It is distressing to see how D.C. officials have distorted information about their efforts to bring homeless people in from the cold.
In October, the city made public its winter plan for the homeless, but when the weather turned frigid, it was apparent that little had been done to implement the plan and that the city was ill-prepared to provide shelter. Resistance from Mayor Anthony Williams undermined the community's ability to secure and prepare appropriate sites to help save fragile lives when the cold weather took hold.
With much public pressure -- and the threat of litigation -- and through the efforts of a small group of dedicated employees at the D.C. Department of Human Services, additional space to shelter families was opened last month at D.C. Village in Southwest, the city's overflow family shelter. While this space can accommodate 18 small families, it certainly did not triple the existing capacity for family shelter, as the mayor recently claimed.
Last month (21/2 months into hypothermia season), the same dedicated city staff helped bring on line another 18 units for families at D.C. General Hospital -- a good start, but not the 25 units that had been promised.
The shelter system for single adults has been fraught with difficulties as well. In past administrations, the city opened the basement of the John A. Wilson Building, a conference room at One Judiciary Square and meeting space in the Reeves Center to people who were resistant to traditional shelters. Certainly, putting up cots in public spaces is not a long-term solution to homelessness, and it is no substitute for permanent housing, but it can save lives. This winter and last, however, the mayor said no to the use of these facilities and instead has pressured churches and other service providers to expand their capacity.
The city also has reportedly spent $200,000 for work on the electrical and heating systems at the vacant Franklin School at 13th and K streets NW, so the building can be used as temporary overflow space for the homeless. But a walk through the building makes one wonder where the money went: Extension cords snake through the halls to space heaters, the floors are buckled, and paint is peeling. Judging by the age of the property, that paint may be laden with lead.
The Franklin School was scheduled to open as a shelter on Dec. 1, but when it finally opened on Jan. 16, it was at only about one-third of capacity because of delays in the delivery of beds.
The District must commit this winter to allowing the use of public buildings for temporary shelter. Such a commitment requires no repairs. Utilities are already turned on, and security systems are in place.
In December, the mayor's spokesperson said that in "catastrophic" circumstances, Williams would open more city buildings. But one homeless person has already died, on Jan. 17, and other deaths are rumored. How many lost lives equal a catastrophe to the mayor?
-- Patricia Mullahy Fugere
-- Mary Ann Luby
are, respectively, executive director
and outreach coordinator
of the Washington Legal
Clinic for the Homeless.