Where Will Homeless Families Go After the Comfort Inn?
This week, I wrote about the 200-ish families the city is putting up at hotels on New York Avenue NE, in the broader context of an affordable housing supply that's just totally dried out. Obviously, there's much more to the story.
At the end of hypothermia season on March 31, the city is no longer legally required to house families seeking shelter. To its credit, the Department of Human Services isn't planning to just kick people out (and does have some federal funds on hand to foot the bill). But finding alternative places for them to go isn't going to be easy. Last year, families stayed in hotels until early July. This year, there are more than twice as many to deal with, plus even more in D.C. General. And right now, DHS has no plans to arrange for more transitional housing—it'll all have to come from vacancies that open up.
"There’s a churn throughout the year. Families do exit the system. They just don’t exit as quickly as they’re coming into the system," says DHS family services administrator Fred Swan (who agonized over the crush in shelter capacity last year). "At this point we don’t anticipate anything additional to what we have."
Meanwhile, local elected officials in Hill East are hopping mad about the swelling population at D.C. General. "It’s like a concentration camp of homeless people," says ANC 6B commissioner Neil Glick, who says he's seen an uptick in littering and package thefts over the winter. "We’re so disappointed in this whole thing, because it’s become the social service hellhole of the whole city. We closed D.C. Village, and let’s just put them in Ward 6. No one wants to live near a homeless shelter, and now we have the majority of the homeless people in the city."
But redistributing folks to other facilities around the city is next to impossible—witness Councilmember Muriel Bowser's refusal to allow a perfectly suitable building in her ward to be converted into a family shelter, and Jim Graham's rejection of Central Union Mission on Georgia Avenue. Will D.C. General ever shrink back down? “We sure hope so," says DHS Director David Berns.
The empathetic Berns attributes this year's unforeseen spike in homeless families to economic forces above all of our heads, and the "changing face of homelessness" that has more working families without a place of their own. He also seems unperturbed by the possibility that people had heard about the city putting people up in hotels and decided that sounded better than wherever they were staying at the moment, even if they weren't completely homeless.
“The fact is that they’re still poor, the economy is horrible, they’re doubled up and people want them out," Berns says. "So I think we need to concentrate more on the fact that it is poverty, a lack of jobs, a lack of housing opportunities, and when they do see a chance to correct that, availability of shelter or a hotel may look more appealing than continuing to have four or five people sleeping on the couches or on the floors of someone else’s apartment.”
That certainly applies to Shelly, a woman I met at the Comfort Inn. She's 26 years old, with three kids aged 10, 5, and nine months. She can live with her father sometimes, but had been paying for hotels to fill the gaps; the Comfort Inn is a life preserver. “Yeah, my family will take me in, but they’re not willing to take me in for any length of time," Shelly says. She's had a job at Macy's, and her boyfriend worked nights stocking shelves; she figures she could afford a $600 one-bedroom somewhere. But she doesn't exactly pass a credit check with flying colors, and property managers won't put three kids in a one-bedroom.
Have you ever thought about moving away? I asked. Turns out Shelly's brother already had, finding a cheap room and a construction job in Alabama. “I like this city a lot, but if push comes to shove, I might make that trip too," she says.
A lot goes into being hemmed in by homelessness. I figure I'll just let some ladies explain for themselves.
Here's Sharmaine Walton, 32 years old, and Arnitta Cowser, 44:
And Tangela Speight, 22; Ashley Johnson, 23; and Theresa Brown, 26.
Photo by NCinDC via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0 License