By Brian Carome
When it comes to the publicly-funded emergency family shelter system in the District of Columbia, maintenance of a state of crisis is the chosen norm. As a city, we simply lack whatever it takes to ensure that children are protected from the full brunt of homelessness – be that money, political will, moral imperative, compassion or some combination of them all. This has been an indisputable fact for decades.
It has been quite a while though since a mayor and his administration have been so openly callous toward the plight of homeless families. Citing budgetary shortfalls, the administration of Mayor Vincent Gray has recently closed intake to its family shelter system. As a result, families are sleeping in truly deplorable situations, including bus stations, parks, abandoned buildings and emergency rooms. At the same time, over 100 emergency shelter units for families sit vacant. The mayor has ordered them to remain so. He wants them held in reserve for the winter, when city law forces his hand, if not his heart (District law requires that families deemed homeless be sheltered anytime temperatures dip to 32 degrees or colder. In the past, lack of capacity at the city’s only emergency facility for families – located at the former DC General Hospital – has forced the government to place families in more costly motel rooms during hypothermia alerts). Mayor Gray says he prefers providing affordable permanent housing rather than emergency shelter. If that were reality, and not mere rhetoric, it would be welcome. In reality, the mayor is currently prohibiting the D.C. Housing Authority from releasing 65 fully-funded Local Rent Subsidy vouchers set aside for homeless families. If utilized, these vouchers would free even more space at the family shelter and curb the need for motels in the winter.
Hard to believe, but the mayor’s policy toward parents and their children does not stop here. Under a policy that The Washington Post called a “heart-wrenching catch-22,” homeless parents who turn to the city for help are first being refused the shelter they so desperately need to protect their children, and then, because they are homeless, referred to the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) – the city agency that investigates child abuse and neglect. (‘Heart-wrenching’ Catch-22: Homeless families who turn to city for help find no rooms, risk child welfare inquiry, The Washington Post, June 23, 2012). City officials say they are just doing their job, fulfilling mandatory reporting requirements anytime a child is in danger.
This is not the first time a District mayor has employed such draconian techniques in response to family homelessness. In the mid 1980’s, the administration of Mayor Marion Barry also coupled a closed door shelter policy with a practice that intentionally encouraged family dissolution. The result? Huge increases in far costlier foster care rolls and an even costlier lawsuit when the foster care system simply collapsed.
For children, homelessness is a nightmare with lifelong effects. According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, “while homeless, [children] experience high rates of acute and chronic health problems. They are sick four times more often than other children, have four times as many respiratory infections, twice as many ear infections, five times more gastrointestinal problems, are four times more likely to have asthma, and go hungry at twice the rate of other children. The constant barrage of stressful and traumatic experience also has profound effects on their development and ability to learn. Children experiencing homelessness are four times more likely to show delayed development and twice as likely to have learning disabilities as non-homeless children.” This is the likely fate of children who grow up in shelters. Immensely worse is the fate of children who grow up in cars, on park benches and in laundromats.
There simply is neither compassion nor fiscal wisdom in the current policy employed by Mayor Gray. It is cruel in the present and will prove costly – in both human and fiscal terms – in the future.