By Kendra Nixon
As the famed National Cherry Blossom festival marks its centennial and extends its usual 16-day celebration to a full five weeks, record numbers of tourists are expected to arrive in Washington.
Yet as clouds of glorious blooms fill the District of Columbia, a few city officials and homeless advocates have been worrying about a possible unintended consequence of all that beauty.
With more than one million visitors expected to come to town to take in the flowers, will there be enough motel and hotel rooms left to house the homeless families who do not fit in the city’s overflowing family shelter?
With a total of 29,000 hotel rooms available in the district, almost every hotel is expected to be filled to capacity during the five-week celebration. And those rooms are at a premium right now. A standard room at a popular D.C. motel, typically advertised for $109 per night, is increased to $129 during the Festival.
So what will become of the 192 families that were placed in hotels as of early March?
In a city that depends on the tourists, and is expected to bring in $126 million in revenues this spring, officials find themselves attempting to balance competing needs.
“DHS (the city Department of Human Services) is very aware of the situation. They will try to work with the hotel industry to move people into other hotels,” said Nechama Masliansky, senior advocacy advisor at So Others Might Eat (SOME). “They will use all the units and resources possible to move people out of hotels.”
City officials stress that the hotel and motel placements, which cost the city $90 per night, per room, were made in a desperate attempt to cope with a steep rise in homeless families.
In the city, a total of 858 families – including more than 1,600 children – were included in the 2011 Point-In-Time homeless count, a seven percent increase over 2010 and the numbers have continued to climb.
On some nights during the winter, as many as 238 families had to be placed in hotels, according to Fred Swan, an administrator at the city DHS.
And while early this year, space at the city’s main family shelter, located at D.C. General Hospital, was expanded to accommodate 272 families, need regularly continued to exceed capacity and the motel and hotel placements continued. On one hypothermic night, March 27, the hospital was at capacity.
Looking ahead to cherry blossom time, Swan offered reassurances that the city would take care of homeless families.
“Right now I am not sure if they will be impacted,” he said. “If so, we have plans in place to relocate families if needed to other hotels.
We are also moving families into shelters from the hotels.” Scott McNeilly, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, has continued to monitor the situation.
“The last I heard, the District was actively trying to identify other motel capacity and negotiate for temporary use of rooms,” he said. “There was no firm plan.”
After the winter of 2011, it took DHS until July to move families out of hotels. But a lack of other options made it a necessity, they said. Families classified as “priority one” had no other place to go.