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No Room At the Inn: Despite Open Beds, D.C.'s Homeless Children Turned Away From Shelter

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Most policy choices are hard calls. This one is not.

Usually, information is scarce, facts ambiguous and values clash. Most times, competing equities are comparable, with compelling justifications supporting more than one available option. Urban development is a good example: we can't know in advance whether businesses really will move into a neighborhood and if they do, whether customers will follow; and, though many gain from new shops and restaurants and entertainment, our communities also are degraded by the inevitable displacement of long-time neighborhood residents.

But Mayor Gray's administration is fumbling an easy one.

Faced with a choice between letting children sleep indoors or on park benches, in beds or on the sidewalk, the Administration is making it complicated and conjuring obstacles. So instead of sleeping in rooms with beds, many D.C. families sleep in "bus stations, abandoned buildings, parks, laundromats and emergency rooms."

The unambiguous fact is that more than 100 family shelter units are sitting empty at D.C. General Family Shelter. Another fact: fully-funded housing vouchers remain unused at the D.C. Housing Authority. At the same time, as Councilmember Jim Graham declared at a press conference on Monday, "The simple truth of the matter is that there are people who are in bus shelters, at Union Station, wandering the city going from couch to couch with their kids."

"Sarah Jones" and her five children sleep in a bus station and wash up for school in a nearby McDonald's. At Graham's Monday press conference, a mother "talked about staying in a park in Southeast and not knowing what to tell her children each day about where they were going to sleep or how they were going to wash up for school each morning." Others turned away by the city choose between homelessness with their children or forced sexual encounters exchanged for shelter.

According to Deputy Mayor Beatriz Otero, instead of providing a place to sleep indoors, the Administration provides families with "assessments." Assessments, writes Otero in a form-letter email sent to housing advocates, "consist of a redetermination of each family's priority status; identification of any/all critical needs; identification of family resources and support; and, provision of the most appropriate form of assistance for each family." It's not clear, however, why an "assessment" is required to figure out that the "critical need" of a homeless parent with homeless children is... four walls and a ceiling. And it seems unnecessary to undertake a formal "assessment" to determine that a home is the "most appropriate form of assistance" for that family. Finally, there seems to be little value added when the D.C. Department of Human Services inquires of parents of homeless children whether it has occurred to the parents to seek shelter with relatives.

Deputy Mayor Otero argues that funding constraints affect the District's decision-making. "Of the 271 units at the D.C. General Shelter, 118 are not funded for the remainder of this fiscal year or for the coming fiscal year..." But the amount of funding available to house families is a policy choice, reflective of the Administration's priorities. No one believes that the Administration has only one problem to fix or only one target on which monies must be spent. It is disingenuous, however, to say, as does the deputy mayor, that "resources are limited as a result of a $7 million reduction in available federal funding for homeless services in the upcoming fiscal year." In fact, the reduction in federal monies does not limit the District's discretion to apportion other funds as it sees fit. The Administration simply has not seen fit to allocate funds to house homeless children all year 'round.

And the Administration argues that shelter isn't all it's cracked up to be, anyway. "Shelter has many shortcomings for families and especially for children. To the extent possible, resources are better used to provide prevention/diversion assistance and housing. We cannot use money for more appropriate assistance/placements if we are expending it on shelter." But meaningful services and supports for families in D.C. are low-quality and of limited availability. There are no jobs, little accessible mental health care, and child care is scarce.

Finally, the deputy mayor points out, accurately, that "Expanding shelter utilization does not address the broader issues of affordable housing (which is what these families need) and moving families toward self-sufficiency." Common ground! An acknowledgement that people without homes need... homes!

But they're not getting homes. Instead, Otero insists on the false dichotomy between families' need for shelter tonight and their need, also, for long-term housing. "As DHS works to redesign and integrate its Homeless Services and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, it is critical that it dedicates resources (fiscal and otherwise) to this process." As Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney Amber Harding says, however, "you don't close down the emergency room of the hospital when you're working on improving the rest of the hospital, and you don't tell the person who has a heart attack that they can't get treatment because we're working on a cure. Resources need to be devoted to urgent situations AND long term solutions to the underlying problem." Not to mention that the revamped TANF program to which the deputy mayor refers is a radically downsized program. In the past two years, the mayor and Council have imposed draconian and dangerous sanctions and time limits on TANF recipients. Thousands of families are about to be kicked off the rolls. Thus, as the Administration substitutes assessments for shelter, so too will assessments replace life-saving, if paltry, TANF subsidies.

The Administration recognizes, then, that its choices leave children and families on the street while housing remains empty. If only "assessments" kept kids as warm as a roof. If only money truly were unavailable, rather than otherwise-allocated.

In a cruel irony, the Department of Human Services seems willing to house children apart from their families. See, the Administration's decision to leave families on the streets while beds remain unoccupied was accompanied by a new practice, in which DHS calls the Child and Family Services Agency to report families with no safe place to live. As the Washington Post reported, when families apply for shelter, DHS refuses to place them in the available units, and then calls CFSA to report that the children are endangered because ... they are homeless.

The Administration is seizing the knife by the blade on this one. One hundred rooms open at D.C. General. Unused housing vouchers sitting in an agency desk drawer. Instead of letting children live under a safe roof, the Administration lets them roam with their parents to bus stations, heating grates and park benches. The city promotes foster care as an alternative to shelter, and forces mothers to provide sexual favors to protect their children from these unnecessary hazards and horrors.

Councilmember Graham, Chair of the Council's Human Services Committee, announced on Monday that the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services has an extra $14 million in its budget. The mayor has a choice about how to spend those funds. It's an easy one.