D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is interviewed by a TV reporter outside a Cheverly motel. (Mike DeBonis/The Washington Post)

The surge in the number of homeless D.C. families — one that has far outstripped the city’s shelter capacity amid recent cold weather — led one mayoral candidate to level attacks Tuesday on incumbent Vincent C. Gray.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) invited reporters to meet him at a Maryland motel where as many as 60 families have been placed by the D.C. Department of Human Services. The city government guarantees shelter to residents during periods of cold weather, and it has long been the practice to place families in hotel rooms if shelter space is exhausted. But it is rare, perhaps unprecedented, for families to be sent to spaces outside the city limits because spaces inside have been exhausted.

Wells compared the current conditions to the city’s homeless epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. “The fact that we’re having to recruit hotels in Maryland has shown that we are at a level of crisis,” he said, outside a Howard Johnson in Cheverly, just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

Wells provided figures compiled by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the city contractor that manages homeless family placements, showing 436 families with a combined 849 children staying in hotels Monday. Two of the hotels, he said, are located outside the District.

The hotels are much better than no shelter, Wells acknowledged, but he lambasted the Gray administration for not doing more to keep families in their homes by providing emergency rent supplements and other short-term housing assistance. He also noted the high cost of hotel placements — $1 million a month or more — and noted the city should have been better prepared, given the fact that the city’s main shelter for homeless families, on the D.C. General Hospital campus, has been at capacity even during the warmer months.

“This is a failure of the administration to prepare for this,” he said. “This is really outrageous.”

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro bristled at the criticism Tuesday, calling Wells’s trip to Cheverly “a shameless and disgusting political stunt that demonstrates [Wells] will sacrifice the dignity of those seeking public assistance to try to score cheap political points.”

The recent cold snaps, Ribeiro said, have strained the city’s capacity as families from around the region use the District and its guaranteed-housing policy as a “safety valve” to find shelter. He added that, despite Wells’s criticism, the city’s homeless-services spending of more than $100 million yearly is many multiples of any other regional jurisdiction’s spending.

“The system is working how it is supposed to work,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but it’s the system we have.”

Gray has highlighted his move to commit $187 million in city funds to the long-term production or preservation of affordable housing units. But the rapidly rising costs of housing in the city have complicated efforts to provide short- or medium-term relief.

A limited supply of affordable apartments has stymied efforts to quickly move the homeless out of shelters and into permanent housing. A Human Services official, Sakina Thompson, told the D.C. Council in October that rising rents had slowed the “rapid rehousing” program. “We want to make their rent reasonable, not impossible,” she said. “And that takes time.” Meanwhile, rising rents have made emergency rent assistance vouchers, in some cases, insufficient to keep families in their homes.

As for “sacrificing the dignity of those seeking public assistance,” those staying at the Howard Johnson fully maintained their dignity, because no actual homeless D.C. residents were present for Wells’s visit. Wells and a staff member, before arriving, had been in touch with two families staying there, but they could not make contact once they arrived.

Wells was greeted instead by Todd Peterson, the hotel’s general manager, who was none too happy about having a mini media circus in his parking lot without any heads-up from the council member or his staff. “It would have been nice to be notified,” he said after Wells pulled up.

Wells smoothed over the ambush, making clear his problem is with the Gray administration, not the hotel: “You’re playing a very humanitarian role, and I just can’t say enough about Howard Johnson stepping up like this,” he told Peterson.

Peterson declined to say how much the city was paying to house families there, but he said Wells’s suggestion of $100 per night was “in the ballpark.” He described how the hotel has gone out of its way to accommodate the families, opening a conference room for meals, homework and playtime, and handing out Popsicles to the kids staying inside.

“We are a hotel, and we have to look out for the traditional guests, but we also have a larger group than normal this winter that needs care, too,” Peterson said.