A D.C. Council decision to end the city's policy of providing unlimited shelter to the homeless would "punish and penalize children and their families and deny accommodations to as many as 180 homeless people a day," according to a mental health association assessment.
The Mental Health Association of D.C., which released a statement on the impact of the council's plans to overhaul the District's right-to-shelter law, said the action approved Tuesday could create undue suffering for homeless families and the mentally ill and result in lawsuits against the city.
"These proposed changes in the District of Columbia law will change the District from the jurisdiction with the most enlightened policy to one of the most punitive policies in the country," the statement said.
Meanwhile, the District's decision brought a sharp response from Rep. Ted Weiss (D-N.Y.), who asked the General Accounting Office to investigate what he called "cronyism" and "serious mismanagement" in the District's programs for the homeless.
"Millions of dollars are being wasted on dilapidated hotels and transitional apartments that are located in drug-infested neighborhoods," Weiss said in a letter to council members. "Many of the worst offenders are owned by men with close ties to the mayor."
Weiss expressed doubt in the letter that the council's action will reverse that trend. "Instead, the most basic emergency shelters . . . will be cut, while the city continues to pay Georgetown prices for dilapidated apartments and hotel rooms."
Should the GAO launch an investigation, it would become the second agency to probe District financing for homeless programs. D.C. Auditor Otis H. Troupe told Weiss's Government Operations subcommittee that he is preparing a "major" review of homeless programs that should be complete in August.
The council on Tuesday gave its tentative approval to the plan to set an annual limit on shelter funding for the homeless. If the funds run out at any point during the year, the shelter program would end unless the mayor transferred money from other city accounts.
The plan essentially would scale back Initiative 17, a law that requires the city to provide shelter to anyone who requests it, regardless of the cost.
The Mental Health Association's impact statement, circulated to the council before Tuesday's vote, urged council members to delay action on the proposal.
Anita Bellamy-Shelton, director of the Mental Health Association, an arm of the United Way that provides counseling and other assistance to homeless families, expressed hope that the council would reconsider the 28-page assessment before it takes a final vote in two weeks.
Council proponents of the plan said it would not result in a substantial increase in the number of homeless people in the District, estimated to be 12,000.
The Mental Health Association disagreed, citing several provisions in the plan that it said would result in shelter applicants being rejected or thrown out of facilities with their children. One, for instance, would mandate screening of shelter applicants, who would be required to provide background information before being admitted. The Mental Health Association, citing estimates that 25 percent of the homeless are mentally ill, said many of them would be rejected because they are unable to provide the needed information.
The council plan also would limit the stay of individuals in shelters to 30 days and impose a 90-day limit on families, ostensibly giving them more time to locate permanent housing. Under the plan, families exceeding the 90-day limit or violating shelter rules could be evicted.
The association said such expulsions "will create or perpetuate situations where children are not protected from neglect. These governmental actions will raise serious legal questions and may potentially create a liability" for the D.C. government.
The report said regular city evictions from private dwellings add as many as 180 people a day to the District's homeless population -- people who could wind up on the streets if no public shelter is available.