D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration has quietly begun a dramatic expansion of services for homeless families in the nation’s capital, abandoning a decades-old practice of offering shelter to homeless families only on freezing nights, according to documents and advocates for the poor.
The administration placed almost 150 families in motel rooms in June and July. In August, it has continued to ramp up the effort, according to advocates. A document circulated by city officials last week showed the unannounced program has been a test run for moving to year-round shelter and is expected to lessen the influx of homeless families into shelter this winter.
If that proves true, the move could help Bowser (D) deliver on her campaign promise to transform the District’s approach to its homeless crisis.
The District has experienced back-to-back years of record numbers of families entering shelter under a city law that gives the homeless a legal right to housing when the temperature falls below freezing.
The city is one of only a handful of jurisdictions in the country that makes shelter a right. But its rule on allowing in new families only on nights when there is a danger of hypothermia has been seen as part of the problem.
Families that have become homeless over the spring, summer and fall have flooded the city with applications for shelter on the first freezing nights of winter. Over the past two years, that has led to a backlog of hundreds of new families that city officials have struggled to properly assess and to ever help exit shelter.
Last winter, 1,942 families applied for shelter and 1,007, or 52 percent, were offered housing, city documents show.
Bowser’s administration has made strides in clearing out city shelters, moving as many as 100 families a month into temporary apartments and other transitional housing, but as of early last week, over 600 families still remained.
The District’s dilapidated family shelter on the site of the shuttered D.C. General Hospital campus remained at capacity with almost 250 families. An additional 350 families were in overflow motel rooms rented by the city.
Combined, that’s almost 1,200 children and over 800 mostly young, single parents in the care of the government. Roughly 1,200 single adults are also utilizing nightly shelters paid for by the city.
Laura Green Zeilinger, who oversees the agency coordinating city homeless services, has said in testimony before the D.C. Council that it would be the Bowser administration’s goal to eventually move to year-round shelter placement. But she has not previously provided a timetable for doing so, saying the city’s first task was to dig out from under the backlog of families in shelter.
Several officials in Bowser’s administration declined to comment on Monday. The mayor is expected to announce the change to year-round entry on Tuesday along with other initiatives to expedite finding housing for homeless families.
Acknowledgment of the administration’s move to year-round shelter entry, however, was included in this year’ s winter plan. The document circulated last week said a slightly smaller expected need for winter beds was due in part to “the District’s new policy to place families into shelter when they need it throughout the year rather than during hypothermic weather only.”
The plan is scheduled to be voted on Tuesday by the board of the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness. It also expands the definition of a hypothermic night, potentially greatly expanding the number of evenings when it becomes easier for families and singles to enter shelter.
According to the document, the city would issue an alert and accept applications for shelter entry when the temperature falls below 40 degrees instead of 32 degrees, so long as there is a 50 percent chance or better of precipitation.
Advocates for the homeless used data from Philadelphia and other cities, which have similar standards for hypothermia, to persuade city officials to expand the definition.
The winter plan also for the first time included data on hypothermic deaths in the city. Last winter, hypothermia was the cause or a contributing factor in 10 deaths in the District. However, the report said it could not determine if all 10 were homeless.
Advocates for the homeless praised the two moves to increase aid, saying they have seen anecdotal evidence of the new programs this summer, including a decision by the city to eventually provide a motel room for a family of six that was left homeless after a fire.
“If you can’t place someone when they are having an emergency, then you don’t have a safety net,” said Scott McNeilly, a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Still, McNeilly said it was too early to say if expanding access to shelter outside the winter months would ultimately reduce the burden on the city or increase it.
And there is evidence the latter may true. According to data provided to a working group on the issue, a record 500 families applied for emergency homeless shelter last month in the District.