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Mayor Vincent Gray showed more ‘tough love’ than urgency in handling D.C. homeless crisis

Mayor Vincent Gray (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

The thermometer read a mild 55 degrees and the cherry blossoms had passed their peak Thursday when District Mayor Vince Gray officially launched the centerpiece of his plan to accelerate moving homeless families out of the city’s overburdened shelter program.

Great timing, Mr. Mayor.

Robert McCartney is The Post’s senior regional correspondent, covering politics and policy in the greater Washington, D.C area. View Archive

Where were you in the fall, before hypothermia season? Before the unprecedented surge in poor young mothers and their kids seeking a roof? Before we’d heard of Relisha Rudd?

The Gray administration’s failure to anticipate or respond effectively to the winter homelessness crisis will go down as a low point of his term. It also puzzled many in the District, who wondered how the problem could have arisen under a mayor with a long career of serving the poor and homeless youths.

“The last three months have been perplexing. Given the mayor’s background in human services, I’m still shaking my head. What happened here?” said a District housing advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending city officials with whom she works.

I found two main answers to her question, based on interviews with six advocates for the homeless and two administration officials.

First, Gray’s team was slow to act. It had mostly good policies and claimed to have enough money. But it didn’t assign enough staff to deal with homelessness, spend all its available dollars or treat the matter with sufficient urgency.

Second, and more surprising, Gray and his top deputies show limited sympathy for homeless families. Theirs is a “tough love” approach, emphasizing self-sufficiency and openly skeptical of whether many families truly need city assistance.

Basically, they think a lot of young parents ought to shack up with relatives or friends rather than seek a public handout.

It’s unexpected in a city that prides itself on its liberal Democratic philosophy.

Maybe Gray’s experience with the poor made him hard-headed and realistic. He was the city’s director of human services in the 1990s and executive director of Covenant House, which serves homeless youth.

Whatever his motive, the mayor can’t take pride in the city’s recent lackadaisical performance.

Last year, the city fell behind its own schedule for finding subsidized apartments to place the more than 270 families suffering at the now-notorious shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital.

The emergency occurred in the winter, when a flood of new families came seeking beds. Because D.C. General was full, the city had to place them in motel rooms at a cost of nearly $150 a night.

As the crisis peaked in February, the administration focused more on discouraging families from entering shelters than helping those present to move on to subsidized housing.

That explains the unseasonable timing of Thursday’s “Quality D.C. Housing Now” initiative. It aims to move 500 families from the shelter program into affordable housing within 100 days.

“This is something that’s really good, but it’s something they should have been doing a long time ago,” Jenny Reed, policy director at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, said.

David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services, acknowledged problems.

“Governments sometimes don’t move as fast as we would like,” Berns said. “We were in the process of hiring a program manager, additional case management staff. Even though that was in the works, it wasn’t there in time.”

But Berns and other officials also suggested that the onslaught of homeless families wasn’t too worrisome.

They said the surge didn’t result from a worsening of economic conditions for the poor. Instead, it occurred because families on federal assistance saw a chance to grab city-paid motel rooms with a television and maid service.

In this account, word spread among welfare recipients in the winter that anybody successfully claiming to be homeless would go to a motel rather than D.C. General. That prompted scores of young mothers to give up staying with relatives or friends.

“When we started offering hotels as the option, people started coming out of the woodwork,” Berns said. “These families found it’s a whole lot better than sleeping on the couch at Mom’s.”

Providers of services for the homeless in the nonprofit community are skeptical. They suspect that high city rents are the culprit.

But even if the administration’s explanation is accurate, it has only itself to blame. If the District had moved families out of D.C. General in the autumn as scheduled, it wouldn’t have had to offer hotel rooms in the winter.

Looking ahead, Gray and his team should aim for Halloween instead of Easter as the proper target date for rehousing poor families.

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