"HAS THE District's policy of guaranteed housing on hypothermia nights created a perverse incentive?" We posed that question in 2014 as the city struggled with overflowing numbers of homeless families after then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) was rebuffed in efforts to give the city more flexibility in providing services. The question needs to be asked again — and hopefully this time the D.C. Council will use reason, not emotion, in answering.
A comprehensive overhaul of the law governing homeless services in the city has been tentatively approved by the 13-member council and is set for a final vote Tuesday. The proposal — the result of exhaustive study and debate over the past year — would bring city policy in line with changes in federal law, establish eligibility requirements for those entering the city's emergency shelter system and give city officials new discretion to decide when services can be terminated. "Ineffective, costly and unsustainable" is how administration officials for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) described aspects of current law that hinder efforts to prevent — not simply react to — homelessness.
Generating the most controversy are new residency requirements for families seeking shelter. The District is one of only a few places in the country where shelter in winter is an absolute right, making Washington a magnet for people from other jurisdictions seeking services. According to administration officials, 11 percent of applicants seeking family homelessness services between October 2016 and April 2017 were not District residents. Opponents' fears that new requirements would result in bureaucratic headaches in which people, including D.C. residents, would be left out in the cold seem overblown. Protections, including a grace period in which to produce the required documentation, are included in the proposal.
D.C. taxpayers are right to expect that the services they pay for will primarily benefit city residents, and officials are right that the money spent on housing families in motels — some $80,000 a night — would be better spent on increasing affordable housing or helping families become more stable. That there has been a decrease in the number of families requiring shelter — 756 this November as compared with 908 last November — may be a promising indicator that administration strategies being spearheaded by D.C. Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger are working. We urge the council to do its part and give final approval to these needed fixes.
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