Melvin Wellington makes dinner for his family inside the cramped motel room. Chanda Davis is in center, wearing yellow. The children are, left to right, Chamel (age 7), Meliana, (age 1), and Melvin, Jr. (age 6). (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The nation’s capital is one of the few places in the country that guarantee homeless families a right to shelter. So when Chanda Davis faced eviction last winter from the apartment in Southeast Washington she shared with her four children, she thought she could count on D.C.’s Department of Human Services for help.

Davis got help she wasn’t expecting.

Instead of putting a roof over her family’s head, the city put bus tickets in their hands — and sent them on a one-way trip to North Carolina.

Davis, a 28-year-old Giant Food clerk, was one of 4,605 people — or 78 percent of applicants — rejected for family shelter last year in the District. Her case offers a front-line view of the hurdles homeless parents and children face in a system that promises shelter as a universal right but routinely turns away those who seek it.

The District’s shelter admission rate of 22 percent trailed those in comparable right-to-shelter jurisdictions, an analysis by The Washington Post found. New York City admitted 50 percent of family shelter applicants last year, and Massachusetts 44 percent.

D.C. officials say the number of rejections is largely attributable to a policy success: By weeding out families that aren’t eligible and finding alternative ways to help those that are — such as financial assistance or brokering ad hoc living arrangements with applicants’ relatives — they say they are preserving shelter as a true last resort.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is now pushing legislation that would further tighten shelter eligibility requirements, a move she says is necessary to ease the strain on a system coping with a population of homeless families that has nearly doubled over the past decade — and may be further swelled by people traveling from Maryland and Virginia to take advantage of the District’s right-to-shelter policy.

Already, the city is spending $80,000 a night on hotel rooms for families crowded out of the main shelter at D.C. General, officials say. They also assert that a quarter of the rooms rented by the city are not consistently used, suggesting that some people have other housing options despite claims of homelessness.

“We need to be able to hold that line if we’re going to make shelter available to the people who really need it,” said Laura Zeilinger, who heads the human services department. Distinguishing true need in the onslaught of demand is a “very difficult job,” she said.

District officials said they rarely direct homeless families to other cities or states, a widely discredited practice that homeless advocates mockingly call “bus-ticket therapy.” They said Davis, Melvin Wellington Sr., 29, and their children were one of only two families sent on long-
distance bus trips in the past six months.

But several other parents who have battled shelter rejections over the past year said they have also been detoured into questionable housing arrangements.

One said she was denied shelter and advised to illegally stay in her mother’s public housing unit; another that she was told to go back to the home where she said she had been attacked by an abusive husband who was under a restraining order.

Their accounts suggest that what city officials call an overly permissive screening process can look very different to those on the outside trying to get in.

Davis said her own family’s story shows how efforts to triage shelter applicants, however well-intentioned, can go wrong.

Once she and her children arrived in North Carolina, District officlials’ plan for them to move in with an estranged relative unraveled. Within days they were on the street — and 300 miles away from the job and school they had left behind.

After they returned to the District with financial help from parents in her daughter’s D.C. Girl Scouts troop, Davis found a lawyer and successfully appealed her shelter determination.

The family was placed in a motel, but she said she is still angry about a bureaucracy she thinks went to extremes to keep her family off the shelter rolls.

“I cried in front of these people. I pled my case in front of them. They didn’t care,” Davis said. “They didn’t bat an eye when I told them how reluctant I was to go to another city when I was established here.”

Campaign promises

Bowser has actually made the city’s shelter system significantly more welcoming than it was under her predecessor, former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). During Gray’s last year in office, the District admitted just 9 percent of families that applied for shelter.

Bowser, who declined to comment for this story, campaigned against Gray in 2014 promising a more liberal policy, and her administration has won plaudits from homeless advocates for opening the shelters year-round. Gray admitted families only on nights cold enough to trigger a hypothermia alert.

But some say the system is still impenetrable for too many.

Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said intake workers appear to lack clear guidelines on how to assess need and when to encourage other housing options, such as staying with relatives. She said clinic lawyers frequently persuade senior city officials to reverse decisions made at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the central intake point for homeless families.

“To me, it is a sign of a broken system that someone can go to the family resource center and be denied and I can tell their same story to the senior leadership . . . and they get admitted,” Harding said. “You shouldn’t need a lawyer to get into emergency shelter.”

At a D.C. Council Committee on Human Services hearing last month, Harding said that “no other public benefit is as erratically and inconsistently provided to applicants.”

Latanya Campbell, 27 and a mother of three, was jobless and unable to pay rent when she turned to the city for help last year. Instead of admitting her family to a shelter, she said, a social worker directed them to continue staying with her mother in a one-bedroom D.C. Housing Authority unit that bars tenants from hosting guests for more than 30 days. (When she applied for shelter, Campbell said, she was already over the limit.)

The Budget Motor Inn on New York Avenue houses many homeless families in the city. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The city referred her to a nonprofit organization for assistance finding housing, but no options have panned out, she said. For almost a year, she and her children have been sleeping in her mother’s living room. “You have to go beyond and beyond to get help,” she said.

Keisha McDonald, a 27-year-old security guard with three children between the ages of 3 and 9, abandoned her apartment in Southeast last spring after an alleged attack by her then-husband. She said in a court filing he had punched her, broken her cellphone and threatened to kill her. The judge in the case issued a one-year protective order.

Several months later, after spending four weeks in a Virginia hotel through an emergency housing program for domestic-violence victims and staying with relatives and friends, she requested shelter for her family at the Virginia Williams center. They were granted an interim placement in a District hotel for five days, but then told they were ineligible for long-term shelter because her name was still on the lease to her old apartment.

