10/16/2013 05:07 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2013

D.C. Must Plan a Way to Serve Minor Children on Freezing Nights

From February to May of 2013, one local youth service provider turned away at least 150 unaccompanied minor children due to lack of emergency shelter space, many of whom also had children of their own. When made aware of this unmet need in September, the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) responded by making the adoption of the Winter Plan contingent on the development of a plan to serve this population. But the draft plan that will be voted on by the ICH on October 17th does not announce any new resources for youth that will change the status quo of turning away 150 youth in five months. Instead, the plan just lists the current resources available and suggests referrals to those resources.

The District seems to have concluded that it has no legal obligation to provide emergency shelter to youth when it is freezing outside, and thus it is not required to develop a plan that would serve every child in need this winter. The Department of Human Services reads the Homeless Services Reform Act to say that youth are not entitled to the right to shelter in freezing weather and that, even if they were, no unaccompanied youth could ever meet basic eligibility criteria. We disagree, and you can read our legal interpretation on our website.

Putting aside our differing legal interpretations of the Homeless Services Reform Act, we can imagine few scenarios that so egregiously defy the spirit of the law. According to Mayor's Order 2001-161 (October 31, 2001), the purpose of the Winter Plan is "to identify vulnerable homeless people living in exposed, unprotected areas and provide immediate access to shelter and save lives and prevent serious injury that can be caused by extended exposure to severe winter weather conditions."

The proposed plan will formalize a process by which many homeless youth are left without any shelter whatsoever on hypothermic nights. Attempting to exclude unaccompanied youth from the law's protections will increase not only legal liability, but the risk of real and irreparable harm to vulnerable children this winter.