December, 5, 2017
Homeless Shelters May Be Harder To Get Into Under Bill Up For Final Vote In D.C. Council
By Martin Austermuhle
The D.C. Council will vote on a bill Tuesday that makes sweeping changes to how the city provides homeless services, including raising the bar for homeless families seeking access to shelter.
The bill, the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act, is described by city officials as a series of necessary and largely technical reforms to ensure that homeless individuals and families have access to shelter in dire emergencies, but are otherwise steered to more permanent housing options that offer them more stability and are less expensive for the city.
But critics, including a large coalition of homeless advocacy groups, say the bill would merely make it harder for families facing homelessness to access shelter, increasing the chances that they would end up on the streets.
The most controversial provision addresses the decades-old legal requirement that D.C. provide homeless individuals and families space in a shelter on nights when the temperature falls below freezing — one of only three jurisdictions in the country with such a requirement.
City officials say that as homelessness has ticked up in recent years, D.C.’s liberal shelter policy has served as a magnet for homeless families from around the region — not just in the District. As a result, they argue, D.C. has picked up the tab for a homelessness problem that extends beyond its borders, causing the money that is available for helping homeless families to be spent on shelter instead of more permanent housing options.
While current law specifies that access to shelter for families be limited to people from D.C., city officials say the wording is “loosely defined and formulaic,” making it difficult to implement. (Homeless individuals looking to get into a low-barrier shelter do not have to show any proof or residency.) Last winter, officials say, upwards of 10 percent of people who applied for shelter space were not from D.C.
“We want to make sure we are serving District residents first as a priority, and we need the law to allow us to do that so that we’re not trying to meet a larger national and regional affordable housing need but we are first focusing on residents who have no other place to go,” said Laura Zeilinger, director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services.
This isn’t the first time D.C.’s elected leaders have tried to make changes to the city’s right-to-shelter law, which was approved by voters in the mid-1980s. In 1990, the Council repealed the law, and 15 years later reinstated it — although it limited access to shelter to nights when the temperature falls below freezing. In 2010, as the city faced a budget crunch related to the recession, the Council considered strengthening residency requirements for families seeking shelter.
Homeless advocates at that time focused their message around the same arguments they are using now: that strengthening the residency requirements only means that more homeless families will be screened, if only because they cannot readily provide the specific documentation proving they hail from D.C.
“I had a client who had lived here for 30 years who got denied recently saying she was not a D.C. resident,” said Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which has been lobbying Council members to reject the bill. “She did not have the right documentation, and part of the time that she’d been homeless she’d been couch-surfing in Maryland, and they pointed at that and said, ‘See, you live in Maryland.'”
Harding says it’s a myth that homeless families from around the region are flocking to D.C. to gain access to shelter, or that D.C. families would opt for shelter if they had any other alternative. That’s why she says homeless advocacy groups also oppose a provision in the bill that would require families to show they have nowhere else safe to go before being granted a spot in a shelter.
“This Council is supposed to be one of the most progressive councils that we’ve ever had, but it has bought into an idea that there are lots of people out there who don’t need homeless services that are residing in our emergency shelters but have somewhere better to go. And that’s a really dangerous, regressive, racist and classist myth that I find very troubling,” said Harding.
Another provision that has drawn opposition is one that would create a formal process to move people out of rapid rehousing, a program in which homeless families and residents are moved into apartments or houses and have their rent subsidized by the city for up to 12 months, though extensions are often granted. Harding, whose group has been critical of how the city has managed the rapid rehousing program, says the change would push families out of housing before they are ready to pay their own rent.
But some homeless services providers support the provision in the bill, saying it will ensure that there are always resources available in the rapid rehousing program to ensure that homeless individuals and families can get help.
“Having the process that the current bill provides just make it a lot clearer that this program has a time limit and there are expectations that you will be exiting to maintaining your own unit,” said Melissa Millar, the director of policy and advocacy for Community of Hope, which currently has 200 families in rapid rehousing.
Ultimately, Zeilinger says the bill is an important means to help D.C. keep a homeless services system that can quickly provide emergency shelter when it’s needed, but move individuals and families to permanency more quickly. She says that will be possible if the city can better spend its limited resources. Currently the city spends roughly $80,000 a day to keep families in motel rooms since shelters are at capacity. Zeilinger says that money could better be spent on creating affordable housing.
Zeilinger aslo rejects the claim that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has been callous towards the homeless. She says the city now offers shelter on nights when it is not freezing, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in affordable housing, and is moving to replace the D.C. General family homeless shelter with smaller, neighborhood-based shelters.
“We have put the resources to prevent more than 4,500 families who would have otherwise been displaced and needed a shelter stay allowing them to stay in their housing without having to come in,” she said. “If we were careless about that, that would not be the case.”
This year, the number of homeless families in D.C. decreased by 22 percent — the first significant decline over the past six years.
But lawyer Amber Harding worries that if the bill becomes law, its provisions will simply mean more homeless families are left out in the cold, even as they city is flush with resources it could put towards alleviating homelessness and the affordable housing crisis.
“It’s a lot about making it harder to get into the front door and making it easier to kick people out the back door,” she said.This article first appeared on WAMU
This article first appeared on WAMU.