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.

"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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