City Desk

D.C. Social Worker Offers Brutal Choice To Homeless Mother

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless posted this item on its blog a few days ago, but I thought it was worth a write up. The D.C. Council's recent passage of a strict residency requirement for the homeless entering shelters had faced serious opposition from just about every local nonprofit. They—and the New York Times editorial board—warned Vincent Gray and the bill's author Tommy Wells that the requirement could lead to families being left out in the cold. The Times called the new law "inhumane."

I couldn't think of a more apt description than what Marta Beresin, a staff attorney with the Legal Clinic, describes in her blog item. Recently, she writes, the District's Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) told a homeless mother that she either had to leave town or have her kids put in fostercare.

What does this have to do with Wells' legislation? Answer after the jump!

Beresin writes:

"What’s sadly ironic is that this mother had been to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center ('FRC'), the central intake site for homeless families in need of shelter repeatedly during the prior two weeks, pleading for the very thing that the District claimed she was neglectfully failing to provide.  Each time she had been told – as many others have been this winter – that there was no room for her and her children at DC General, the filled-to-capacity (with 152 families as of 2/10/11) winter shelter for families in the District.

In part, this mother’s odyssey may have been due to action the DC Council took in December, when 9 members of the Council passed the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2010 ('HSRA Amendment').  The bill establishes, for the first time, strict residency verification requirements for families applying for life-saving hypothermia shelter.  While the HSRA Amendment has yet to become law, some of its harshest consequences are already being visited on families.  The attempt to force the aforementioned mother to move to another state for shelter for her family was born out of the misimpression that she was not a District resident.  Nobody at the FRC had checked her ID (which was a DC driver’s license) or her other documents showing existing ties to the District."

The District government had given the mother a motel voucher, according Legal Clinic staff attorney, Julie Broas, who represents the family. She was able to move into a motel on Jan. 21. Like other families seeking shelter, she went back to the Virginia Williams Resource Center on Feb. 2 to complete her intake process. This is when the dispute over her proof of residency began. "She showed her D.C. license," Broas explains, adding that the mother also  other documents confirming her residency. "I don't know why that was not acceptable. As events unfolded, that was not enough."

On the night of Feb. 2, the mother paid for a motel room. She went back to Virginia Williams the next day and was told that her file was closed. Workers did not consider her a D.C. resident. That night, Broas said, the mother went to a police station to ask for help. A stranger gave her money which used with the last of her savings for one more night in the motel.

On Feb. 4, she again returned to Virginia Williams to plead her case: She had nowhere to go and no money left. At that point, her children were already enrolled in D.C. public schools. It didn't matter to the workers at the Virginia Williams Resource Center.

At this point, the mother finally reached out to the Legal Clinic. While at Virginia Williams, and in front of Broas, a Child and Family Services Agency social worker delivered the bizarre ultimatum: Give up your kids or take a bus out of town.

Broas recalls the social worker explaining: "Because she is not being placed in a shelter, therefore she is unable to provide a safe place for her children to stay. If she does not agree to accept the arrangement that has been made for her [the bus out of town], we will be forced to take her children away from her."

City workers put "tremendous pressure" on her to get on the bus, the lawyer explains. "The social worker was pacing saying 'we've got to go right now. She has to make this choice.'" This was at 4:30 p.m. The bus wasn't leaving until roughly 11 that night.

Broas requested an emergency hearing on the city's refusal to provide this District family shelter during hypothermic conditions. Based on the mother's original documents that she had been trying to show the intake workers for days, the Department of Human Services finally agreed that the family had a right to shelter.

The Child and Family Services Agency did not return requests for comment. If the agency responds, we will update this post.

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  • OpenDCUp

    This is all part of the "economic cleansing" going on in DC, and also in Arlington Virginia (which is also taking kids away from mothers for these types of reasons). However, if the parent is middle class, no worries -- CFSA says they can keep and neglect their kids. The statistics tell the story of this effort to "economically cleanse" the area using CPS as the enablers. Good for real estate developers and homeowners, bad for the poor and for the kids.

  • lorijwilson

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  • Lynn Moscoso

    We can't even claim this to be part of the "economic cleansing", although I feel "OpenDCUp's" point of view. All this will do is redirect funding to some run of the mill foster home and destroy yet another family. And, when the kids finally "age out" of foster care, they will be left to mend for themselves in the streets and probably end up homeless again and probably falling into "the system" again, but this time as homeless cash cows.

