Families at the repurposed D.C. General Hospital shelter said bedbugs, mold and rodents were the least of their concerns. A much bigger worry, they told city officials, are the barriers they face when they attempt to overcome homelessness and leave the shelter behind.
“It’s not supposed to be comfortable,” former resident Sharisse Baltimore told City Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and others gathered for a Feb 28 oversight hearing at the shelter. “It’s not supposed to be a place to live and stay. You come here, you take care of your business, and you move out. You get out.”
But getting out is not always a simple process, Baltimore said. She and her five children stayed at the shelter for seven months before they managed to move into a home. Her story and many others highlighted the difficulty homeless families face in getting back on their feet. Many stay at the shelter for far longer than the average residence of 3.2 months before they find a way to move on, according to a city report. Those who spoke at the hearing stressed they did not want to remain at the shelter. But they said they confronted major difficulties finding jobs and affordable homes.
Resident Tiara Davis said she has applied for many jobs over the past five months she has spent at the shelter but she has yet to be hired.
“It just makes me feel like a prisoner sometimes,” said Davis, whose goal is to own a home. “I just want to take care of my daughter.”
Marta Beresin, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the residents’ testimonies indicated that the lack of affordable housing is a central contributor to homelessness.
“Resident after resident got up and spoke about working full time, pounding the pavement for jobs, going to school themselves and ensuring their kids don’t miss a day of school,” she said. “But they struggle to find child care, living wage jobs and housing they can afford.”
The rate of homelessness in the District has risen 9.3 percent since the recession year of 2008, according to an annual point-in-time count , conducted in the city each January. As in many other communities across the country, the rise in family homelessness has overwhelmed the shelter system.
Last winter, the shelter reached full capacity with 286 families of which 367 were adults and 591 were children, according to statistics reported by Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) at the hearing. Once the shelter was filled, many other families were placed in motels.
Reggie Sanders, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services (DHS), said the department’s efforts would begin to focus on expansion of the low-income housing availability in the District.
“Any new funding should be directed to housing and other needed resources to help families exit homelessness and move towards self-sufficiency,” she said. “DHS will continue to work toward diverting families from shelter by providing appropriate assessment, referral and resources to enable families to stay within their communities.”
Graham, who also serves as the chairman of the Committee on Human Services, said low-income housing in the District is essential but funds from housing initiatives such as Mayor Vincent Gray’s $100 million proposal should be allocated to improve the current shelter system.
“We’re going to work to improve what we have and then figure out how to make what we have better,” said Graham. “This is all better than a stairwell or a bus station or a couch, but we can do much better than this.”