Housing Complex

With Shelters Over Capacity, City Housing 200 Families in Motels

The Comfort Inn where about 70 homeless families stayed last year.

During hypothermia season, which runs from November through March, the city is required by law to find shelter for homeless people. Last winter, that meant housing some of them in hotels, since family shelters didn't have enough room—as former City Paper staffer Jason Cherkis reported, around 70 were staying at the Comfort Inn on New York Avenue NE.

This winter, the problem is much worse. Since at least the beginning of January, the city says it has put up between 185 and 210 families per night in motels, at a rate of $100 per room. So renting rooms costs about $20,000 per night, and there's about half again on top of that for food, transportation, and other associated costs. That adds up really fast: at least a million bucks since the beginning of the year out of the city's homelessness budget. Which, needless to say, could be much better spent somewhere else. 

It's just about panicking the homeless advocates and government types who showed up to today's Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting. "I just want to make sure we're elevating this to a crisis urgency level," said Kelly Sweeney McShane, executive director of the Community of Hope. The need is especially great among young families, she says.

"When I first came here, I had no idea that the number of families facing homelessness would increase so much," said Department of Human Services director David Berns, noting that he'd expected the 327 spots in the family shelter system to be enough this year (by and large, there's so far been enough capacity for single men and women). They're building out 100 more spaces at D.C. General Hospital, which will bring the total up to about 250—larger than ideal for one family shelter.

According to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless' Scott McNeilly, once you get a placement in a hotel, you're good to stay for a bit. The problem has been finding transitional housing for families to move to as they get stabilized, since the pace of construction and acquisition of permanent supportive housing has slowed.

Where is the bump in homeless families coming from? A combination of factors. The New York Times shed light on a lot of them earlier this month: Many families are living otherwise normal lives, but are living on the edge, and suddenly can't make rent or live with family members anymore.

That's a big problem to solve.

  • http://povertyandpolicy.wordpress.com Kathryn Baer

    DHS Director Berns walked into a bad situation. The multi-stakeholder group that develops the plan for housing homeless people during the winter season probably underestimated the rise in family homelessness.

    But DHS again insisted on a plan based on some very iffy assumptions. I, among others, noted them, http://povertyandpolicy.wordpress.com/2011/10/19/dc-winter-plan-comes-up-short-on-shelter-for-homeless-families-again/

    One assumption was that a large number of units at DC General would be vacant because DHS had refused to place newly-homeless families there, even if they'd have to spend nights on the streets. Berns rightly (and under some pressure) reversed this policy.

    So the winter plan was even less adequate than it would have been otherwise.

    Thanks for keeping on top of the story. Maybe some day the District will address family homelessness as it should. But not without press attention, if past is prologue.

  • Skipper

    How many of these families are actually DC residents versus non-residents who come here for the very generous taxpayer-provided services and amenities?

  • Amber

    Thanks for covering this Lydia. It is a crisis, and one that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who has watched DC fail to invest in affordable housing over the past few years. FYI-- I don't believe any of the residents of the hotels are receiving food or transportation, so that is not an added cost. @Skipper: They're all DC residents. It's a requirement of the law to get into family shelter.

  • lt


    Unfortunately, around 10% are non-DC residents. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/06/AR2010100607325.html

    Regardless, DC should find warm places for anyone seeking shelter in cold even if VA and MD do not want to pay for these services. We should of course send them the bill though...

  • oboe

    Regardless, DC should find warm places for anyone seeking shelter in cold even if VA and MD do not want to pay for these services. We should of course send them the bill though...

    This is the bottom line. MD and VA have refused to pay their fair share for a half century now, so of course DC picks up the tab. After all, "the city" is where homeless people belong. (The idea that "these are all DC residents" is, of course, ridiculous. Half century of regional housing policy has ensured that the most marginal area residents will find housing in DC.) Meanwhile, my daughter's school goes unrehabilitated because there's not enough money.

    This money is a direct subsidy to schoolkids in MD and VA. At some point DC is going to have to say enough is enough.

  • KR

    The article you reference is from 2010. Since that time, DC has passed a law that requires shelter residents to prove that they are from DC. Amber is right that all of the people living in these hotels are DC residents.

    I agree with Amber that we need to be investing in affordable housing to prevent homelessness and provide alternative to expensive hotels and shelters.

  • huh

    This is a problem the city could rectify in a matter of months and for a paltry few million dollars.

    No one should die of exposure, but that also doesn't mean we need to be putting people up in hotel rooms either. The city could (and should) spend 15-20 million dollars (a paltry sum) and build a standard shelter on existing city property at the Stadium Armorey metro stop. The city has its prison there currently so they aren't going to sell it or move it. There is plenty of FAR available on those parcels to build a shelter to accomodate 200-300 people.

