U.S. Navy photo / Released
credit: U.S. Navy photo / Released

Homeless mothers described harrowing nights spent huddled with their children in hospital and train station waiting rooms. And they pleaded with city officials for beds.

City Council member Jim Graham pleaded for beds too. He repeated his request that empty beds in the District’s family shelter be opened up to homeless men, women and children immediately.

At the time of the Oct. 10 hearing held to discuss the District’s 2012- 2013 winter plan for the homeless, 149 families were housed at the city’s family shelter, located at the former DC General Hospital. But another 118 rooms designated for overflow use were standing vacant. It costs $500,000 a month to operate all 118 overflow rooms. They are currently held in reserve for freezing weather, when the city is required by law to shelter the homeless.

Strapped for funds due to a $7 million shortfall in the city homeless services budget, city human services officials acknowledged they had turned away 240 families who applied for shelter between April 1 and Oct 1.

“We attempted to provide alternatives,” said Department of Human Services administrator Fred Swan.

Through follow up calls, the city had determined that most of the families who had been turned away eventually found accommodations, according to Swan. However, he said, the fate of a few of the families was unknown because the department had been unable to reach them again.

Dashawn Brown, mother of three small children, including an infant asleep at her breast, may have fallen into the latter category.

She said she had applied to the city for emergency shelter weeks ago but without success. Since then, she and her children had been sleeping on benches and in a waiting room at United Medical Center, a hospital in Southeast, D.C.

“We’ve been on the street. Bench to bench with my three kids,” she said. “ I don’t have no alternative,” added the mother, before bursting into tears.

After listening to her story Graham told her: “You have illustrated the cost of turning people away.”

He asked human services officials to see that she was helped.

“Hopefully, last night was your last night” without a place to stay, Graham told Brown.

Rather than continuing to expand the emergency shelter system to house desperate families, the city is better off using scarce human services funds on rental assistance and other programs that prevent homelessness and address the causes of poverty, said Department of Human Services Director David Berns.

“Sheltering a family for a year at DC General costs $50,000,” he said.

A new intake system that went into place on Oct. 1 combines the resources of homeless and welfare services since thousands of city families qualify not only for shelter and emergency housing but for job training, child care vouchers and other supports that city welfare-to-work efforts can provide.

“Forty three percent of families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are homeless or at eminent risk,” Berns said.

Reached by email on Oct. 19, Brown said she and her children had been placed at DC General Hospital.

Graham said the same day in a telephone interview that he remained upset about the lack of funding for homeless services, particularly in the light of a late September announcement that the District showed an operating surplus of more than $139 million for the 2012 fiscal year. While some city leaders see the funds as an essential cushion against possible federal budget cuts, Graham said he believes a small percentage of the money should be spent on sheltering the homeless.

“This city has values that are better than that,” said Graham. “It takes such a small amount of money to open up beds.”