D.C. Council Tries Again To Reform Homeless Services

Cleaner shelters with a more professional staff, better supportive services, more accountability, a more predictable budget, and better long-range planning – these are some of the things that supporters of the D.C. Homeless Services Reform Act (HSRA) hope to see.  

The City Council is once more considering the HSRA, which ran aground last year over fears it might create new costs for the city. But supporters say that this time they believe those issues can be resolved and the bill can become law. 

The HSRA would replace and supplement several homeless laws now on the books, simplifying the present mixture of laws passed by the city council, regulations written by agencies and rules set by service providers. 

“The quality of life for folks in the shelter system is null and void. The reform act should improve that,” said Cheryl Barnes, a homelessness activist who has worked for more than three years to move the HSRA forward. She said she hopes that the HSRA can help meet basic needs of homeless people, from providing soap and other toiletries, to properly training shelter staff. 

The bill’s reintroduction follows a year of several shelter closings and other uncertainties about policies and procedures geared towards the homeless. It also comes on the heels of the mayor’s proposal of a 10-year plan to end homelessness. 

Chapman Todd, who oversees several shelters for Catholic Charities, said that the bill would “really clarify” the patchwork of laws and guidelines that now regulate homes services. “If you look at the regulations and statutes that impact how service providers operate, this will really pull it all together,” he said. 

Still, city officials have been worried that the reform act might create a “right to shelter” that could bring a disastrously costly repeat of the city’s Right to Shelter Law of the 1980s, which was eventually repealed. This interpretation of the current bill helped drive its projected costs so high that the City Council never passed it in 2004. 

In an era of fiscal constraints, where the needs of a fluctuation homeless population are still hard to predict, the city’s experience with creating a right to shelter still worries policy makers. The fear of seeing the system overwhelmed by new shelter-seekers, demanding comprehensive new services under new provider standards, is often mentioned. 

But HSRA supporters say the act would not mandate a right to shelter, or services the city could not afford, and that it offers needed benefits to homeless people and service providers alike. That view was shared at the March hearing. 

Sue Marshall, executive director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, said that the city would need to budget for some new services, but that she does not believe the HSRA creates an entitlement to shelter. And the HSRA’s standards of care, she said, parallel guidelines already present in the partnership’s contracts with service providers. They would include staff training and supervision, clean, safe facilities, guidelines for provider-client relations, and grievance procedures for residents. Facilities would be inspected annually. 

Kelly McShane, executive director of the Community of Home, praised the HSRA’s establishment of an Interagency Council on Homelessness, in which city officials and service providers would meet to share and report information on services, spending, and performance. She described that kind of coordination as “a big plus” for service providers’ planning, adding “I would be happy if everyone got in a room and talked on a regular basis.” The Interagency Council, she said, would make sure that happened. 

For homeless people, the concerns are more basic and immediate. Some describe the larger shelters as noisy and unfriendly. One man, who has a steady job, said, “I wish I could find an alley somewhere, because at the shelter, I’m not getting any sleep.” 

Another reported occasional bad food and scant bedding and said, “It’s a matter of simple human dignity.” 

That is the starting point for the HSRA’s provider standards, said City Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), who headed the Department of Human Services in the 1990s and now sits on the Council’s Human Services Committee. 

“We should treat people with decency,” he said. And the city “needs to go one step farther.” Standards of care and closer oversight, he said, can “hopefully serve as a catalyst to help develop a formal quality assurance program.” 

Likewise, said Gray, the HSRA, if approved, has the potential to help the city shape and build new initiatives under the mayor’s 10-year plan. But he said, “As with any legislation, the benefit lies in the implementation. Somebody’s got to take ownership of this.” 


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