The search for a makeshift emergency shelter for homeless families has led the administration of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) to a familiar spot: the Days Inn along New York Ave NE.
City officials, faced with what will likely be another surge in homeless families this winter, announced plans Friday to rent out the entire motel from December through May to provide shelter for 170 more families.
The city is also in the final stages of arranging to lease another motel, which would add an additional 90 units for homeless families. Deborah Carroll, the city’s interim director of the Department of Human Services, announced the plans at a public hearing, convened by Council Member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).
In recent years, the city has scattered some homeless families at the Days Inn and other motels along New York Avenue, as well as in neighboring jurisdictions, when the main emergency shelter at the old DC General became too full. But the new plans, which are not yet funded, go far beyond that. City officials said they would, in effect, be able to manage the motels, establishing curfews and providing security.
Carroll’s announcement was lauded by Graham and the city’s homeless advocates. Still, they wondered if the plans went far enough to address the city’s ongoing struggle with family homelessness.
If all goes according to plan, the city would be able to house fewer than 600 families at once. But city data show as many as many as 775 families were homeless in a single night during last winter, and the number of families seeking shelter this season is expected to increase 16 percent.
That crunch means that a big challenge remains to move families from shelters to housing as quickly as possible to make space for others, Graham said. He added that improving that “exit rate” involves increasing services to help the homeless.
“If we don’t have any services at these motels - things like job training, mental health counseling - this plan is not going to work,” Graham said. “There could be 500 children at this motel. What services are we going to have for them?”
It is also unclear how the city will fund the cost of leasing the motels, which officials vaguely estimated at under $1 million. The current budget does not allocate any money for one motel room, much less 170 of them.
At the hearing, officials said they planned on funding the plan and additonal services for homeleess families by reallocating $10 million from the budget of the city’s child welfare department. Yet Graham said officials in the department have been unwilling to give up that money, and it is unclear how the loss would affect child welfare services.
With the memories of last winter’s crisis still fresh, city officials are under great pressure to provide adequate shelter for homeless families, which it is legally mandated to do when the temperature dips below freezing.
Gray’s administration acknowledged it had a crisis on its hands last winter when the city ran out of space at the decrepit DC General and motel rooms across the city were all booked. It resorted to placing families in motels outside city limits and placing families behind partitions in recreation centers until that practice was deemed illegal.
Already as freezing weather descends, 207 of the 240 units available at DC General are occupied. It is expected to be full by the end of December.
Patricia Muhally Fugere, the executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the idea of renting out motels was “a whole lot better than the plan last year, and could help alleviate feelings of isolation that homeless families had when they were scattered in different motels.”
Dora Taylor, spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, said the city will be able to put case managers on site at the motels to help families find more stable housing. “It will operate as another shelter, just like DC General,” Taylor said.
The city has already started to move some families to the Days Inn, she said.
Meanwhile, caseworkers at the Virginia Williams Resource Centers have increased efforts to help families find alternatives to seeking shelter by asking them to live with friends or relatives. And city officials are still looking for more landlords willing to enroll in the city’s rapid rehousing program, which provides heavy rent subsidies to homeless families for a limited time.
“People say we do not have a plan,” Carroll said. “But we do have a plan.”