Referendum Measure Number 005

D.C. Emergency Overnight Shelter

Amendment Act

QUESTION: Referendum No. 005 rejects the 1990 Act that changes the current Right to Overnight Shelter Law ("Initiative 17"). The 1990 Act changes the current law ("Initiative 17") by: 1) Removing the entitlement (right) of homeless persons to overnight shelter; 2) Establishing a program (but no entitlement) for shelter and support services for the homeless; 3) Defining eligibility for receiving shelter, grounds for denying shelter, limits on length of stay, participation in costs by shelter occupants, and other requirements. Vote "FOR" Referendum No. 005 to reject the 1990 Act and retain the current law. Vote "AGAINST" Referendum No. 005 to permit the 1990 Act to become law.

EXPLANATION: A vote FOR Referendum No. 005 is a vote in favor of granting all homeless people a statutory right to adequate and accessible overnight housing upon demand, without any restrictions or requirements. The District will be held responsible for honoring that right. Any homeless person who requests but is not provided adequate shelter can sue the District for damages and legal fees.

Advocacy groups that provide shelter and other maintenance services for the homeless in the District believe that adequate and accessible overnight shelter is a basic human right. Public support of this concept was evidenced by the fact that 72 percent of the voters in 1984 voted in favor of Initiative 17.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has stated that although the 1990 Act was introduced in the D.C. Council more than a year and a half ago, it was not passed until June 1990 when the city needed emergency funds. A vote FOR Referendum No. 005 would prevent the government from using budget shortages as a basis for denying shelter for the homeless. The fiscal 1991 budget of $15 million is only half the $29.7 million appropriated in fiscal year 1990. Advocates of the referendum fear that the situation here is so acute the city must be compelled by law to care adequately for the homeless.

A vote FOR Referendum No. 005, in the opinion of its supporters, means acceptance of society's moral responsibility to provide shelter for the homeless as well as to provide those services and programs that are needed to address the root problems of homelessness. The cost of maintaining shelters is outweighed by the cost of increased police protection, medical care and human suffering resulting from the failure to care properly for the homeless.

Some groups, experienced in caring for the homeless, maintain that mismanagement accounts for increasing shelter costs. The $3,000 a month spent to house a family in a motel could be better spent in renovating boarded-up residences that could serve as homes for low-income families.

A vote AGAINST Referendum No. 005 is a vote to establish requirements for those receiving shelter (D.C. Emergency Overnight Shelter Amendment Act of 1990). Such a vote affirms the D.C. Council's act of 1990.

The Act established grounds for denying shelter, limits the length of stay to 30 days for a single person and 90 days for a family during a 12-month period, and requires that the shelter occupant contribute to the expense according to his or her ability to pay. Shelter occupants who do not enroll their children in school, who continually refuse employment, who refuse to accept permanent housing could be denied shelter, according to the 1990 Act.

A vote AGAINST Referendum No. 005 is a vote to remove the entitlement feature of Initiative 17 and develop a responsible and compassionate overnight shelter program.

The council's amendment, while continuing to provide shelter but not an entitlement, contains provisions for medical treatment, counseling and other services for shelter occupants to enable them to become self-sufficient.

There has been a steady escalation in the number of homeless individuals and the cost of shelter since 1985, when the Department of Human Services spent $10.3 million, exceeding the appropriated budget of $7.3 million. Since then, the department has exceeded its budget each year. As previously stated, in fiscal 1990 the department spent $40 million, although only $29.7 million was appropriated. It is projected that a similar amount will be spent in fiscal 1991 if the Referendum succeeds.

A vote AGAINST Referendum No. 005 is a vote to impose spending limits on emergency shelters. Advocates of defeating the referendum say that in view of the city's critical budget problems, the issue of overnight shelter entitlements for the homeless must be balanced with all the other needs of the city so that one concern does not overshadow equally serious social problems such as crime, drugs, education, health and so on.

(Explanation provided by the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia)