A report released Tuesday by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless finds that homeless families face “exceedingly more difficult” obstacles when seeking shelter during the winter than do unaccompanied adults -- an alarming trend, the organization says, resulting from inconsistent or poorly defined rules.
According to the report, D.C. government often fails to meet standards established by the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act (HSRA), which requires the District to provide shelter to both homeless individuals and families during “severe weather” -- or more clearly defined as weather dropping below 32 degrees.
“For nearly thirty years, District of Columbia law has embraced the ideal that all residents should have a warm and safe place to sleep when the temperature is freezing...However, D.C. government practice has not always comported with the law,” the report states. “The system’s front door has been blocked by unlawful procedures that have created almost insurmountable obstacles for far too many families trying to access emergency shelter this winter.”
The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which provides legal representation for low- and no-income clients, compiled numerous complaints from clients and other relavent data to present major inefficiencies and inadequacies in the District’s current handling of homeless shelter accessibility.
Focusing primarily on homeless families, the report identifies specific errors, including: altering the homeless of upcoming hypothermic conditions too late, failing to place qualifying families in shelters on nights where temperatures did not drop below freezing, wrongfully denying eligible families shelter placement and wrongfully threatening to expel families from shelters.
In one case, a woman, more than eight months pregnant, was denied placement and told to return after giving birth, even though women in their third trimester of pregnancy are eligible for shelters reserved for families under D.C. law. Another client was reported to Child Protective Services after her son missed school two days in one week -- his absence, she explained, was a result of her having to choose bringing her son to school, or going to the Family Resource Center to ensure they wouldn’t be expelled from their shelter placement.
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Homelessness among families has steadily increased in D.C. since the 2008 economic downturn -- a trend that Michael Ferrell, executive director of the District’s Coalition for the Homeless, explained as the result of both a poor job market and expensive housing market.
“The poor economic conditions, coupled with the lack of affordable housing in the region, is driving more families into homelessness,” Ferrell said in a 2011 interview with The Washington Post.
With as many as 1,014 homeless families in D.C. -- including 1,600 homeless youth -- the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless report urged D.C.'s mayor and his administration to act.
“Too many vulnerable families have already been turned out into the cold,” the report reads. “It is our sincere hope that D.C. takes swift action to prevent further violations before a tragedy occurs on its watch.”
On Tuesday, Gray announced a $100 million commitment to affordable housing programs in his State of the District address -- a commitment the mayor pledged would create or maintain 10,000 housing units.
Elizabeth Falcon, an organizer for the nonprofit group Housing for All, told the Washington Post that Gray’s commitment was a step in the right direction, but that more funding needs to be secured in order to adequately address D.C.’s homelessness problem.
“That’s going to take more than $100 million to accomplish,” Falcon said. “But $100 million is a good investment toward that goal.”