By Hannah Morgan
With cold weather quickly approaching, the District of Columbia has yet to identify enough overnight shelters to house the number of homeless families who are expected to need beds.
Each year the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness prepares an official Winter Plan which lays out how local human services agencies and organizations will meet their obligations under district law to protect homeless men, women and children from life-threatening conditions.
During the official cold weather season, which stretches from Nov. 1 until March 31, a hypothermia hotline is set up and when freezing conditions hit, outreach workers distribute blankets and vans are deployed to get people to safety. Hundreds of additional cold weather beds are set up in churches, shelters and other facilities around the city.
In the wake of the nation’s long recession and housing crisis, the rising number of homeless families is stretching the city’s shelter system to the breaking point.
“New information from just the last few days may require the District to rethink both its Winter Plan and the allocation of resources within the shelter progam,” city human services director David A. Berns testified at an October 20 roundtable hearing held by the council’s Committee on Human Services.
Officials and advocates who develop the Winter Plan each year calculate the number of beds that will be needed using data on shelter use during previous years and changes in the city’s homeless population.
This year’s count identified 6,546 homeless men, women and children living in the city. The total was roughly the same as in 2010, but it also reflected a four percent decrease in homeless single people and a seven percent increase in families over the previous year. A total of 858 families, including more than 1,600 children were included in this year’s count.
The Winter Plan has estimated the city will need emergency shelter for 366 families, but only 309 emergency spaces have been identified, 57 short of the spaces needed.
Last winter, motels and hotels were used to provide overnight winter shelter during nights of overflow at the city’s family shelter at the former D.C. Genera Hospital. Some of those families have since been moved to D.C. General, though the city has tried to refrain from placing new families at the shelter in recent months order to free up the necessary beds for the new winter season beginning Nov. 1.
The demand for family shelter has continued to grow. Since April 1, a total of 1,007 families have applied to the city for beds, according to the Interagency Council on Homelessness. .
With some families classified as priority one because of their critical needs, officials relented in mid-October and began moving some of them into D.C. General ahead of the official beginning of hypothermia season.
“By the end of today, we expect to have placed 37 priority one families into shelter,” Berns told the committee, “While we are not surprised that there is some pent-up demand for shelter, if these same large numbers continue into the winter, the capacity determined under the Winter Plan will not be sufficient.”
Committee Chairman Jim Graham, who presided over the session, spoke of the enormity of the problem, and of the emotional turmoil homeless families experience, particularly in the winter, uprooted and desperate, sometimes struggling to take care of children in stairwells and in bus stops.
“Stability is necessary. If we are not raising families well, we are just bartering for problems in the future,” Graham said.
As it exists currently, the city’s inadequate system cannot promise that stability to many desperate homeless families, said Amber W. Harding, of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
“Families that seek shelter are often discouraged from applying and entering shelter at every step of the way,” she said. “This occurs despite the fact that families are staying in many inappropriate or life-threatening environments – in their cars, at bus stops, in hospital waiting rooms, and in unheated hallways or vacant buildings.”
Sue Marshall, of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, told the roundtable that the number of families leaving shelters for permanent and stable housing was extremely low, and advocated for more housing placements, in order to open up more family shelter beds this winter.
While the average fair market monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the District is $1,506, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Marshall told the committee the average homeless adult living in a family has an income of about $600 per month.
Many members of the district’s homeless community came in from the streets to share their stories from last winter with the committee and their fears for the one that is coming.
One woman said she was worried about losing her bed at her shelter because she has been sleeping outside with the Occupy D.C. protesters to advocate for homeless issues and the needs for homeless people who cannot speak for themselves “like my friend, she is 61 years old, she doesn’t speak any English, she can’t call the hotline and understand about shelters.”
Then a disabled father , the sole caretaker of his daughter, spoke.
“I’m scared for my daughter,” he said, worrying they might be split up and placed in separate shelters and that she would not know how to get to school.
Another woman said she was living in the streets, in anticipation of shelters opening their winter beds.
“We can’t wait till it’s freezing,” she said, “We need shelter all year round!”
Graham listened to all of the witnesses, providing each time to voice their opinions and stories. He vowed that this year, “We are not going to be caught in the middle of this without the answers.”
As the meeting proceeded, no easy answers emerged.