During a recent weekend, two women at the House of Ruth shelter for homeless women tried to commit suicide.
One succeeded. The other was taken to St. Elizabeths mental hospital, where she was stabilized and released after eight hours. She was then taken back to the shelter, where staff do not have the training to deal with suicidal persons.
These events are only one illustration of a desperate need for better psychiatric services for homeless persons and particularly at the shelters where they stay, said Sandra Brawders, executive director at the House of Ruth, who related the story at a hearing on homelessness yesterday.
In addition, of the 38 women at the shelter, eight are pregnant and have nowhere to go once they have their babies, she said. The women's backgrounds and needs vary widely: Some cannot read, for example, while one woman at the shelter has a PhD from Smith College, Brawders said.
Several shelter providers, testifying before the D.C. Commission on Homelessness, said an increasing number of homeless persons in the city is largely a result of deinstitutionalization of mental patients from facilities such as St. Elizabeths, and that community services for these persons are inadequate.
"The streets of the District of Columbia have become our mental wards," said Marie S. Nahikian, chairwoman of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, estimating that more than half of the homeless are chronically mentally ill.
"Community mental health services has to radically rethink its approach given this new community of mentally ill people," said the Rev. John Steinbruck, commission chairman. "We owe people more than a bowl of soup and a floor to sleep on."
Without services, today's shelters have become nothing more than the poor houses of old, Steinbruck said.
Steinbruck said he welcomed the mayor's announcement last week that he was creating a new D.C. office to coordinate city services for the homeless and said the commission hoped to use yesterday's testimony to develop proposals.
Meanwhile, the city announced that Dennis D. Bethea, former executive director of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, was named chief of the new office. Lorraine P. Rue, a Department of Human Services special assistant who has focused on homeless issues, was appointed deputy chief.
But Steinbruck and other providers also complained that the city and federal governments, while urging private charities to do more for the homeless, sometimes thwart such efforts.
"We have found the city's zoning and licensing rules and procedures work against real efforts to shelter the homeless," said John L. Carr, speaking for the Archdiocese of Washington. "They dramatically increase the time, cost and frustration of providing shelter, even when a site can be found."
Erna Steinbruck, who runs the Bethany daytime shelter at 14th and N streets NW, said that Luther Place Church hopes to do a $99,000 renovation at the rundown facility to add four showers, more toilets and a larger kitchen but that the efforts have been stalled by the city's inability to find a category for the shelter for purposes of a certificate of occupancy and a building permit.
"It's just bureaucratic baloney that is keeping us from starting the renovation," said Steinbruck, wife of the commission chairman. She said that they hope half of the money can be provided by a grant from the city and the rest would be raised privately.
Officials at the city's zoning board could not be reached late yesterday.