City Desk

Emails Show D.C. Struggling With Homeless Shelter Capacity

It may be easy to paint D.C. as being a pretty harsh place for homeless families. After all, there is D.C. General—its controversial and problematic emergency shelter. And there is the on-going capacity problem. The city just doesn't have enough space for every homeless family. Placing families at the Comfort Inn on New York Avenue has now become routine.

But in reading emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, city workers agonized over the capacity problem throughout this hypothermia season. The emails swerve between desperation and confusion, from one crisis to the next. They show Department of Human Services administrators working diligently to fix the impossible: To find space for the city's too many homeless families.

On December 7, Fred Swan, a DHS administrator, wrote up his concerns over the capacity problem. He emailed then-DHS Director Clarence Carter and others:

"Based on the current pace we are housing families and the capacity issue we are facing at DC General tonight, we need to step up the pace considerably to ensure we have enough capacity as we do not want to leave any priority one families out in the cold. I know everyone is doing all they can to place families as quickly as possible and there are several barriers (i.e. availability of 3-bedroom units and families declining to take units in our inventory). However we still need to work through these issues to get where we need to be capacity wise."

Swan goes on to write about the lack of affordable housing problem—and the reason some families rejected apartments:

"In regards to the exit assistance program I know a number of families are refusing our units because of price. Can we find some other cheaper units via the website. Also, since families will have 12-months to get prepared to be on their own financially can't they accept the units we currently have and work with case management to identify cheaper units that relocate to after 12-months? They would be able to get their security deposit back at the end of the 12-months and if needed we could provide some assistance with first months rent."

The following night, Michele Salters, another homeless services administrator with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, wrote Swan that two families left D.C. General instead of the planned four families. This was a problem.

D.C. General was still basically full. They might have to start using hallways and play rooms to house families, Salters noted in her email: "If we have after hours calls tonight that meet criteria for placement we will be using common areas."

Swan replied: "Hopefully we will not have to place anyone tonight."

The capacity issue was an every day issue. Weekends could be especially rough. On December 17, Swan wrote: "Just wanted to get an update on how we are set for the weekend with families. There will be alerts on Saturday and Sunday as well as today so I wanted to see where we are at with housing, shelter capacity, reserve units and DC General and apartments that we have keys for. Let me know."

In a little more than an hour, Salters replied: "We will have one vacancy today at DC General that will probably be filled by the Intake center. I have two furnished apartment units we can use over the weekend if needed. There may be other moveouts today that I am not aware of yet so I will update as I get more information."

A month later, on January 18, Scott McNeilly of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless wrote Swan an urgent message regarding activities at the Virginia Williams Resource Center, the place families go when they need shelter.

McNeilly wrote:

"There still seems to be a problem with the message that staff at Virginia Williams is conveying to emergency shelter applicants. I just a call from a woman who called me from VWFRC. She stayed last night with her six year old son at the Motel 6 on New York Avenue but has spent all of her money. (She had to beg the bus driver to let her get on for free to get to VWFRC). [She] said that a worker came out to the waiting room where four or five families were waiting and said that because she is the only intake worker who has arrived at work it will take her a long time to get to everyone. According to Ms. (name redacted), the worker then went on to say that even if she is able to get to everyone, there are no shelter spaces so it is unlikely everyone will be placed. The worker then said that people should try to find a place with friends or family. [She] said that she has no one she can stay with which is why she's at VWFRC.

While I was writing this, I received a second call from another woman at VWFRC who confirmed that staff came out and announced that there is no space in the shelter and that applicants should call back tomorrow and the next day to see if there is any space.

This needs to be fixed."

Three minutes later, Swan forwarded the email to Salters and wrote: "FYI Are they really saying this?"

Swan labeled the email's importance as "High."

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  • Rick Mangus

    Fuck these freeloading wining bastards and ship them to Libya!

  • Sample Emails

    Lets hope people who were living at DC will get get shelter as soon as possible.

  • DCexpat

    Prediction: emails may show the city struggling with snow removal. Potholes. Corruption. Crime. Basic literacy. Etc. etc. etc.

  • Subb

    Wow. Keep up the great work, Cherkis. Totally underwhelming. I know the drive in from MD must be tough, but a trip to DC might be worth your time! Of course, FOIA journalism does keep the checks coming, dont it?

  • Jason Cherkis

    Subb: Thanks for you kind words. Just wanted to make a little correction, I live in D.C. so my commute to WCP offices is minimal!

    Not sure how you can be underwhelmed by a city struggling to house homeless families durying hypothermia season.

  • Get Real


    The outcome of this article is so well known that it's almost "unwritten rule" at this point.

    When the District sets aside money to properly construct or repair DC General to make it livable, there will be plenty of available "units" for the homeless. Until then, we will continue to watch the Council and Mayor spread money around to "special interest" groups and give jobs to their friends before they take care of the citizens most at risk. Then, once the money is made available, have competent staff in the District government facilities group hire competent contractors to come in and complete the work.

    But no one wants to talk about the larger discussion because it has the potential to take jobs away from small DC contractors who cut corners and halfass their way through jobs, or from incompetent DC Government Facilities Maintenance staff who wouldn't know what a sheet of drywall is if it hit them in the head.

    As someone who has to work with this every day, this comes as no surprise to me. You didn't even need to FOIA emails, all you had to do is ask the right questions to the right people.

  • Rick Mangus

    I see Jason's Kool Aid drinkers have all chimed in!

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  • Balance


    I applaud you attempts to put the spotlight on issues concerning our most vulnerable residents. However, there is a lot of positive things that are happening regarding services being provided to this and other vulnerable populations. How about finding a balance and highlighting some positive stories as well.

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  • Eric Sheptock
    I share with you my radio appearance at WPFW in DC to talk about the ramifications of the budget shortfall. Please take a look here and share to all as we seek your appearance on May 16th at 1 PM for a planning session at CCNV and then on the 18th a short march from CCNV to City Hall. Wednesday's Human Services March begins at 10 AM at CCNV