If you follow DC news, you are well aware of the recent buzz around the crisis facing homeless families in the District. While this issue needs to be addressed - and soon - this is not a new epidemic. Family homelessness has been escalating for quite some time, and this year is projected to surpass homelessness among individuals.
As if conditions weren't already sub-par for homeless families, in April 2012 the City stopped admitting them into the DC General Shelter. The rationale was that during the "warmer" months, space would not be made available to families in order to reduce expenses. This meant that from April through October, families were left to find shelter on their own in cars, hospital waiting rooms, Union Station or anywhere they could. This left us - local homeless service providers like Friendship Place - scrambling to keep these families from falling through the cracks.
Five months later I attended a hearing of the Committee on Human Services at City Hall where a young mother explained that she had been spending nights in the waiting area of the emergency room at Sibley Hospital and in other places. She went on to say that the 3-month old infant she was holding on her breast as she testified had never slept in a bed. The baby's siblings, two toddlers, were running around the room in the Wilson Building as she spoke. She told Chairman Graham she had found a way to secure the little ones on an armchair, so they would not fall in their sleep, while she held the baby all night long. She looked worried. I could imagine how scared she must have been that some harm would somehow come to the children during the night. Sitting right next to me on the panel, she looked exhausted. She explained she was told there was no room for her and the children at the shelter. At the end of the hearing, a staffer from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless helped her coordinate resources.
This was in September, and the assumption was that by November 1st, the beginning of "hypothermia season," conditions would improve for the families on the street. The City is mandated by law to offer shelter to families and individuals when the temperature or wind chill factor is 32 degrees or below, but families were almost never turned away from shelter in the cold months. Now the status quo is very different, and very troubling.
The City turned away all shelter-seeking families from April through October last year, and we soon found out that in the cold winter months when the temperature was still frigid but didn't drop below 32 degrees, families were turned away as well. We all know how unsafe weather conditions still are between 32 and, say, 45 degrees. Nobody would choose to spend the night outside during the winter, let alone ask our children to do that, but this is precisely what DC has been asking families to do.
What is probably even more unsettling is the well advertised $417 million surplus that the City just put into reserves. It is rather painful to some of us to think that part of this surplus was amassed on the hardship endured by children.
I invite my local followers to join Friendship Place at our spring symposium on April 18 examining the growing crisis of family homelessness. Together with our panel of experts, moderator Ray Suarez and concerned community members, we hope to examine new solutions to this pressing issue.