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D.C. Council proceeds on homeless plan

By Tim Craig
Thursday, December 9, 2010; B05

The D.C. Council is moving forward with plans to make homeless families prove they live in the District before they can receive shelter, a stance that one council member called "cruel."

In a preliminary vote Tuesday, the council voted 8 to 3 to approve a bill by council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) that would put in place residency requirements for people seeking temporary assistance at city shelters that accept families.

The legislation also would redefine the city's obligation to homeless adults with children. Currently, the District tries to place homeless families needing shelter in an "apartment setting."

But with officials struggling to meet that obligation amid mounting financial challenges, the new policy would only guarantee families a private room.

"It's a standard we have never been able to meet, and the District has always been vulnerable to a class-action lawsuit," Wells said. "We won't be able to meet this standard in the foreseeable future because it would require a substantial new investment that we do not see happening for a while."

The council's final vote on the legislation is slated for Dec. 21.

After Tuesday's action, several advocates for the homeless said that the proposed change would force homeless adults with young children into dormitory-style shelters.

"Community-style shelters are dangerous. . . . An entire family will have to cook, live and sleep in one room," said Nassim Moshiree, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "It's just bad public policy."

During Tuesday's debate, many council members said that they had no choice but to toughen entry requirements and standards. They said the city's network of shelters is often overwhelmed; officials estimated that over the summer about 10 percent of the families in need of emergency shelter came from outside the city.

"We cannot be the hotel for Virginia and Maryland residents," Wells said.

Wells's proposal would not apply to temporary "low-barrier" shelters that often serve single adults. He and other officials said that as the nation's capital, the city has an obligation to house homeless adults during cold snaps.

Others seeking more permanent shelter would have three days to prove their District residency with identification, a government-issued check, or proof that their child is enrolled in city schools. Under the proposed change, priority would be given to District residents.

Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) voted against the bill. They said that it would contradict the city's reputation for compassion.

"I think in its various applications, it's going to be cruel," Cheh said.

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