Facing a surge in homelessness that has packed shelters to capacity for months, the city has stopped guaranteeing a place to stay for homeless families that first sought help in February and March.
As a result, at least 92 families were forced to search for safe spaces to sleep as temperatures warm up in the District. The shift has alarmed advocates who fear that the lack of shelter will destabilize families already enduring a traumatic time.
“They are turning their back on the public safety net that has helped to support these families,’’ said Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “It’s going to be harder for families to stay in touch [with caseworkers] because they are struggling to figure out how to sleep at night and how to have a home base.”
Under a 2005 city law, the District must provide homeless families with shelter whenever nighttime temperatures drop below freezing. In years past, the city has gone beyond its minimum legal obligation and continued to shelter families — at the former D.C. General Hospital campus and in motel rooms — after hypothermia season while helping them seek other housing. Some homeless families remain in city-provided shelter for a year or more.
But overwhelmed by a 135 percent increase in requests for family shelter this past winter, the city resorted to placing families in makeshift shelters in recreation centers, using partitions to create separate spaces for them. A judge recently deemed those accommodations inadequate.
The District has changed its emergency shelter policy as it applies to families that sought help after Jan. 31, offering assistance on a strict night-by-night basis during hypothermia season.
The city had no choice but to create a two-tiered system, David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services, said in a recent interview. “We didn’t do this as a money-saving measure,” Berns said. “We did this because the hotel operators said we had reached absolute capacity. . . . I had no choice.”
Before opening shelters in recreation centers, the city had placed 110 families in Cheverly and Silver Spring motels, but then, responding to the objections of officials in Maryland, it promised to end the practice.
Through March, the number of residents using the city’s shelter system has hovered around 4,000, including more than 600 families. But no more freezing nights are forecast before the end of the month, and Wednesday was probably the last night the 92 families that applied for help after Jan. 31 could count on shelter provided by the city.
Jenique Fultz, 25, mother of a 2-week-old daughter, woke up in a motel room to a warm, sunny Thursday and began to worry. “It’s too warm,” she said.“I need to find someplace for my baby. Maybe I can sleep on someone’s floor. . . . Maybe I’ll sleep in the hotel lobby.”
In a letter dated Wednesday to Mayor Vincent C. Gray, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) requested that “all homeless families currently in shelter be allowed to stay until the District has helped them secure housing.” The letter was co-signed by council members Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Anita Bonds (D-At Large).
“I don’t want to see these families put back into stairwells and bus shelters and at Union Station,’’ Graham, who chairs the Human Services Committee, said in an interview Thursday. “We need to find these families stable work and get them into good housing.”
Gray had not responded to the letter, Graham said. Gray’s spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, reiterated the mayor’s commitment to help homeless families find housing.
City attorneys have stated in court that the city is already more than $1 million over its budget for shelter services. But Dora Taylor, DHS spokeswoman, said the city should offer shelter if temperatures dip below freezing again.
Officials have committed to identifying 500 new units to house the homeless by June, a difficult task in a city whose affordable housing stock has dwindled as rents have increased.
Navigating the crisis are people such as Fultz, who said she was working part time in the kitchen of a college when her boyfriend kicked her out the house in June. Until March, she stayed on a friend’s couch. But the house was full, Fultz said, and she was asked to leave after she gave birth to Khalie.
Khalie was 5 days old when Fultz first applied at the city’s Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, on N Street NE, for a place to stay. The staff gave Fultz diapers and baby wipes, and mother and baby were placed at the Benning Park Recreation Center, at 5100 Southern Ave. SE., in a space defined by flimsy partitions.
“The partitions were so thin that anyone could just open them and have access to me and my baby,” Fultz said.
The next day, a shuttle took them and other homeless families back to the center to reapply for shelter. Outside, Fultz met a lawyer who was looking for homeless people to testify in the lawsuit challenging the city’s use of recreation centers as family shelters.
Fultz agreed to testify in the suit. On Monday, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the homeless families.
The attorneys for the homeless families paid for Fultz to stay in a hotel around the time of the court hearings, which coincided with an upturn in temperatures.
Then, on a brisk Tuesday, she applied for city shelter again and was moved into a motel near New York Avenue NE. A shuttle picked up the families and dropped them off the next morning. The same thing happened Wednesday.
On Thursday, Fultz woke up ready to reapply for shelter. But there was no shuttle. “It’s too warm, I guess,” she said.
She found a mother of two in the motel who had an old, green sedan. They packed clothes, cribs and a toy truck into the car and drove to the Virginia Williams center to ask again for help. “Maybe there’s hope,” she said.
Hours later, she was told that she had to find housing on her own. The sun set, but the temperature didn’t fall below 32 degrees. And she and her newborn had nowhere to go.