Housing Complex

Homeless Advocates Call for Program Tweaks Instead of Motel Shelters

Overextended Stay

The city puts up some homeless residents at the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.

As of Jan. 15, the District was putting up 349 hotel families in motels, in both D.C. and Maryland, because the city's shelter system was maxed out. It's a solution that's preferable to leaving these families to fend for themselves, but it's far from ideal. First, it presents substantial hardships to the families themselves, who may have to send their children to school from a Howard Johnson off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Cheverly. And second, it comes at a considerable expense to taxpayers, who shell out around $100 a night for the motel rooms.

Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the D.C. Council's Committee on Human Services, is holding a roundtable hearing this morning on sheltering the homeless this winter. (The city is required by law to house all homeless residents in need when temperatures drop below freezing, causing a bigger crunch in shelters during the winter.) But in advance of the hearing, a coalition of advocacy groups and city officials has released a plan it says can house the homeless more effectively than the status quo, and at less cost.

The plan, put out by a working group within the Interagency Council on Homelessness, calls for changes both big and small. The most expensive proposal involves offering rapid rehousing—a program to place homeless families in housing with temporarily subsidized rent that has struggled to house adequate numbers of D.C. families—to more families, plus providing short-term rent assistance to the families best able to support themselves and permanent supportive housing to those least equipped to do so, such as disabled residents. Other proposals with lower price tags include beefing up the program to find suitable apartments for homeless families and increasing training and services around the housing programs.

The total annual cost of these proposals, the plan's authors estimate, would be nearly $29 million. But they say the current system can be much more expensive: If the city has to house 1,000 families in shelters or motels for $150 a night, that costs almost $55 million a year.

One can quibble with the numbers, but if the costs are even remotely comparable, advocates argue, it's hard to make the case that sheltering families in motels is a better use of the city's money than providing more permanent housing solutions. The trouble thus far—one the advocates' plan aims to ameliorate—has been the short supply of affordable housing into which to place these families, with the expectation that they can reasonably pay their own way once city subsidies end.

D.C.'s Department of Human Services and the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness both provided input into the plan but have not officially signed on, according to Kate Coventry of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, one of the groups that crafted the plan. Other groups behind the plan include Community of Hope, the Transitional Housing Corporation, and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • DCer


    It is clear that you and math aren’t on speaking terms. Does anyone at the WCP edit your stuff before you put it out there and do the homeless advocates a disservice by giving them a voice that makes them look ridiculous?

    “If the city has to house 1,000 families in shelters or motels for $150 a night, that costs almost $55 million a year”
    Uh, yeah…if they were sheltering them for 365 days a year, which we don’t . You said it in your own article, the District only rents these hotel rooms when temperatures are below freezing and is required to provide shelter which is what…2 months a year. Not 12 months. And the District is currently shelters 350 families at $100 a night, not 1,000 families at 150 a night.

    Frankly, this is the most efficiently spent money the District Government has ever spent. Rather than spending tens of millions to build a permanent structure that then costs a few more million a year to operate and maintain, the District spends $ 1million a month for the coldest couple months, or 2 to 3 million dollars a year, a far cry from your off-the-cuff 55 million a year.

    Better yet, (DC should really be using District hotels) DC puts most of them up in DC hotels, which creates taxable revenue for DC businesses that we then recollect.

  • 7r3y3r

    @DCer - it's not the most efficient if you consider that simply housing the homeless in hotel rooms temporarily does nothing to solve the problem, thus creating a consistent, long-term cost.

  • DCer


    None of the options above even treat, let alone solve the homeless issue. That can only be solved by stronger schools and strong economy that employs low skill people. Those are the solutions to the problem, giving folks temp housing just deals with their "now" problems, and you don't need to spend ~40 million in capital costs, then another ~ 3 million a year indefinitely to do that. 2-3 million a year while simultaneously supporting DC businesses and recouping some of that 2-3 million via taxes is a pretty damn good way to do it.

  • Yup

    DCer is right. Not only does the ridiculously bad math out the author as either stupid or lazy, it raises serious questions about the academic assumptions that went into this "study." Anyone who offers a straw man argument as poor as the $55m example is someone who needs their "study" double and triple checked.

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  • Mrs. D

    The hilarity of people complaining about bad math while displaying terrible reading comprehension is killing me. The "shelters OR motels" bit flew RIGHT over their heads, as if they believed that all of DC's homeless families are put up in motels and none in shelters or other housing. People so passionate about the homeless they don't even know that DC has nearly 300 family slots at DC General. But they can *sure* snipe an author reporting the facts of various proposals to improve our homeless services...

  • DCer

    Mrs D,

    You seem confused. The hotels are clearly to accommodate overflow from DCs existing shelters so what is your point? It does change the fact that numbers and Aaron seem to have a mutual allergy.

    It further supports the position of not spending tens of millions building addition temp facilities that will carry millions a year in o and m costs. As DC gentrifies, as DCs economy continues to grow, there will be fewer and fewer homeless. DCs population has grown 10% in the past 12 years yet it's homeless population has fallen. I hardly think having to spend a couple million a year on short term gap filler hotels is a legitimate rationale for spending ~ 40 million building something that we then have to spend millions more a year to maintain.

  • Mrs. D

    I'm far from confused. DC puts up nearly 300 families in the central shelter, nearly 500 in motels, and pays private shelters to put up others. ON TOP OF single men and women at other shelters, private and public. 1000 families doesn't seem a stretch given these numbers. Neither does $150/day cost, especially if we're considering future costs which will *OBVIOUSLY* increase with development pressures, which increase the cost of property.

    If you think that gentrification will force people with NO HOME out of the city, maybe you're the one who is confused. It may force the marginally housed to seek cheaper homes further from the city (and its attendant jobs), but, when you're sleeping rough, a city park or sidewalk on a commercial strip is far more hospitable than a suburban playground. And if you get into shelter from sleeping rough, what pressure does gentrification exert?

    Like Virginia's experience and this study suggest, rapid rehousing along with subsidies to keep people at risk of losing the shelter they currently have may lower our costs. Rather than consider the merits of these options, you're bickering over whether a journalist reporting a think tank's study did the math right when you can't even be bothered to think for 2 seconds about whether the FIRST number is founded (it is).

  • tlewisisdope

    Why not build more fucking shelters around the city instead of condos?

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