The table jumped as Fred Swan hit it to make his point: The District’s family homeless shelter seems to remain filled to capacity, regardless of the city’s ongoing efforts to address increasing needs.
“Even if we can create some vacancies, we are going to be in the same position we were in last winter,” Swan said. “What are we going to do when we have ‘priority one’ families knocking on our door in April, June, July, November?” Swan, the administrator for the District’s Department of Human Services, wanted the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness to fully understand that the family shelter crisis had not yet been solved, even with the addition of space for more than 100 additionalfamilies in recent weeks.
The “priority one” families he referred to were those with no other housing options, in need of
immediate shelter with children in tow.
Their needs keep expanding, much like the number of beds at D.C. General, the only shelter designed to accept entire families. In the wake of the nation’s long recession and housing crisis, cities all over America are coping with rising numbers of homeless families, and the District has been no exception.
In this city, a total of 858 families, including more than 1,600 children, were included in the 2011 Point-in-Time homeless count, a seven percent increase over 2010, and the numbers have continued to climb.
In the winter of 2010, D.C. General’s capacity was set at 135 individuals and overflowed to house 200 families. The shelter can now hold 272 families, but breeches capacity nightly. When beds open up, families are placed. Nothing is reserved.
In planning for the winter of 2011-2012, the ICH originally stipulated that some family beds would be held in reserve for freezing weather. But as the need grew, every vacant bed was eventually called into service. When Swan slammed the table, he was asking what would be the plan now that spring is coming? Keep D.C. General filled throughout the summer, or try to gain back some vacant rooms for future needs?
“Do we fill those vacancies then or hold them for the winter season when we know we’re desperately going to need them?” Swan asked the other city officials gathered for the meeting. “If we plan the way we’ve been planning this winter, I can tell you right now that there’s no way we’re going to have that kind of capacity.”
In addition to expanding space at D.C. General, the city has also been placing families in motels.
These rooms, too, have been in steady use some by very young families headed by teenagers, some with multiple children.
ICH member Jean Michel Giraud, executive director of Friendship Place, questioned the city’s decision to house very young families in motels. He suggested that the freedom of having a key to a personal room might be helping to drive the demand for some of those rooms.
“There’s no doubt to me that in a young family, 18 to twenty-something, being able to be in your own motel room is going to look much nicer than having to go to a shelter,” Giraud said. “You can come in and out as you wish, and you know, fundamentally, there’s a problem with that kind of resource for us to offer it, I think.”
“It’s expensive,” Swan shot back, “but you’ve got to accommodate the need.”
“Yeah, but we’ve seen two years where we’ve needed the hotels and we’ve needed the space,” said Hilary Es- pinosa, senior case manager at Miriam’s Kitchen. “At what point do we say, ‘Why not invest those resources in continuing to look for other permanent bases?’”
The number of families placed in motels peaked at 238 this winter, but recently dropped to 166. City officials have stressed that rather than spending money on motels and shelter expansions, they would prefer to concentrate resources on moving families out of homelessness and into transitional and permanent housing.
Now that winter—and hypothermia season—is drawing to a close, ICH is gearing up to plan for next
“If we start today, maybe next Nov. 1, we got some success, we got some things happening,” Swan said. “What we have to do at the same scale is we gotta sit in this room, and we gotta duke it out, and we gotta come up with a winter plan that makes sense, that we all, even if we all don’t agree on every aspect, but we all gotta buy into it.”