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As the temperature dropped toward freezing on November 13, 30-year-old Shadon Freeman stood outside the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center with her sleeping 1-year-old daughter in her arms.
Freeman, who was nine months pregnant at the time and had her baby on Monday, was looking for emergency shelter after she overstayed her welcome at a friend’s house on D Street SE. She says she spent her last $10 on a ride to the Virginia Williams Center and waited for several hours only to be turned out into the cold night.
Freeman was born in the District and had with her multiple pieces of documentation that show her ties to the District: a copy of her birth certificate and of her DC Medicaid card, for example. The reason she was denied shelter, Freeman says, according to the intake worker at the Virginia Williams Center, is that she lived in Maryland more than a year ago. District residency has been a strict requirement for homeless services under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration.
The Council tightened the laws around access to the District’s shelters and homeless services at the end of 2017. Earlier this year, Bowser’s Department of Human Services proposed emergency regulations interpreting the new law, which advocates call “incredibly onerous” and say reverses much of the Council’s intent.
Freeman’s case is an example of how DHS’ proposed regulations can exclude the very people the Council meant to protect, says Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who is representing Freeman.
“In this scheme DHS is proposing, their own agency can find someone a resident for the purposes of Medicaid, and then turn around and determine they’re not a resident for the purposes of family shelter,” Harding says.
While Freeman was still pregnant with her now-1-year-old daughter, she says she moved from a family friend’s home in Maryland back to the District. Her friend was chronically ill and could no longer afford to help her. He died in January, she says.
Last Wednesday, Freeman listed the former Maryland address on her application at Virginia Williams but she doesn’t live there anymore, she says.
Freeman says she gave the intake worker a photocopy of her ID, Social Security card, DC Medicaid card, and her birth certificate showing that she was born in the District.
“They was tellin’ me that I needed to bring proof that I no longer reside in Maryland, but he’s dead now, you know?” she says of her friend. “I don’t have no way to bring y’all proof that I don’t live there anymore.”
Freeman says the intake worker was rude and impatient, telling her, “we don’t have to care because we don’t benefit from this. Y’all need this,” and “I’m gonna go home.”
Instead of helping her find a place to stay, the intake worker gave her a print-out listing homeless services in Maryland and a sticky note with the number for the Maryland shelter hotline. Two armed guards escorted her to the door, she says.
By then, it was about 7 p.m., Freeman recalls. She stood outside holding her daughter for what seemed like hours. Eventually, an employee at the juvenile probation office next door to the Virginia Williams Center offered to help.
Freeman says the good Samaritan bought her food and water from Carolina Kitchen across the street and gave her money for a cab to Howard University Hospital. She spent the night in the emergency room waiting area.
Freeman talked to City Paper from the bed in a motel room on New York Avenue NE where DHS finally placed her after Harding got involved in her case. (D.C. uses motel rooms as emergency shelter. The city is building additional facilities that will replace the notorious DC General shelter Bowser shuttered last year.)
PAW Patrol plays on the TV while Freeman’s daughter crawls around, her tiny hands orange with Cheetos dust from the snack she had earlier. If not for the kindness of a random stranger, Freeman says she would have spent the night outside.
An employee at the Virginia Williams Center directed City Paper to DHS spokesperson Dora Taylor-Lowe, who declined to comment on Freeman’s case, citing privacy concerns.
But in an email to Harding, which Freeman allowed her to share with City Paper, DHS gives a conflicting narrative of what transpired at the Virginia Williams Center last week. The email states that Freeman “did not complete the eligibility process” and indicated that she was a Maryland resident. “When the eligibility worker attempted to provide her with appropriate services, Ms. Freeman abruptly exited the building without receiving services,” the email says.
Noah Abraham, a deputy administrator who oversees DHS’ homeless services for families, says generally if the agency cannot immediately verify that a family is in emergency need of shelter, they will place them on an interim basis. If DHS believes a family resides in another jurisdiction, Abraham says, the agency will help the family find services outside of D.C.
“She’s literally the person this law was supposed to be protecting, and it’s being used to screen her out,” Harding says. “Not to mention the pure humanity of putting her out in the cold when she’s having a baby and had a baby in her arms, and they knew she had nowhere to go.”
