Homeless families in the District will likely have to take additional steps to prove they’re eligible for shelter on freezing winter nights after the D.C. Council on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to the laws that govern homeless services in the nation’s capital.
The legislation’s backers — including Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who originally proposed the changes — say the new eligibility requirements are needed to make sure the city’s overburdened shelter system is used by those who need it most.
But some advocates for the homeless say the rules — which, among other things, require that those who live on the streets provide detailed documentation that they were District residents before becoming homeless and that they have no other safe housing options — will lead to many being turned away with nowhere to go.
The mayor praised the council’s action in a statement Tuesday.
“As we continue to produce and preserve affordable housing across all eight wards, this legislation will ensure that our most vulnerable residents are always first in line for the resources and support they need to get back on their feet,” Bowser said.
Officials said it is unlikely that the new rules will be in place for this winter, when demand for shelter peaks.
The council voted 10 to 2 in favor of the bill, with members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) opposing it. Council member Brandon T. Todd (D-Ward 4) was absent.
Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said that while he had “profound concerns” about the bill when it was introduced in May, it had been revised in ways that would soften the strict shelter-entry requirements originally envisioned.
Among other changes, council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), chairwoman of the Committee on Human Services, reduced the number of documents the homeless must present to demonstrate D.C. residency and included a “catch-all” provision that would allow the city to accept any document as proof of residency on a case-by-case basis.
“This bill is far better than it was when it was introduced,” White said Tuesday. “Our residents are demanding that we do more for those who have the least, not less.”
Still, many advocates for the homeless had opposed the council’s approach to curtailing shelter access, and more than 40 organizations — including the ACLU of D.C., Bread for the City, the D.C. Public Defender Service and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless — signed a letter to D.C. lawmakers last month urging them to reconsider.
Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said after the vote Tuesday that the final version of the bill “created an unworkable standard for families to get into shelter.”
The new law comes as the District continues to struggle with a dearth of affordable housing and one of the nation’s worst homelessness crises. A survey of 32 U.S. cities last December found that the District had the highest per capita rate of homelessness.
While the District is one of the few places in the country that guarantees a legal right to shelter on freezing nights, thousands of families seeking help are still turned away each year. In November and December of 2016, the city rejected about two-thirds of the families who applied for emergency shelter, according to figures from the D.C. Department of Human Services.
City officials say their gatekeeping efforts preserve shelters as a true last resort for those who need it and that many applicants can be helped in other ways, such as financial assistance or help finding a place to stay with relatives.