMENTS for the homeless are almost an oxymoron. But that's exactly what is under consideration by the D.C. Council as Washington heads toward winter with the need for services for the homeless growing and local funds dwindling. The District is right to want to do something about surrounding jurisdictions that take advantage of its safety net by directing their needy residents to cross the border. At the same time, it needs to be careful that new rules don't create insurmountable barriers for those it wants to help.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the committee on human services, has drafted legislation that would require individuals and families seeking severe weather shelter to be residents of the District. The bill, which will be the subject of a public hearing Nov. 8, was prompted by findings that 10 percent of the 180 families seeking emergency shelter between June and September were from outside the District. With the District's family shelters operating at capacity and the city facing a budget deficit of at least $175 million, Mr. Wells sees the need to direct limited services to District residents who need them the most. The District is a draw because of its unusual law that essentially guarantees shelter during the hypothermia season, which starts in November.

We are glad that Mr. Wells pulled back on plans to push the legislation through as emergency legislation. More needs to be learned about the scope of this problem. Advocates for the homeless have legitimate concerns about the ability of people, with complex problems and troubled lives, to meet bureaucratic requirements. There are also constitutional concerns that need to be addressed concerning residency and equal treatment. Mr. Wells says that he is confident a workable solution can be found .

The problem of nonresidents wanting to tap into the city's compassion is not new. The D.C. HealthCare Alliance, the publicly funded health insurance program for low-income residents who aren't eligible for Medicaid, faced a similar situation; the alliance imposed residency requirements, but some people believe they need tightening. Maybe area leaders should get together and talk about how the region can best help vulnerable populations without letting jurisdictional hurdles get in the way.

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