Council Votes Against Controversial Private Restrooms for Homeless Families

Photo of the DC Council Committee of the Whole at a November 3 2015 hearing.

Alexandra Pamias

On Tuesday November 3, the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole passed the Interim Eligibility and Minimum Shelter Standards Amendment Act of 2015. This amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005 will allow dorm-style shelters to replace DC General family shelter.

In 2005 this law was passed to prevent the mayor from placing homeless families in non-apartment style shelters. Apartment-style shelters have private bathrooms, a private cooking area and separate sleeping areas for adults and children.

At the request of Mayor Bowser, Chairman Phil Mendelson presented a bill, Advancing Year Round Access to Shelter Policy and Prevention of Homelessness Amendment Act of 2015, to reverse this rule.

Councilmember Mary Cheh offered up a modification to the amendment that would continue to require the shelters to include private bathrooms for families. Cheh stressed the need “to ensure the safety, security, and dignity for the people in these units.”

Cheh refuted the claims that adding private bathrooms would cost more money, saying that the administration did not have proof that this would be the case.  In addition, she argued against the idea that if the shelters are too comfortable for families, they won’t move out. She stated that there is no proven correlation between private bathrooms and an extended time of stay.

Cheh said that families that live in apartment-style units and hotels, both of which have private bathrooms, tend to move out of the system faster. DC General, with its cafeteria and shared bathrooms, has the slowest move out rate, she claimed.

“We have this chance now to provide that aspect that is fundamentally necessary for basic human dignity and humanity. And I think we ought to pass this amendment,” Cheh contended.

Councilmember Elissa Silverman supported Cheh’s amendment to the new bill by emphasizing how important it is to provide families with a sense of control and security.

“Private bathrooms aren’t just about comfort,” Silverman said. “Shared bathrooms means having to choose between sending your 4-year-old to a shared shelter bathroom alone at night or leaving your sleeping baby alone in your room. It means a lack of control over the cleanliness of the space you share.”

During the public hearing, many council members talked about how horrible the conditions at D.C. General are and the need to close it down. Silverman raised the point that there was no disagreement on closing down the shelter, but that the important question to ask was, “What does a more humane and more dignified emergency shelter look like?”

“I agree with Mayor Bowser that our children deserve better. We should be ashamed of how we have treated them,” Silverman said. “But in the rush to close D.C. General we should not make mistakes that hurt our ability to care for these vulnerable residents.”

Councilmember Yvette Alexander opposed Cheh’s amendment, but urged advocates and council members to come to a compromise.

“Everyone wants it their way or no way,” Alexander said. “We have to stop debating on whether a person receives a bathroom or a kitchen facility. These are shelters and we do want to treat people as humanely as possible.”

Alexander said advocates supporting private bathrooms were implying that the conditions at the new shelters were going to be as deplorable as the conditions in DC General.

“People are acting like there is not going to be security in these buildings,” Alexander said. “You can’t compare a 300 people facility to a 50 people facility.”

Chairman Phil Mendelson agreed with Alexander that the new facilities would be better than D.C. General. He also made the point that the standards specified in the amendment are meant to be set as a minimum standard and that in some buildings “these standards will undoubtedly be exceeded.”

“While there is this attention to bathrooms, the focus really needs to be on services and the exit from the shelter system,” Mendelson said. “The focus needs to be on keeping the stay short”

Ultimately, the committee voted against Cheh’s suggested modification to Bill 21-352: four votes in favor and nine votes against it.

“I am very disappointed in the council and the mayor,” said Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH). “They had a chance to signify to homeless families that they thought they deserved more and that they would ensure that these new facilities met these minimum safety and health standards.”

This is not the first time WLCH has criticized D.C. government for failing to provide homeless families with adequate privacy. The clinic won a class action lawsuit in 2014 when homeless families were placed in recreation centers, rather than private rooms, after shelters filled up during the winter season. The D.C. Court of Appeals upheld the right to sue for “health, safety, and welfare” provided in the Homeless Services Reform Act.

After Mayor Bowser proposed the dorm-style shelters in September, WLCH conducted a survey of what homeless families thought about the proposed changes to this legislative standard. The results were delivered to the Wilson Building on Monday October 26, a week before the vote.

Outreach for the survey was conducted in cooperation with the Department of Human Services at nine different shelter sites, including DC General, apartment-style shelters, and about 400 families in hotels. Families in domestic violence and community-based shelter units were also contacted to participate in the survey.

The 53 responding families said their most crucial needs were a private bathroom, food storage space, a place for their kids to do their homework and play, and a computer lab.

Seventy-seven percent of families said it was critical to have a private bathroom and shower even if they were in shelter for less than 3 months. That number rose to 85 percent of families stating that a private bathroom and shower were necessary if you were to stay in a shelter for longer than 1 year.

A mother from one of the families interviewed for the survey was present at Tuesday’s vote. She said in an interview that she never felt that D.C. General was safe for her four children. She expressed her concern over her children having to share a bathroom with a complete stranger.

The mother described an incident when a staff member of D.C. General refused to open the family restroom for her and her children, something that would occur regularly when an individual would lock the restroom by accident.

“They don’t really look at us like humans,” she said.

Her daughter has a medical condition that prevents her from holding her urine. She said that not having access to a private bathroom was very distressing. The mother also explained how her children would get sick constantly while they lived at D.C. General.

“[We were there for] 8 months and the whole time my children were there they kept getting vigorously sick,” she said. “They had major diarrhea, I mean the runs. It would just come out on the floor. I don’t know whether it was the food or the conditions.”

The mother claimed to have requested help from the shelter to accommodate these special needs, but never got any assistance.

Many families shared a single family restroom and families using that restroom could never get any peace. Angry people would knock repeatedly on the door trying to rush her.

“When you come out you have all these people that are angry at you because you took more time to bathe your children, but how can you take five-minute baths with four children?” she said.

Not having private bathrooms at a shelter is a huge concern for families facing homelessness. Advocates hope that Mayor Bowser’s administration will create new family shelters above the standards that were passed at the November 3 hearing.

“The mayor still has an opportunity to do more; like they said, it’s a minimum,” Harding reflected. “So the mayor could decide to do more, but nothing is set.”

Issues |Civil Rights|Family|Shelters

Region |Washington DC

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