Each winter, The Post reports on the decrepit conditions at D.C. General, the city’s emergency family shelter, as well as on the lack of adequate shelter space and the lack of safety for the District’s homeless population. Each year, the reporting shows a grimmer picture without much change occurring.
This winter has all the ingredients to make it the worst yet.
First, because of court rulings that require the city to provide private rooms for homeless families, D.C. General has fewer rooms available than before. To help accommodate those families, the District is contracting with motels, but that still may not be enough. As a perfect example of the lack of foresight, the city’s budget did not appropriate funds for one single motel room for the homeless. Using funds from the city’s child welfare department has been proposed; essentially, the District plans to use funds for the poor to pay for the poorer.
Second, family homelessness is estimated to increase by 16 percent this year, with child homelessness at an all-time high. As a pediatric doctor, I find this distressing. Research has confirmed the obvious: Homeless youth have higher rates of malnutrition, developmental delays and language deficits and are at increased risk of abuse and violence. They are three times more likely to have severe health problems compared with low-income children with homes.
According to a large study in New York, 23 percent of homeless teenagers engaged in “survival sex” or were sexually trafficked; about half cited needing shelter as a contributing factor. And, as District residents unfortunately know because of the disappearance last year of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, inappropriately monitored shelters can be more dangerous than living on the streets.
Last, we are expecting a particularly cold winter. By law, the District has to provide shelter when the temperature falls below 32 degrees. Therefore, the District will be required to shelter an increased homeless population in private rooms that are not available.
Solutions such as creating smaller shelters throughout the city are admirable, but neighborhoods are resistant to the idea. The District must find a way to quickly allocate sufficient funds and optimize public-private partnerships to ensure that our city’s homeless have a safe and warm shelter this winter. This issue is urgent.
The District must start thinking ahead and prioritizing values we all share. How we treat the most vulnerable in our community is a moral litmus test. I don’t know whether we will pass that test this winter.
The writer, a doctor, is a member of the board of the D.C. chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.