Operators of a Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter are turning away 30 to 60 homeless men a week without pressing the city government to house the men elsewhere in accordance with a law that guarantees overnight shelter to all homeless residents.
CCNV leader Mitch Snyder, whose group spearheaded the voter initiative that resulted in the right-to-shelter law, has decided not to take legal steps to force the city to shelter the men.
"We are disinclined to pursue legal remedy as long as the city is making a good-faith effort to create more space," Snyder said.
Snyder acknowledged that some of the people turned away from his shelter are not receiving the benefit of the law, which was approved by the voters in 1984 and sustained by the courts last year after an unsuccessful challenge by the District government.
Marjorie Hall Ellis, the District's social services commissioner, said yesterday city-contracted shelters have not turned away anyone seeking shelter. But, she added, "We do not have a bed for every homeless person. There is no question about that."
In general, the city provides shelter to those who request it directly from city-contracted shelters. The District, however, does not seek out homeless people turned away by private shelters, such as the CCNV facility.
Snyder cited as evidence of good faith the District government's plan to help CCNV nearly double the planned bed space -- 1,700 beds instead of 1,000 -- at CCNV's shelter at Second and D streets NW by converting single beds into bunk beds. As a result of the additional beds, Snyder said, the shelter will provide 50 to 100 new beds a week until the end of February.
The shelter, which is undergoing an extensive federally financed renovation, currently has a capacity of about 600 beds. Completion of the facility's renovation is expected at the end of January.
"We can't kick the city in the teeth while they are spending money to add space to this building," Snyder said.
In addition to purchasing beds for the CCNV shelter, the District government has created additional beds for the homeless by setting up six mobile trailer shelters.
While the city moves to create more space, some shelters are experiencing a pinch aggravated by the onset of cold weather. During the last two months, the only room available in the city-contracted Blair and Pierce shelters for men has been "sit-up" space.
The shelters have a combined capacity of 300 beds, plus an additional sit-up capacity of 50 men. When the total capacity has been exceeded, the overflow crowd is placed in the shelters' dining areas, said Michael Ferrell, director of the shelters.
Snyder maintained that supporters of the right-to-shelter law never expected the city to be able to shelter the estimated 6,000 homeless people on the streets on any given night. Efforts to force the city to do so could result in undesirable shelter conditions, such as having the homeless spend their nights sitting in chairs, he said.
"People are not going to come in for sit-up space," Snyder said. "They are better off wrapped up in newspaper in an abandoned building."
Criticism of the city's efforts to provide shelter has surfaced periodically since last summer when some shelter providers first warned that the need for more shelters had reached a critical stage.
During the fall, operators of shelters for single homeless women threatened to occupy a government building if the city did not create additional shelter space.
While some of the critics say they are satisfied that the city is moving to create more shelters, Maria Foscarinis, spokeswoman for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said she is not convinced that the city is making a good-faith effort.
During the summer, the coalition filed a lawsuit accusing the city of refusing to shelter homeless families. Although the city never said that families were turned away, it settled the lawsuit by entering an agreement that included drafting regulations for the implementation of the right-to-shelter law.
Foscarinis said the city still has not written the regulations, which she maintains are critical to avoid confusion about when District residents are entitled to the benefits of the law.