As the wave of homeless families flooded the system, the city began placing families at the Capitol City Inn on New York Avenue, which became a shelter so deplorably filled with drug dealing, crack use and contagious illnesses that a D.C. Superior Court judge called it a “hell hole.”
It costs the city nearly $100 a day, or about $3,000 a month, to house and feed a family of four in the shelter motels.
By 1988, the District was housing 525 families — 610 adults and 1,338 children — in shelter hotels, temporary apartments and a school gymnasium. The average length of stay was six months. The total annual cost: $21 million.
A city official admitted the city could not keep up with the numbers of homeless seeking help.
“People are coming in faster than they’re moving out,” said Earnest Taylor, then chief of DHS’s Office of Emergency Shelter and Support Services. “It is almost as if we’re a substitute for public housing units.”
In March 1988, two babies died at the Capitol City Inn. One of the babies died of a form of meningitis that usually occurs when children are confined to a small area; the other died of pneumonia caused by bacteria.
Almost a year later, in July 1989, an 18-month-old boy was killed and two women were injured when a fire broke out in a two-room apartment in the Capitol City Inn.
That year then-Mayor Marion Barry vowed to stop relying on the motel to house the homeless. The city began moving families into public housing, with federal housing subsidies.
In 1989, after seven years and more than $10 million in city funds, the District moved out the last homeless family that was living at the Capitol City Inn.
City officials pledged to avoid placing homeless families in motels in the future. But the use of hotels as shelters did not end. The problem of where to place homeless families continued to plague city officials.
Under the administration of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, 2011-2015, city officials attempted to shelter homeless families in recreation centers, using beds placed between temporary partitions. There were no doors for privacy, prompting an outcry from advocates for the homeless.
In 2014, despite objections from Gray, the D.C. Council passed the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act, which defined “a private room” for homeless families as part of a building with “four non-portable walls, a ceiling, and a floor that meets at the edges so as to be continuous and uninterrupted.”
The act required that families have a “door that locks from within as its main point of access,” insulation, hot shower facilities and lighting that families could control.
Gray argued in a letter to the council, “It will throw the District back to an era when streets were line with hotels filled with homeless families.”
There are now more than 730 homeless families living in motels, including 1,300 children, according to a recent night census. An additional 250 families are housed in the shelter at D.C. General.
Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, says the city’s goal is to move families out of motels and shelters into permanent housing as quickly as possible.
More than 1,000 families have exited shelter to permanent housing last year, DHS officials said. That is a 16 percent increase over 2014.