While Washington's suburbs have increased spending to shelter families beset by short-term housing crises, the most conspicuous segment of the homeless population--the rootless vagabonds--have been systematically steered to shelters in the District.
The suburbs provide money to house victims of fires, evictions and domestic violence, but few tax dollars are spent to shelter people who have been released from mental hospitals or prisons, or the hard-core street people who sleep in cars, on grates, in shacks, and under bridges.
Public and private agencies in the District spent $3.3 million last year to support five overnight shelters for nearly 1,000 men and women, about one-third of the city's total estimated homeless population. At the same time, the combined four-county suburban area provided fewer than 100 beds for the hard-core homeless. Most of those were in small shelters established by church groups and nonprofit organizations and staffed largely by volunteers.
"If they the homeless are able-bodied, we refer them to the free shelters in the District," says Louis Halter, director of the Prince George's County Emergency Shelter Services, which has an annual budget of $37,000 to help families forced from their homes through evictions or fire. "The need is being met by D.C. They are taking our people. We don't have the money. Maryland is lagging on that. But there is a committee of Prince George's County officials working on it now."
District officials and social workers, faced with a $700,000 budget cut that threatens to close two shelters, have begun to criticize the suburban governments for failing to establish their own homeless shelters.
"We simply do not have the resources to take care of the entire region's homeless citizens," says D.C. City Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), who heads the council's Human Services Committee. "Many of the surrounding governments do not have these shelter programs for homeless persons or dollars allocated for serving these people, but instead rely on services provided by the District or nonprofit organizations located in the District."
Employes at District shelters, public and private, say some suburban jurisdictions provide homeless people with a list of free D.C. shelters and, on occasion, bus or subway fare to get downtown.
"We're disturbed by it," says Michael Ferrell, director of three District-subsidized shelters for homeless men. "Last year we even had a Prince George's County police officer bring someone in here."
John Steinbruck of Luther Place Church, which operates one of the city's first shelters, says the District "has become the whirlpool" for the region's homeless population.
"It's another situation where the suburbs dump on us," Steinbruck says. "We have the bodies to document that they don't originate in the city. One of the infuriating things is that, to my knowledge, not one municipality has any money in the budget for homeless shelters. What they do is pester me."
Officials in the suburbs--Montgomery, Prince George's, Fairfax and Arlington counties, and the city of Alexandria--acknowledge that they have their share of hard-core homeless persons, and that most are referred to District shelters if they cannot be accommodated nearby.
But some officials say the outlying counties are being blamed unfairly for vagrants who would migrate to the inner city anyway. They say, also, that the suburbs open their costly and sophisticated counseling centers to anyone who walks in the door, including some persons from the District.
"The District will always say we're sending people there," says Thomas Forbes, a family services supervisor in Montgomery County. "The missions are there and people go there. It is a regional problem. They don't pay for all of it and we don't pay for all of it."
Although each suburban jurisdiction now has at least one small, privately run shelter (Alexandria and Arlington contribute some public funds to private shelters), many suburban human services officials say their local governments have not set up shelters because they have had too few homeless persons to warrant it.
"We have more street people than before , but there are so few that it doesn't appear to be a problem from our vantage point," says Carol Johnson, assistant administrator of the Montgomery County Department of Social Services, which will spend nearly $300,000 this year for its four-bed overnight emergency mental-health crisis center. "The street people tend to move from locality to locality."
If each suburb sends only a few street people "downtown," the total numbers into the District are enough, District officials say, to exacerbate overcrowding in the city's shelters. The burden has become especially heavy for volunteer and nonprofit organizations, many of which are ill-equipped to deal with the area's increasing number of mentally ill homeless persons.
"Realistically, the private providers are doing everything that they can do," says Tim Siegel of the Coalition for the Homeless. "They're getting tired and burned out and broke."
In part, the suburbs' willingness to send vagrants to the District reflects a social philosophy that, in the past, has succeeded in insulating the outlying jurisdictions from some of the inner city's blight.
"It's awfully hard here to get a shelter in any neighborhood," says Eleanor Kennedy of United Community Ministries in Fairfax County, which operates a private, non-profit 10-bed shelter for families evicted or burned out of their homes. "Most people don't want that type of thing in the neighborhood. It's hard enough to get a shelter for families or battered wives."
Montgomery's Forbes, whose family services agency provides emergency rent deposits and pays hotel bills for homeless families in housing crises, agrees. "Some of the people we are talking about are the hardest to place. Nobody wants them. A lot of communities don't want them, and that's a fact. Some of them are just downright trifling."
Some suburban officials say their governments purposely choose programs that are geared to homeless persons who want to change their life styles, rather than to traditional street people.
"It is a question of philosophy," says Forbes. "We still feel that the person is making choices and that he has to take responsiblity for himself. We will call the person to task about what they have been doing. We do that on purpose."
District officials and social workers say the suburbs need to build their own shelters because the recession has increased the number of homeless persons in the outlying areas, particularly those recently out of an institution or those who, for the first time, have lost their jobs and their credit.
"The homeless population is increasing and it is diversifying in D.C. and the suburbs," Siegel says. "So far the suburbs have been able to deal with cases involving a tragedy. But they have ignored a whole sector of the homeless, the chronic homeless."