Pressed by a potentially severe winter and rapidly decreasing shelter space, the D.C. Council is considering further action to combat the problem of homelessness, already having tweaked the operation of shelters this winter.
According to a report from the Washington City Paper, D.C. General, the city’s largest homeless shelter, was near capacity, housing 230 families out of a maximum total of 248. Additional shelter space in two motels provided 310 total spaces, of which 251 have been filled thus far. The D.C. Council has begun negotiations for additional space with a third motel.
Kate Coventry, policy analyst for the Fiscal Policy Analyst, said that despite the limited space, this year’s experience has been better than 2014, when the inability to anticipate demand for shelter services led to the motels becoming oversaturated.
“In the past … there hasn’t been as much onsite staff [at motels], there was staff that would travel to the spaces,” Coventry said. “Also, contracting for entire motels is more transparent about how many units we have available, because we contract for a certain number of units versus renting them on an as-needed basis so that’s good for planning. I can tell you how many families were in shelter two nights ago and how many spaces we have left.”
However, the shelter at D.C. General and the motels are intended to be used as emergency shelters. To keep emergency capacity, the D.C. Department of Human Services aims to move about 65 families per month from the shelter into more permanent housing but only managed to relocate 79 families in November and December, leaving a increasingly worrisome problem for the long-term stability of the shelters. Accordingly, much of the rhetoric surrounding the new administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser has focused around finding permanent, long-term solutions for the housing problem.
“My focus is not on creating more shelter but on creating new housing opportunities,” Bowser said to The Washington Post.
Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) attributed this new focus of city government to the results of last fall’s elections.
“I think you’re going to see a radical change [in homelessness]. You have a council now and a mayor that are committed to ending homelessness in the District of Columbia and that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Grosso said. “I think you’ve seen a strong commitment from Muriel Bowser on trying to get to a place where we have a housing-first approach where we are taking the homeless and we are working closely with them with all of the services that are needed to get them into permanent housing so that they can stop having to live on the street.”
Grosso said that disagreement between former Mayor Vincent Gray and the former council prevented the passage of legislation regarding homelessness in the past.
“The former mayor had an idea about how he was going to handle the crisis and I think he had some good ideas. What happened was the council worked with advocates to try to get something that would work for all people that were homeless, and in the end the mayor just didn’t agree with our approach,” Grosso said.
One such example was the dispute over the legislation passed by the council in November that changed the operation of shelters this winter. The Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act calls for private and safe rooms for all families, newly defining a private room as one with a door that shuts and locks.
Additionally, the bill calls for shelters to open 24 hours a day so families do not have to reapply to stay every night. Shelters in the District have historically had hours of 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Although Bowser supported the bill, Gray urged the Council to oppose it, worried that it would divert investment from permanent solutions for housing.
“The proposed bill will mandate additional investment in shelter at the expense of investments in affordable housing and other more permanent housing solutions. This legislation will throw the District back to an era when streets were lined with hotels filled with homeless families,” Gray wrote to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) in a letter Oct. 28.
Grosso also said that Gray had misinformation about costs of potential plans when approaching this issue during his term.
“He was bent toward saying people need to start stepping up and taking care of themselves more than the government needs to continue to help people get on their feet again,” Grosso said. “He had bad advice that it would cost millions and millions of dollars to do this when in fact there had been some fiscal analysis that it wasn’t going to cost that much.”
With the motels providing some measure of stability for this winter, Grosso pointed to the work done by Friendship Place as a long-term way to transition to more permanent housing.
The private organization committed to ending homelessness has taken over multiple shelters in the District over the past few years and employed a new strategy to homelessness. Called a “wraparound” strategy, the organization provides 24-hour care as well as health and psychiatric services. In 2013, Friendship Place provided 701 free primary care consultations and 329 free psychiatric consultations, helping to move people out of shelters into permanent housing.
“The way we’re handling homelessness in the District this year is going to include a lot more wraparound services than it has in the past so people are going to have their problems addressed immediately,” Grosso said. “They’re going to be able to get into housing and then they’re going to have the backup services that they need to stay on their feet. I think you’re going to see a radical change.”