The former D.C. General Hospital serves as a homeless shelter for many families. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

THE DISTRICT’S government in recent years has paid attention to the problems of homeless families primarily in the cold winter months. But families end up on the streets for reasons having nothing to do with the outside temperature, so it makes sense to open the city’s long-term programs for homeless families to applicants year-round. The city’s decision to do so should be a step toward a long-term strategic plan to combat homelessness and away from a crisis-to-crisis approach.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced this month that families may apply for emergency shelter any day of the year rather than just on freezing nights. D.C. law guarantees the right to shelter on nights when there is a danger of hypothermia. The result, as The Post’s Aaron C. Davis reported, is a big bulge of applications in early winter, overwhelming the system with a backlog of hundreds of families waiting at the D.C. General shelter or in motel rooms to be placed in transitional housing and matched with job training and other support programs.

Factors contributing to homelessness, including job loss, domestic violence and illness, are complicated and intertwined, another good reason to address them as they arise and not just when it’s cold. That almost 300 families were given emergency placements since the new policy was put in place on a test basis in June underscores the need.

Administration officials stressed that the new policy must be accompanied by other changes. One that would have to be approved by the D.C. Council would allow the city to provide families with shelter temporarily as workers study their cases: Are they eligible for shelter placement? Do alternatives exist? What approach has the best chance for long-term success?

The administration also is seeking, as a step in trying to close the deteriorated D.C. General shelter, the ability to develop emergency housing for families that would provide efficiency units and private rooms. Other cities have successfully used this model.

Both proposals are bound to be controversial. Advocates for the homeless already are expressing some skepticism, and neighborhoods are likely to resist any efforts to locate smaller shelters in their communities. It’s important that council members be open-minded and realize the urgent need for new thinking about an old problem.