D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration has been seeking out motels that could be used this winter as makeshift emergency family shelters in an effort to handle the expected surge in homeless families, according to internal documents and interviews with city officials.
Securing the facilities could help prevent a repeat of the pratfalls that occurred last winter, when officials said they had no alternative to placing families in Maryland motels and city recreation centers, until a judge ruled that the latter is illegal. At that point, the shelter at the dilapidated, old D.C. General Hospital had filled to the brim, and city motels were booked up.
Pressure has been mounting from advocates for the city to come up with an effective plan for the cold months, when city law requires officials to provide shelter for the homeless when temperatures dip below freezing. At least 840 families are expected to seek shelter this winter, 16 percent more than last year’s unprecedented number. With Gray (D) in the twilight of his term as mayor, another homeless crisis this winter would certainly tarnish his legacy.
Last month, according to internal documents obtained by The Washington Post, the city reached out to at least nine companies to submit proposals to provide “hotel accommodations” in which to house homeless families. Officials plan to put out a public solicitation for even more proposals Thursday.
The deadline to submit proposals is Friday and officials will review them over the weekend, according to a senior Gray administration official who asked not to be named because the plans were pending.
The biggest critics of the administration’s treatment of the homeless found its latest efforts encouraging.
“It’s a signal that the city is doing better planning about how to handle all these homeless families,” said Kate Coventry, a policy analyst for the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Even so, Coventry called the plan “a short-term solution.”
“I hope the new mayor makes the redevelopment of housing for homeless families a top priority,” she said.
It remains unclear just how many motel rooms the new plan will provide and how the city will pay for them. The current city budget was based on optimistic projections about the pace at which the city could find housing for homeless families, so much so that it did not allocate a single dollar to renting motel rooms for them. It’s also unclear whether the city’s newly elected mayor, Muriel E. Bowser (D), will embrace the plan or whether she will be able to amend it.
“The big question is, where is the money?” said Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), the Council member who oversees the city’s human services committee.
Graham, who has sometimes openly speculated that Gray would punt on homeless issues and leave them for the new mayor to resolve, applauded the latest move. The Council member had long been a proponent of putting families in motel rooms because it gives families a “sense of privacy and dignity,” he said, while avoiding some of the squalid conditions that have plagued D.C. General.
The new strategy would go even further than sprinkling families along New York Avenue when D.C. General got too full.
Renting out a single motel or building would make it easier for case managers to interact with residents, a Gray official said. It would also allow the city to enforce shelter rules, such as curfews.
Last month, the administration released a plan to shut down D.C. General and replace it with smaller homeless shelters sprinkled around the city. That plan was met with criticism by advocates because of its ambitious scheduling and lack of funding.
Following a barrage of criticism after the disappearance of 8-year-old resident Relisha Rudd last winter, the city invested in long-desired improvements to D.C. General. A $450,000 playground has been built. Kenneth Diggs, a spokesman for the city’s Department of General Services, said his department has doubled its spending on pest control, roof repairs and plumbing at the facility this fiscal year.
Officials are also still working on helping homeless families find suitable housing.
By placing an average of 64 homeless families a month into apartments, the city was able to start off this year’s “hypothermia season” — which began Nov. 1 — with vacancies in 126 of the 248 rooms at D.C. General, said Deborah Carroll, the city’s interim director of human services. That rate is not enough to empty the facility, Carroll said, but it is progress.
“We’re already ahead of the game,” Carroll said, “and we’re going to keep getting better.”