In 2016, Bowser frustrated housing and homeless advocates, including Harding, and some councilmembers with a proposal to tighten eligibility requirements for shelter in the District.
D.C. is one of the few jurisdictions in the country with a right to shelter law and already required residency to gain access to a shelter. But Bowser’s bill, introduced in September 2016, would have demanded two documents as proof of residency, as well as “clear and convincing evidence” that a person does not have a safe housing alternative.
“District residents experiencing homelessness should be at the front of the line to receive help,” Bowser tweeted in November 2016 after she asked the Council to act quickly on her bill. “The legislation I introduced ensures that all District resources go to help District residents. District taxpayers should not be put in the position of providing services for the entire region when there is so much need here.”
Bowser warned of overcrowded shelters, and the Department of Human Services released data showing about 12 percent of people seeking family shelter were not District residents. The District spent $80,000 a night to house homeless families in motels, DHS claimed, because the shelters were full.
“We’re not trying to put people out on the street,” DHS Director Laura Zeilinger said at the time, according to the Washington Post.
Bowser introduced a different, more detailed bill in May 2017—the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act—but by emphasizing a line between residents and non-residents, the mayor sparked a debate about the definition of residency and its relevance to helping people who have no home.
It also reminds some of a national debate around the country’s southern border.
“Focusing everyone’s attention on a fake problem of people flooding our borders to take resources from D.C. residents is not the right approach,” Harding says. “I think it is motivated by similar catering to fears of outsiders instead of actually focusing on solving the problems of people who need your help. Just like the reason that people in West Virginia are struggling to find jobs is not the result of illegal immigration, people struggling to find housing has nothing to do with Maryland residents taking their shelter resources away.”
The Council passed Bowser’s bill at the end of 2017 with several changes. The law lists specific documents a person can use as proof of District residency but only requires one, as opposed to Bower’s proposal of two. The bill also restored individuals’ and families’ rights to appeal after they’re removed from a housing program that Bowser’s bill left out.
In September of this year, DHS published its proposed regulations further interpreting the law, which are currently in effect on an emergency basis.
The Washington Legal Clinic, along with five other legal and advocacy organizations, signed a letter suggesting the regulations stem from the agency’s “unsupported belief that families are prone to lying or ‘gaming the system’ in order to get into shelter.”
Abraham says that’s an unfair assessment.
“We serve dozens of families each month, and when families come and access services, we have a legal responsibility to do our due diligence and prioritize services for District residents,” Abraham says. “But if on the other side, you see cases that don’t work, that’s your only reality. But that’s not always the case.”
The proposed regulations specify several pieces of information DHS can use to disprove a person’s District residency and allow just one piece of evidence to overshadow multiple documents supporting residency, the advocates’ letter argues.
They also don’t allow DHS to consider a person’s own statement as “credible evidence” that they don’t have safe housing, a rule Kathy Zeisel, an attorney with Children’s Law Center, takes issue with.
“The Council debated on the dais what credible evidence was going to be and whether it needed to be an oral or written statement,” Zeisel says. “No one imagined that it would be neither.”
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who shepherded the bill through the Council, declined to comment on the proposed regulations, but says she is reviewing advocates’ concerns and plans to meet with DHS to discuss them.
“They are emergency regs right now, so we’re working toward ensuring the final regs are sent down soon and that they reflect the legislative intent,” Nadeau writes in an email.
Abraham and his team are reviewing public comments on the regulations and will be making some adjustments, he says. He could not provide a firm timeline for the revisions.
What Harding believes is a conflict between the law and DHS’ proposed regulations—that a connection to another jurisdiction can trump a person’s ties to the District—creates a potential constitutional problem around the right to travel.
“In cases like Ms. Freeman’s, the harm already happened,” she says. “So we’re exploring how to tackle these in systemic ways, but right now unless the Council steps in and overrides the regulations, we’re stuck in hypothermia season with a system that is not going to protect families from freezing this winter. It’s going to err on the side of bureaucracy, not on their safety.”