As snow began to fall Friday, one of the urgent preparations that District officials made was to send city workers out of the nation’s capital in vans, armed with bags of groceries and store gift cards.
Their mission: Find the hundreds of homeless families that the city has placed in roadside motels in Maryland.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s effort to shelter more homeless families this winter has turned out to have dire consequences: The city has more than 1,000 families in its care but has run out of shelter space and maxed out the number of second-rate motel rooms in the city where it can place homeless families, according to documents and interviews.
With nowhere to turn and more families seeking help each day, Bowser’s administration this month began gobbling up vacant rooms across the border in Maryland. It is not the first time that the D.C. government has been forced to relocate families, but the numbers sent outside the District limits were close to a record, city officials said. There were 211 families, including almost 700 parents and children, in Maryland motels on the eve of the storm and could be inaccessible for days.
Many of the families, often young single mothers with multiple children, will be on their own to ride out the storm, city officials acknowledged, most with no way to reach grocery stores.
Laura Green Zeilinger, Bowsers’s head of homeless services, said the District was working to reach every one of the families before the snowfall began.
“Our staff is doing a whole host of things, making sure they have food, and a plan, meal cards and if need, making sure they have bags of groceries,” Zeilinger said of the homeless families. But she added that each family will ultimately have to take responsibility for themselves. “Yes, they will be marooned, just like everybody in the city will be marooned. That’s why we’re getting out to them in advance.”
But the families placed in Maryland were not the city’s only concern regarding its homeless population.
Teams were out Friday afternoon scouring the city for single men and women, some suffering from mental illnesses, who had not yet agreed to come into shelters during the storm.
Early in the week, the District took the step of declaring a cold-weather emergency, meaning that shelters would remain open and meals would be served at them throughout the day in hopes that homeless individuals would hunker down where they could remain fed. Typically, about 1,500 homeless men and women in the District must leave shelters each morning and return at night to claim a bed.
By Friday, however, dozens of people had not taken the city up on its offer for continuous shelter and were still camped out in tents and under blankets in plain view on downtown streets.
Bowser (D) warned that by Friday evening, caseworkers for the homeless would begin traversing the city with police and representatives from the city’s Department of Behavioral Health to determine if they could make rationale decisions about their care. The city can commit individuals against their will, forcing them to be evaluated by doctors on freezing nights.
“We are most concerned about people who want to stay outside and will be exposed to the elements for any considerable period of time,” Bowser said at a Friday morning news conference. “We do have authority to make sure they are safe and inside.”
Zeilinger said the District had also opened recreation centers as temporary homeless shelters for singles, allowing, in some cases, men and women to come in together who may be couples and who might otherwise refuse assistance because they would have to be separated in shelters for men and women.
Zeilinger said the city’s goal is to prevent anyone from weathering the storm outside, and if anyone sees someone outside, they should report it.
“I hope people understand that if they see somebody that they think needs help, they can call the shelter hotline, we will be out there to provide that help,” she said.
But as the city comes through the storm, the surging number in shelters and motels portends continued problems long after the cleanup, said legal advocates for the homeless.
The number of families seeking emergency housing assistance is far ahead of the pace that the Bowser administration and homeless experts expected, meaning the number of families in motels could soon eclipse records set last year, with many weeks of winter and peak demand remaining.
The Bowser administration got to this point in part by trying to tamp down on a perennial surge in families that seek rooms during the winter, when a city law requires the District to provide emergency housing to any resident who does not have it.
Promising to be more welcoming to homeless families, Bowser’s administration went on the offensive last summer, placing more than 430 families in motel rooms before cold weather triggered the law requiring it to do so. Zeilinger said spreading out the window of when families could enter shelter would be better for both the families in need, and for caseworkers charged with assisting them.
That move pushed the number of families at the city’s dilapidated homeless shelter for families at the site of the former D.C. General Hospital campus, and in overflow motel rooms, to a combined 700 families at the start of winter — 250 percent higher than at the outset of any previous winter.
Despite the effort to preload families into shelters and motels, demand continued, even during a mild start to winter. An additional 450 families have streamed into the city’s service center since November and been placed in motels.
With a combined 1,000 families now in shelter, the city is grappling with another familiar problem of trying to exit those families into subsidized apartments fast enough to make room for more incoming families.
Under Bowser, the District increased the pace of exits to its rapid rehousing program to a peak of 146 in March, but over the second half of last year, that rate fell to an average fo 68 per month.
Zeilinger said the city has encountered increasing difficulty in convincing landlords to allow homeless families with poor credit to sign leases, even though they are subsidized heavily for at least a year by the city.
In addition to the 1,000 in shelter and motels, the District now has over 1,000 former homeless families in housing subsidized at a rate of about 90 percent.
Amber Harding, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the large numbers represent a deeper problem with a lack of affordable housing in the city. “These families weren’t homeless before they lost housing,” she said.
But Harding sees a more immediate need with how the city is moving families into Maryland. Even before grappling with the snowstorm, she said some parents have been unable to figure out how to manage getting their kids back into D.C. to attend school -- let alone to begin looking for work.
And there’s an even bigger problem looming of potentially running out of motel space in Maryland too, she said.
“This year we are probably going to reach historic levels of need and that means we are really nearing a crisis,” Harding said. “I’m concerned about the number of motels left in D.C. or Maryland that will rent to us.”
Zeilinger said the city will not put a cap on the need and will continue finding rooms for families — even if it is more than the city has ever rented.
“We continue to plan and revise our plan so we can meet that need. People are very concerned because the numbers are high, we’re very concerned because the numbers are high,” Zeilinger said. “But we do not judge success by whether we projected the right need, but if we’re meeting the immediate need. . . . There’ s a lot of need out there and we are serving a lot of people.”