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

"If it's a family from the District or from Hyattsville, we're going to take the family from the District," said Fred Swann, the city's family services administrator. "And we'll get that family back to Hyattsville."

But advocates for the homeless say a residency requirement is inappropriate for the nation's capital, a symbolic home to all Americans. On a more practical level, they say requiring proof of residency would add another burden for families and individuals who already have difficulty navigating the bureaucracy. And, they say, the policy would be difficult to implement in a region with porous boundaries, in which people - and especially those who can't afford stable housing - often migrate back and forth among the District, Maryland and Virginia.

"Our business is helping people in need," said Alicia Horton, executive director of Thrive D.C., a Columbia Heights-based program that provides services to help the homeless. "If someone strolls in from Maryland who happens to be in the District and needs a meal, I want to be able to provide that and not have it fall on whether they're a resident."

Advocates argue that the proposed policy could make it harder even for District residents to get help.

"People are going to die because they can't show they're D.C. residents and they can't get their documents together," said Andy Silver, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "How can you require people who live outside to verify their residency?"

Prince George's and Montgomery counties already maintain residency requirements for their services, and a similar regulation was implemented at a 75-bed shelter in Ann Arbor, Mich., earlier this year. But no major city has instituted such a policy, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Officials in San Francisco floated the idea a couple of a years ago only to abandon it.

"To see people on the street in need of shelter and ask, 'Hey, where are you from?' is not something San Franciscans have wanted to move forward with," said Dariush Kayhan, the city's director of homeless policy. "We're a compassionate city and have historically had an open door."

In the District, officials say the driving force behind the proposed policy is the city's projected $175 million budget deficit, which has already pushed outgoing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) to impose a freeze on hiring and promotions. Wells, whose council committee oversees the Department of Human Services (DHS), which handles homelessness policy, said service cuts could be justified based on "the claim that we're funding a social safety net for the entire region."

"If we don't control our own spigot, there won't be enough dollars for our own residents," Wells said. "We don't want you to have any reason to get on a bus and come to D.C. because your jurisdiction won't house you."

Officials say the recent spike in homeless people coming to the city is the impetus for giving priority to District residents: Between June and September, they said, 10 percent of the 180 families in desperate need of emergency shelter came from outside the city. Since 2008, the percentage of homeless families seeking shelter who came to Washington from elsewhere has nearly tripled, from 2.7 percent to 6.2 percent of all applicants, or from 34 to 106.

The city maintains a 135-unit family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, which is typically filled to capacity. The number of families applying for shelter has grown from 1,263 in 2008 to 1,721 this year, according to DHS.

Wells said a mother and her six children from Prince George's County ended up in his office looking for shelter. When he asked why they sought help in the District, "she said her county services said they didn't have anything for her, but that D.C. did, and we would help."

Wells said he found city money to put the family up in a hotel for two weeks. The next day, he said, a District family came to him for similar help, and he could not find them a place in a shelter. He said he cobbled together $600 - including $100 of his own money - to help the family, who went to stay in a hotel.

Swann, the DHS administrator, said such cases are not uncommon. He described examples assembled by his staff, such as a family with three children who migrated from South Carolina, stayed with a friend in the District until they were asked to leave and then sought shelter. In another case, a military veteran came with his family from Florida. And a mother claimed to have been living in her car in Maryland with her children.

"I'm not comfortable turning anyone away," Swann said, but "I do think we need to prioritize our resources for D.C. residents."

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said the District should reexamine its priorities and seek help from Congress.

"They go there when it snows, and they get extra plows, and they go there when there's been an extra-large demonstration and they had to pay for law enforcement," he said. "This is a matter, in many peoples' cases, of life and death. You can't tell me it's less important than a snowplow."

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