Homeless seeking shelter in D.C. might need to prove District ties

By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 8:13 PM

Inez Henry earned enough as a bus driver to pay for the Prince George's County apartment where she lived with her 4-year-old son - until May, when the bus company laid her off, her lease expired and she found herself bunking down at her daughter's apartment in the District.

Her daughter's patience eventually ran dry, forcing Henry and her husband to ask the D.C. government to find the family shelter. None was available, but the y procured a $99 voucher for one night at a Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.

"Comfortable," said Henry's husband, Ron Johnson, 52, an unemployed Army veteran. "Got the chance to take a hot shower."

The next day, the family again sought help from the District.

As the economy has floundered and the unemployment rate has soared, a growing number of homeless families from outside the District have migrated into the city in search of shelter, burdening an already-strained social services network. Over the summer, D.C. officials say, 10 percent of the families most in need of shelter came from outside the city. Since 2008, officials say, the number of homeless families migrating into the District has tripled.

But now the city is pushing back against the influx. Citing a looming budget deficit, officials are proposing that on winter's coldest nights, the city should provide shelter first to families who can demonstrate their D.C. ties with proof of a legal address in the past two years or with a record of having received public assistance from the city. Under current law, the District must shelter anyone who is homeless and seeking a bed when the temperature falls below freezing.

For Henry, whose last residence was in Maryland but who said she has lived in the city for 42 of her 45 years, the policy change could make the District off-limits.

"We cannot be the housing alternative of last resort for the entire East Coast," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the legislation's sponsor and host of a public hearing Monday on the bill. "My intention is to prioritize space for D.C. residents."

Where would that leave John Greene? A former moving company employee who said he became disabled after falling down 20 steps, Greene, 33, showed up recently at the District's intake center for homeless families in Brentwood, saying that he and his wife, Victoria, and their seven children needed shelter.

Since their eviction from a Chevy Chase apartment in May, Greene said his family had shared a room at his brother's Southwest apartment. But they had to leave after the place was burglarized. Greene said he had sought help in Montgomery County but was told there was no space.

"Can you get a room for us?" Greene asked a reporter while waiting for the District's help.

If the District imposes the proposed restriction, officials say they would help families from outside the city return to where they came from.

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