DC shelter hotline found to deliver inconsistent information amid latest update

Graphic by Bruna Costa

D. C. upgraded its shelter hotline to a new call center system on June 9 to include new greetings and prompt options. A Street Sense audit of the hotline found inconsistencies with information it provided to people who called the number.

In a test of multiple calls, the hotline disconnected or directed callers to a voicemail box. Nine calls were made to the hotline between June 9 and July 17. When an employee was reached, they said transportation could not be requested to a specific location. They instead gave the addresses of two van pickup spots. At these spots, usually located outside of day centers, vans arrive at 4:30 p.m. to bring individuals to local shelters. Street Sense identified itself each time it spoke with an employee from the hotline.

According to an email from the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), the city created a new call center system to improve customer service. The system gives callers multiple prompt options to direct their call. The update also allows the hotline to track call wait time and respond to calls remotely in case of a power outage.

Those who have used the hotline before and after the update say it is unreliable.

“Nothing has changed,” said Nikila Smith, a vendor at Street Sense Media. “It still doesn’t work.”

Other people who have used the hotline said they encountered similar issues . Some shared past experiences with calling the hotline during hypothermia season to request for transportation and blankets, only to later wait for a van that never arrived.

Another Street Sense Media vendor, Queenie Featherstone said she felt the hotline can create a sense of false hope during already difficult times for people experiencing homelessness. When requesting transportation or resources, hotline employees instruct callers to stay in their location until a van arrives to either take them to a shelter or deliver requested resources.

According to Featherstone and Smith, these vans can take multiple days to arrive. Some say the van never arrives at all.

Transportation services can be especially complicated for those with disabilities who require extra assistance. According to one hotline employee that Street Sense spoke to, the vans are not guaranteed to be ADA-accessible.

Abel Putu has used a wheelchair his entire life. He said that in his experience with shelters and the hotline, the amount of help he receives depends on the employees more than anything.
“It depends on if the good people work that day,” he said. “It’s rough.”

People can only request transportation after 7:30 p.m. without a guarantee that the shelter will still have available beds. According to one person who answered the hotline, most shelters in the District begin their nightly intake at 5:30 p.m., with several generating lines outside as early as 3:30 p.m. Another employee said shelters begin their intake around 7:00 p.m.

The hotline is run by the United Planning Organization (UPO). It is funded by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness through grant funds provided by DHS.

According to UPO’s 2021 Needs Assessment Report, 94,549 rides were provided to homeless customers through the hotline. It is unclear whether or not these ride requests were ever fulfilled.

The shelter hotline is available daily from 8 a.m. to midnight to assist unhoused people with emergency shelter, social services and temporary housing issues. During hypothermia alerts — when the temperature or wind chill falls below 32ºF from November 1 to March 31 — the hotline is available 24/7.

According to the UPO website, the hotline aims to bring people living outside to local shelters — no matter the time of year. It also provides those in need with clothing, blankets and sleeping bags.

However, when Street Sense dialed the hotline, an employee gave conflicting information and said transportation was unavailable.

The hotline is advertised on several government websites and outside of most shelters and day centers in D.C. Of the seven vendors asked, only three knew of the hotline and its services.

DHS did not respond to multiple email and phone requests for comment to the shelter hotline for details

Issues |Living Unsheltered|Shelters

Region |Washington DC

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