The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Homeless families still struggle to find shelter, nonprofit says

Nkechi Feaster sits in her D.C. General shelter room last year. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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A $100 million commitment to affordable housing was the centerpiece of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s State of the District speech Tuesday. But his administration is coming under fire for its ongoing handling of the city’s most pressing housing needs — shelter for homeless families.

A new report from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says the Gray administration has failed to make good on pledges to house all families in urgent need of shelter. In most cases, the nonprofit says, it is difficult for a family in need to secure shelter unless a lawyer intervenes with the District’s human services department or its homeless services contractor, the Community Partnership.

“In the current system, it is exceedingly more difficult for families who are homeless to access shelter during the winter than it is for unaccompanied adults,” the report reads. “The system’s front door has been blocked by unlawful procedures that have created almost insurmountable obstacles for far too many families trying to access emergency shelter this winter.”

In some cases, according to the report, families have been turned away simply because it was warm enough that the city was not legally obligated to provide beds. Generally, the nonprofit found, the standard under which families are offered emergency housing has been “inconsistently applied or poorly defined” by city officials. And families who are provided housing have described ongoing problems with the conditions at the 118-bed D.C. General shelter, including insufficient heat and hot water and bedbug and mice infestations.

The report did identify “significant progress” in one area: Many fewer families have been placed in hotels this winter versus last winter because the city has been able to move some families from D.C. General beds into more permanent housing. But the Legal Clinic said more needs to be done to maintain shelter capacity.

Reggie Sanders, a spokesman for the human services department, said in a statement that officials are “reviewing their concerns and will take any corrective actions that may be warranted.”

Sanders noted that the city in November opened a new family intake center, the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center at 33 N St. NE, that offers an “integrated approach” to housing homeless families that includes an examination of “more appropriate alternatives” to a D.C. General bed.

“This has been a massive systemic change and we have learned and improved this approach even as we implemented the new model,” he said.

What remains to be seen is whether some of Gray’s affordable housing commitment will extend to expanding the number of family shelter beds, decimated in recent years by federal and local budget cuts.