Exactly one year ago, I wrote about the more than 900 people, including 600 kids, crammed in a makeshift homeless shelter at what used to be D.C. General Hospital. At the time, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) promised that his human services committee would conduct hearings on the conditions. A hearing was, indeed, convened at the shelter, and there was plenty of talk, finger-pointing and complaints about cooping up so many people in one location. Oh yes, there were also demands for more affordable housing options.
Voice of America weighed in, telling the world in an April broadcast that the “city of Washington, D.C., is facing an ongoing crisis in family homelessness.” The VOA report cited an ominous statistic from a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless: “The streets of Washington are home to anywhere between 1,200 and 3,000 homeless children.”
And then the city moved on to other things.
Until Feb. 3, when Graham convened another public hearing to explore the “Family Shelter Crisis in the Hypothermia Season.”
It was deja vu.
There was, again, much talk and complaints about conditions at the D.C. General Shelter — an accumulating pile of dirty diapers outside the cafeteria came in for much discussion.
Shelter residents, a city official testified, have been ignoring instructions to not throw used diapers out their windows. That piece of information caused a bit of consternation on the dais. Graham’s ire produced results. Before the hearing adjourned, the city official announced that the dirty diapers were being removed as she spoke.
Oh, yes, the roundtable also produced more plaintive calls to move homeless families out of shelters and into permanent housing. Which led to head-shaking over the dwindling supply of affordable housing and a critique of the current strategy for reducing homelessness in our nation’s capital.
One arresting account, however, was buried in all the discussion about housing placements, staff capacity and increasing financial resources.
D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) spoke of a visit he had with a homeless family when he chaired the council’s human services committee. Wells said he returned to his office one day to find a “seven-member family — a parent and the rest children” in his waiting room. The family had been “directed” to the District from Maryland, Wells said, because the state could not accommodate a family of that size. Wells said he and his staff pooled together enough money to place the family in temporary housing. “We don’t want to become the housing of last resort for the Eastern Seaboard,” Wells said. “Some families don’t know political boundaries,” he added.
Perhaps. But that shouldn’t be the case with governments.
Graham also referred to “people from Maryland” using D.C. services. This raises the question: To what extent is the District housing non-residents in city-funded facilities?
Gray administration spokesman Pedro Ribeiro told The Post’s Mike DeBonis that recent cold snaps have strained the city’s capacity as families from around the region use the District and its policy of guaranteed housing as a “safety valve” to find shelter.
Asked this week for evidence of area families turning to the District, Ribeiro told me that in fiscal 2013 the city turned away 152 non-residents seeking shelter. In the first quarter of this fiscal year, by contrast, 132 non-residents have been turned away. “The word is out,” he said. “Go to D.C.”
Ribeiro added, “I hate the fact that turning away anyone makes the District government look cruel, but we simply cannot shoulder the full burden of housing homeless families from the entire region and beyond.”
This development should not be given short shrift. If neighboring jurisdictions are shifting their responsibilities — and burdens — to the District, they should be called out. The city is spending millions. On its fair share, yes. On everybody’s share? No.
That doesn’t mean the city should step back from the problem. A plan by family housing providers and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, with the help of city agencies, offers steps to deal with the crisis. More money, staffing, training, housing? Yes, all are included.
But the strategy calls for a sharper focus, too. Kate Coventry of the Fiscal Policy Institute noted that 30 percent to 40 percent of the families in emergency shelter are headed by a parent age 18 to 24, most of whom have never had their own home or had the support necessary to maintain their own housing.
These youth-headed households have problems that extend beyond the need for shelter. That’s where critical intervention and services are necessary.
Otherwise, same time, same place next year.
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