  • Drez

    The only question I have is what ID or other documentation is necessary to prove place of residency.
    All else flows from that.

  • eli

    keep an eye on virginia williams. that place has been no good for years.

  • Jason Cherkis

    Drez: I think the legislation allowed as proof of residency the typical stuff: D.C. driver's license or photo ID, TANF benefits, DCPS enrollment for your children. The mother in this case had multiple forms of proof. Enough at least to get a motel voucher from the District. And enough eventually to get shelter.

    Eli: Yes, Virginia Williams does not have a good rep. And hasn't for a while. I know that WaPo did a story more than a year ago on VW turning families away and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has raised the issue. This makes Wells' legislation troublesome--he just gave VW workers another excuse to turn people away, and to turn people away that are qualified for shelter.

  • Rick Mangus

    I'm sick and tired about hearing this liberal dribble about poor welfare mothers and how tax payers should spend money on them because they made the wrong choices in life because of stupidity, too bad! If you want to be on public assistance, here should be your choices, one in order to qualify you should show proof that you underwent tubal ligation, two one child, one single mother! Why should I have to pay because you throw you're legs in the air for every man that comes down the street!

  • John

    Jason: So let me see if I get this. The woman had proper ID. The DC Govt. employee failed to address it properly (shocker!) and put her in the wrong category. The law provides for people who supply the proper info, as she did, but a bureaucrat blew it....

    ...which means it all the fault of the law!!!!!!!!

    Under your "logic" we should basically repeal all laws, as at any given point they have been mis-applied, interpreted, various people assigned to enforce them. When back in good ol' Marion B dayzx I would get my bi-monthly "quota time" fake parking ticket, it wasn't the fault of the parking enforcement for faking a violation...the law itself was at fault!

    Give it a rest, man.

  • Drez

    Why should I not agree with John?

  • Jason Cherkis

    I think John's point is entirely valid. Of course, the workers should be blamed. But I the pre-text they were using to bar this family from shelter was Wells' residency requirement. I'm not so sure this scenario would have happened last year or the year before--or any other year prior to this legislation.

    To address John's point, Wells should have known that the workers at the Virginia Williams Resource Center look for any excuse to not provide shelter. WaPo wrote about this issue I think in 2010 or fall 2009. And the Washington Legal Clinic has raised the issue as well. I wonder what kind of training, directives they got from DHS.

    But the not-so-secret issue is one of simple capacity. D.C. decided that it didn't want another D.C. General over-capacity problem. So it has cut it's bedspace--from a high of 200 units to roughly 150. And since the council didn't want to open up another shelter--say, the Spring Road property in Ward 4--the city is stuck turning families away or paying for costly motel stays.

    The residency requirement, law or not, is now in practice. Damn the technicalities.

  • Drez

    I'm thinking that front line workers are likely under direction to restrain operating costs, and if it wasn't this they used as pretext than it would be something else.

  • mini

    I worked at DHS for many years, there are many reasons you can not be accommodated at V. Williams, non DC residencey, prior placements, prior refusals, being removed from a shelter for various infractions. Intake staff have argued for years that the policy and procedures were inadequate and in fact a lie, but the politicians refused to address any of them adn would continue to say that V. Willimas provides 24-services to homeless families. First, it closes for intake at 3:00 pm and is closed a the weekend, since closing the motels/hotels (due to DC residents pressure)along New York Ave the District does not have an abundance of places to put homeless families on a long-term basis, and lastly it is true that if you sleep with your children on the street/park you are putting your children at risk and can be referred to CFSA. The DC Council approved all legislation and budget for homeless services, and then when something hits the media exclaim that there needs to be an investigation. They are the ones that make the policy and this has been going on for about 10 years,it is not new folks.

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  • Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

    Thanks for the great article, Jason!

    Readers can find out more about the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless at:

  • Jennifer

    This makes me incredibly sad. I would love to get a journalist in there under false pretenses to see what is really going on at that place. The entire idea of "homeless" is that you don't have a residency anywhere. I don't even think any of the homeless people that Ive worked with has an ID at all. Most are stolen or sold. Maybe the churches need to get in there. I know our church in Fredericksburg takes care of this, not the city.

  • Mo

    What if someone was so despondent from being faced with such an ultimatum that they took some extreme action? Like the street vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire after being set upon by the police and thus triggered the ouster of the country's dictator. Do we really need for something outlandishly fatal to happen before common sense is applied to an already terrible situation?