As hypothermia season officially begins Saturday in the District, controversy has erupted over whether the D.C. government is ready to help an estimated 840 families who are expected to need emergency shelter at some point during the winter.
District Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) this week criticized the District’s plans as “extremely inadequate.” He noted that it shows only 409 family shelter spaces are available, while the number of families likely to need shelter has increased by 16 percent from 723 last winter.
“We are going to be inundated,” said Graham, who chaired a hearing on the issue this week. “The need is more than double our current capacity, and the winter plan does not explain how we are going to deal with it. I’m terribly concerned we are going to face a situation worse than last winter.”
District officials disputed the criticism, insisting they are well prepared for the winter. They said that they had made a sustained effort to move families from the D.C. General shelter and other community shelters and that they would work this winter to reduce the number of families entering shelters and to speed up the number leaving shelters for alternative housing.
“Last year, when we started hypothermia season, we were already at capacity. This year we are in a much better position. We are ahead of the game,” said Dora Taylor, spokeswoman for the District’s Department of Human Services.
Taylor said the city had undertaken a “massive outreach” to landlords to find affordable family apartments, thus helping to make the 409 shelter spaces available. She said that the D.C. General shelter is now only half full and that about 300 apartment units are in the process of “leasing and matchup” with families.
The city’s winter plan states that an average of 52 families per month are leaving shelters, but it also notes that even if that exit rate can be maintained, by December “it is expected that overflow capacity will be needed.”
Christie Greenwald, who chairs the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, said that officials had closely studied how and when families used shelters last winter and that they now have a more specific and realistic plan for this winter, including overflow shelter arrangements with local churches and charities.
“Last year, the system got overwhelmed,” Greenwald said. “The real problem is the lack of affordable housing, but we can’t fix that overnight. Nothing will prevent the flow of families into the system, but we are working very hard to make sure overflow units are available and that we are staffed and resourced.”
Graham, who chairs the Council’s committee on human services, said he had continued the hearing until next week and had asked District officials to make improvements in the winter plan by then. However, he and several advocates for the homeless noted that there is a $10 million shortfall in the District’s budget for homeless services.
District Council member David Catania (I-At Large), a candidate for mayor, warned recently that the deficit could force officials to make “terrible choices” in where to place families on cold nights. Council member Muriel E. Bowser, (D-Ward 4) the front-runner in the mayoral race, said she favors finding more family apartments through a temporary subsidy program known as “Rapid Rehousing.” The next mayor will take office in January.
The District government is legally required to provide shelter to anyone who needs it on any night when the temperature falls below 32 degrees. Last winter was unusually harsh, with a total of 50 inches of snow falling in some areas of the District and cold temperatures lasting well into March.
When hypothermia season began last year, officials projected that 509 families would need shelter, but 723 families ended up needing help. Some had to be sent to motels in Maryland, which aroused objections there, and others were sent to recreation centers, which was later declared to be illegal.
This time, local advocates and service providers for the homeless said they want to be prepared for the worst.
“We are anticipating another really bad winter, and we’re going to start seeing temperatures fall into the 30s very soon. That’s why we have to start ramping up,” said Nechama Masliansky, the senior advocate at So Others Might Eat, a local nonprofit group that provides food and shelter.
Masliansky said a census of District shelters Thursday night showed that 194 families totaling 743 people were in some form of shelter, including 60 families in motels and 120 at D.C. General. There were also 890 individual men and 311 individual women in shelters.
Homeless advocates agreed that substantial progress had been made in working with landlords to house shelter families, including the short-term rapid rehousing voucher system. But officials said some landlords and families have objected because the placements and subsidies are temporary.
“It’s easy to move a family with one or two children, but when you have four or more it becomes very difficult,” Taylor said.