    Its already on city land, so no land acquisition costs. Its right on the metro, so the city saves money busing the homeless around and while I am sure there would be some nimby outcry, considering there is already a prison and youth detention facility on the same property, it isn't like the NIMBY arguments could carry much traction.

    I've said this at town hall meetings and in conversations with two mayors and 3 or 4 council members over the years.

    Another good option would be to repurpose one of the schools we closed 2 years ago. It would take some money to renovate, but they already have locker room, recreational and cafeteria facilities and are large enough to shelter hundreds of people. The nimby issues would be more serious, but there are better ways in dealing with the homeless rather than spending a fortune busing them out to a hotel.

  • Ward 6 Resident

    I'm glad to see that "huh" has a solution. But maybe "huh" should seek a little information first.

    1. There is no youth detention facility located on Reservation 13, the home of DC General. There is a jail which serves the entire District, but no youth detention facility.

    2. There are currently three separate homeless shelters already located on Reservation 13 where DC General is located. One is the homeless shelter for families in DC General which houses anywhere from 540 individuals upwards to possibly 1000 individuals. There is a second women's homeless facility located next to DC General General in Building 9 which has a capacity for 144 women. And there is a 35 bed men's shelter located in the DC General cafeteria.

    3. As a nimby resident, we have more than our fair share. How about a few large state of the art homeless shelters west of the park or on the Gold Coast. After all, what is a few million out of a city budget of 6 billion. We can even use some of the 1.6 billion being proposed for the 37 mile street car syatem,

    4. It would be helpful if the author of the article would clarify if the additional "100 spaces" earmarked for DC General are defined as family unit spaces which consist of 4 individuals per unit according to Mr. Carter the previous Human Services Director or if the "100 spaces" are just individual beds. If the "100 spaces" are viewed as family units, then you are talking about 400 additional individuals for a total of 1000 individuals housed at DC General, not 250.

  • oboe

    The city could (and should) spend 15-20 million dollars (a paltry sum)...

    Just to put this in perspective, there are at least three middle schools in NE right now that are severely outdated, and need major renovations. Stuart-Hobson is slated to get something on the order of $30 million. There's a bitter fight brewing over those funds, because the pie is shrinking, and there are other priorities.


    AHAR reports that Washington’s neighboring states recently saw a decline in their local homeless populations. The report shows homeless populations in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia fell by about 7 percent in the past three years.
    Charles McCullough, who says he is a homeless veteran living on the streets of Washington, said the recent crop of homeless people are coming from other states because of social service programs offered by Washington.
    “They don’t got the things we got here,” McCullough said. “They don’t got D.C. General, or DC Central Kitchen or all these shelters and other things we got around here.”
    In its latest report, HUD tracked the amount of permanent supportive housing programs that each state used during the most recently recorded fiscal year.
    Maryland and Virginia have maintained a substantially higher number of housing programs than D.C. Virginia reported having almost 100 PSH programs, compared with 72 in Washington. Maryland recorded a surprising 155 PSH programs, doubling D.C.’s PSH program totals, and then some.
    But of course, Maryland and Virginia have substantially higher populations.
    The AHAR reveals the more crucial statistic: When calculating the ratio of beds available per homeless person in Maryland, Virginia and D.C., Maryland’s bed-to-person ratio is 1-2, Virginia’s is 1-3 and the District’s is 2-3.
    Thus, it is easier for a homeless person to find a bed in the District of Columbia than in either Maryland or Virginia.

    (via Rollcall: http://bit.ly/yvEAUc)

    Bottom line is, DC's generous social safety net programs are an indirect subsidy to MD and VA residents, and they're one reason why schools and other services in the near suburbs are the best in the country. I'm not sure what the long-term solution is, but if the city is going to become anything more than the dumping ground for the social dysfunction in the region, we need to figure out a way of wrenching support from suburban jurisdictions.

    Simply making DC's services more attractive will just exacerbate the problems. The residency requirement is a good first step, but insufficient as a long-term strategy.

  • Pingback: Homeless Families Up 20 Percent - City Desk

  • Pingback: The High Cost of a Homelessness Surge | img7.us

  • Pingback: Civil Partnerships | Dream Housing

  • http://www.24hourvegasfood.com/ Las vegas restaurants

    It is big hotel compared the other hotels, this hotel is providing best food and so many bed rooms providing the hotel.

  • http://protocolhistory.weebly.com ColKlink

    Millions. Deport these homeless back where they came from. The Sanctuary City is a failure and cause of city violence.

  • http://globalceo.com/category/corporate-social-responsibility/ csr

    that is a great humanitarian law finding shelter for homeless people during the cold months. it a matter of government social responsibility