The District of Columbia has not reformed its law governing publicly funded homeless services in more than a decade, despite significant differences that have developed between the evolving services for homeless residents and the legal framework to deliver them.

However, legislation now before the D.C. Council seeks to remedy the situation, and amend the city’s laws to better reflect current services and best practices.

The Homeless Services Reform Act of 2003 (Bill 15-241), which was introduced last April, grew out of efforts from the D.C. Department of Human Services, service providers, homeless residents, pro bono attorneys and advocates. Representatives of these groups came together in October 2000, charged by the city’s Deputy Mayor for Children, Youth, Families and Elders to find ways to update and improve the current homeless services laws.

Throughout its process, this new workgroup actively sought participation and input from homeless residents, and even held focus groups with homeless individuals and families at more than 30 shelters across the District. Shelter residents repeatedly emphasized that their needs vary widely. They asked for more consistency within the service system, and wanted to be able to obtain open and equal access to services. These men and women also wanted reasonable and fair requirements and limitations on services and the autonomy to choose when and how to access them.

With this input, the workgroup then spent a nearly two years drafting legislation to reflect the homeless residents’ concerns, as well as those from service providers and the local government.

In early 2003, Councilmember Sandra Allen, chair of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services, agreed to sponsor the legislation before the Council. At the bill’s introduction, seven other council members signed on as co-sponsors, including Kevin Chavous (Ward 7), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Adrian Fenty (Ward 4), Jim Graham (Ward 1), Phil Mendelson (At Large), Vincent Orange (Ward 5), Kathy Patterson (Ward 3).

As introduced, the Homeless Services Reform Act will control the operations of all city-funded homeless services. Specifically, the bill seeks to:

– Create an Interagency Council on Homelessness to facilitate coordination within and between government agencies and service providers.

– Provide legal authorization for many of the city’s shelter services that currently lack such authorization.

– Affirm the basic rights of homeless individuals to be treated with dignity, to be free from abuse and discrimination, and to have shelter in cold weather.

– Establish minimum standards for services at and monitoring of publicly funded shelters.

– Ensure due process protections and procedures for participants in publicly funded services.

To date, 251 D.C. residents and concerned individuals and 57 social service, faith, and advocacy organizations have formally endorsed a statement of principles in support of the legislation. With eight out of 13 members of the D.C. Council cosponsoring the bill, supporters hope to see it approved quickly.

However, like all local legislation, Bill 15-241 must be reviewed by the committee of jurisdiction – in this case, the Committee on Human Services – and then approved by two votes of the full D.C. Council.

The Committee on Human Services will begin its formal consideration of the Homeless Services Reform Act with a public hearing at 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003. The hearing will be at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, in the Council’s Chambers on the 5th floor. Witnesses can sign up to testify by calling (202) 724-8170.

After the hearing, the Committee on Human Services will set a date to amend the Reform Act and vote on whether to refer the bill to the full D.C. Council for approval.