She found a lawyer and successfully appealed. The city “tried to figure out every way not to help me,” McDonald said. “It was really horrible. I really needed someplace to stay, and I was running from a bad situation.”

City officials declined to comment on individual cases, citing client confidentiality. Dora Taylor-Lowe, a spokeswoman for the department of human services, said in a statement that if a family is deemed homeless but has a safe place to stay for at least one night, intake workers will try to find options besides shelter and “will often conduct mediation with relatives or friends of a family to negotiate a short-term stay with supports offered when needed.”

She said there are “no circumstances” in which the agency “would encourage the placement of any family or individual in an unsafe or unwelcoming environment” and that “a family is never placed in a diversion arrangement without their consent.”

She also said that families receiving rental subsidies through the city’s rapid re-housing program are immediately moved to another apartment if they report domestic violence.

McDonald, who was in rapid re-housing at the time of the alleged attack by her husband, said she told her caseworker about the incident but was not found a new apartment.

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, said many cities attempt to winnow applications for family homeless shelters, which are costly to run and can be uncomfortable — and sometimes dangerous — for small children.

Eligibility rules and tactics for diverting homeless families into other housing options are valuable tools in that process, she said. But they have to be applied with care.

“It’s complicated,” Roman said. “Where is the line between someone who really is homeless and has no other options, and someone who you think has options and they don’t think they have options?”

‘Something they forced on us’

Having dinner in the cramped motel room are Meliana (age 1), Melvin Jr. (6), Chamel (age 7) and foreground, Kimel, (age 4). (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Davis and Wellington settled in the District five years ago and began to build the rudiments of a stable upbringing for their children, now 7 and younger.

They enrolled their eldest daughter and son in the well-
regarded Miner Elementary School, where Melvin Wellington Jr., 6, received the “Mr. Responsible” award in his kindergarten class. Chamel Wellington, 7, joined a Daisy troop on Capitol Hill.

“They’re a family that’s really working hard,” said Laura Brown, a Capitol Hill attorney who is co-leader of Chamel’s troop.

Although Davis held a steady job at a grocery store in Cathedral Heights, Wellington worked only sporadically as an inventory clerk and deliveryman for kitchen appliances. By last fall, the family had cycled once through homelessness in the District and been placed in a two-bedroom apartment north of Fort Circle Park with a rapid re-housing subsidy.

In November they could no longer afford the rent and agreed to move out when threatened with eviction, Davis and Wellington said. When they went to Virginia Williams to request emergency shelter, they said their case worker, Lisa Watford, instead urged the family of six to board a Greyhound to Goldsboro, N.C., where they would stay in the two-bedroom apartment Melvin’s mother, Yvette Wellington, shared with her boyfriend.

Davis and Wellington said they agreed to go, thinking their other option was the street.

“It was something they forced on us,” Wellington said. “There’s a reason I don’t live with this lady. There’s a reason I don’t talk to this lady.”

The family’s account of their experience at Virginia Williams was confirmed by Carol Betts, a D.C. Public Schools teacher who accompanied them on one of multiple visits to the center before the trip to North Carolina.

Betts, who teaches Melvin Jr. at Miner Elementary, said she assumed that the plan to bus the family across state lines stemmed from a misunderstanding that could be sorted out by someone fluent in the workings of D.C. bureaucracy. She was wrong.

“A lot of people give you their view of stuff, and they exaggerate. These people weren’t exaggerating,” Betts said of Davis and Wellington. She said Virginia Williams was rife with “a culture that has existed in the District for many decades: ‘I’ve got my job, and my job is to tell you no, and to find all the different ways I can tell you no.’ ”

Watford, the family’s case worker, declined to comment on the case. Zeilinger said it was not city policy to relocate homeless families outside the District against their will.

“We would never, ever send somebody out of town if it was not their willing choice to want to go there,” she said. “They need to be able to want to go, and there needs to be somebody on the other end willing to receive.”

Reached by telephone in North Carolina, Yvette Wellington, 52, recalled her conversation with the case worker who phoned. “She was like, they was homeless or whatever, and blah, blah, blah,” Yvette Wellington said.

“I said, ‘No, I can’t take none of them,’ ” she said. “But the next thing I know, Chanda and Melvin and all the kids were at my house.”

Kimel Wellington, 4, enjoys a drink of milk after dinner in the cramped motel room the family shares. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Chanda Davis and her family were denied shelter in the District. Eventually they came back to the area and were placed in one of the motels handling shelter overflow. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

After a few tense days, Melvin and Yvette Wellington argued, and the family left. “I don’t have a problem taking care of them kids, but I ain’t taking care of no grown-ups,” Yvette Wellington said. “They homeless ’cause they want to be f---ing homeless.”

With what money they had, the family checked into a hotel in Goldsboro. Davis went online and started a GoFundMe account, which quickly filled up as word of the family’s predicament spread at Miner Elementary and among Girl Scouts parents.

On the family’s return to the District, Brown helped Davis find an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who persuaded city officials to place the family in a motel.

Brown said she could recognize a sensible rule — putting families in shelter only as a last resort — applied without common sense.

“It ostensibly makes sense, except when someone tries to impose the policy in a way that is absolutely absurd, which it was in this case,” Brown said. “She left a job. She pulled her kids out of a school they had been enrolled in for years. It was absurd the extent to which she was uprooted in the name of homelessness prevention.”

This story has been updated to clarify the job titles of some D.C. officials who work with the homeless.


Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.