Space for homeless tight, D.C. family shelter limits eligibility, puts some in hotels

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:07 AM

Hoping to avoid last year's disastrous overcrowding at the District's shelter for homeless families, the city has made it harder to get into the shelter and has begun paying for hotel rooms for a small number of families.

Families seeking shelter are being carefully screened, and only those found to have no alternative are eligible for one of the 145 units at the Southeast Washington shelter, said an official with the D.C. Department of Human Services.

And in what advocates for the homeless see as an important shift in policy, the District also has started housing a small number of families in hotels.

The practice of using hotels for emergency shelter for the homeless fell out of favor under Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Fenty wanted his administration to focus on longer-term options for housing the chronically homeless, who are primarily individuals.

Advocates for the homeless endorsed those efforts, and still do. But a crush of families last year, many driven out of their homes by the recession, created a crisis for the District and its lone shelter for the families.

The facility, on the grounds of the old D.C. General Hospital, became desperately overcrowded , with 200 families jammed into a space designed for 135. Residents recounted having to sleep on cots in common areas and to endure unsanitary conditions and volatile confrontations among residents.

At that time, families shut out of the D.C. General shelter typically were helped by charity groups or even council members, who stepped in to pay for temporary accommodations. The city generally did not cover such costs unless a family had been displaced by a fire or a building condemnation.

But in the past few weeks, several families have been placed in hotels at city expense, according to lawyers from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

"It was an acknowledgment that the city has an obligation to the families," said the clinic's executive director, Patricia Mullahy Fugere, who was encouraged by the new "willingness to be creative about short-term solutions."

For its part, though, Human Services played down the hotel placements, apparently intent on keeping them a tool of last resort.

In an interview, Fred Swann, head of DHS's Family Services Administration, stressed that hotel placements are typically made by charity groups and that the city hasn't embarked on any new policy.

Neither Swann nor DHS spokesman Reggie Sanders could say how many families have been given hotel accommodations.

During the hypothermia season, which runs from Nov. 1 to March 31, the District must provide shelter to people who have no other housing option.

This winter, with many families still struggling, shelter space once again has been in heavy demand. Ten units added since last year have helped, but the shelter has still been at capacity since Dec. 21, according to Sue Marshall, executive director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

The partnership, a nonprofit group that coordinates many of the District's homelessness services, has been operating the family shelter since last year, when the previous operator, Families Forward, was forced out.

Families Forward was fired in the midst of the overcrowding for failing to notify the city of allegations that staff members had propositioned shelter residents and in one case had had sex with a resident.

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