Credit: Darrow Montgomery

D.C.’s Department of Human Services is preparing to wind down its use of motels as overflow homeless shelters, an email sent by the agency director shows. The plan comes as the agency touts its success in combating family homelessness. 

City Paper obtained a copy of the email, which outlines the agency’s projected exit dates through the end of 2020. On Feb. 25, through a DHS staff member, agency director Laura Zeilinger sent an email to unnamed “stakeholders” that outlines the agency’s plan to fully exit four motel shelters by the close of next year.

Since the beginning of 2019, the agency has already moved families out of two motel shelters with which it has maintained lucrative shelter contracts, including the Motel 6 on Georgia Avenue NW, and Ivy City Hotel on New York Ave. NE. 

“There are 14 percent fewer families in temporary shelter than this time last year … This year, we have fully exited from two motels and we are on track to fully exit from two more. Many stakeholders have asked about our timeline for reducing our reliance on motels, so I am sharing our projections below,” Zeilinger wrote. 

She continued: “Continuing to close out motels is contingent on a variety of factors, but achieving the goal hinges primarily on our ability to successfully prevent families from coming into our emergency shelter system by offering prevention services and by reducing the length of time that families spend in shelter.”

The agency plans to fully exit New York Avenue NE’s Howard Johnson motel by March 31, Zeilinger writes. The Hotel Arboretum, which has 126 units of shelter space, will stop serving residents in the third quarter of this year. DHS also plans to exit the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE, which at 170 rooms is the largest contracted motel shelter in the city, by the first quarter of 2020. It will exit the strip’s Quality Inn, with 126 units, by the third quarter of 2020.

On March 4, DHS sent a letter to families staying in the Hotel Arboretum, notifying them that on May 30, DHS will transition all remaining families out of the shelter through rapid rehousing subsidies or to other emergency shelters. “Families who do not participate in housing viewing tours or apply for units independently will receive a notice of non- compliance, which may result in termination from shelter or transfer to another shelter placement,” the letter reads.

These plans don’t require prematurely terminating the agency’s contracts with those shelters. DHS’ contract with the Hotel Arboretum––known as the Holiday Inn Express before it rebranded––expires on May 25. Its contract with Days Inn expires in December; ditto its contract with the Quality Inn.

Advocates have long expressed concern about the safety of using motels as family homeless shelters. The buildings long used by DHS to house chronically homeless families are largely situated on the New York Avenue NE corridor, where children have to cross six lanes of traffic to get snacks from a 7-Eleven. 

 City Paper has also reported on the physical conditions of these motels, which have often included pest and rodent infestations. Other residents say their units are covered in mold.

DHS relied on the capacity these motels provided as the agency, in concert with others, wound down operations at the DC General campus, a former hospital that became the District’s largest family homeless shelter. Mayor Muriel Bowser closed the dilapidated facility permanently last October, and has plans to open smaller shelters in wards across the city.

But for some of the organizations that provide social services to homeless families, the rapid succession of changes in the District’s shelter system has destabilized their programming, and made it difficult to provide continuous services to children. 

“We’ve only been in Hotel Arboretum since September [of] last year and already we’re having to make plans to move out,” says Jamila Larson, the executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a long-running organization that provides structured activities and other resources for homeless children across different age groups.

“We’ve had a good partnership with the hotel, which supported our ability to serve three age groups in differentiated space. We hope moving forward we can continue to have such relationships with new shelter sites, and look forward to learning more about the city’s plans. We’re always focused on access to play and other services for children and the long-term stability for their families,” she says.

Other advocates appear worried that the move obscures the scope of D.C.’s homelessness problem. At an annual performance oversight hearing for DHS on March 1, attorney Amber Harding of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless shared concerns that DHS’ plan to reduce motel use does not reflect a decline in need for the space.

“Reducing shelter usage does not necessarily equate to reducing family homelessness,” Harding testified about the agency’s plans to reduce motel use. “Policies and practices that are primarily aimed at reducing shelter usage without considering the impact on reducing homelessness may result in increased trauma and instability for families.”

“Other D.C. agency numbers show family homelessness rising, not going down. The number of homeless children in D.C.’s schools has increased 26 percent since 2015, doubled since 2014,” her testimony says. “In 2018, more than three times the number of children counted in the Point in Time count were experiencing homelessness in D.C. schools—6,140 children. That means there were 4,207 children experiencing homelessness in our schools who were not counted in the 2018 Point in Time count. Family homelessness is not decreasing––family shelter usage is.”

At a performance oversight hearing earlier that day for the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, director Kristy Greenwalt testified before the housing and human services committees that D.C. has housing resources for only about one out of every 10 single homeless adults. 

Greenwalt said that the District has managed to reduce family homelessness, but continues to tread water providing services to homeless single adults, who have entered the city’s homeless service system in large numbers over the last year.

The next slate of family shelters are scheduled to open in wards 3, 5, and 6. Zeilinger also testified that while the Ward 3 and 5 shelters are on schedule, the site in Ward 6 is facing construction delays and won’t open until the fall. She did not specify the reason for the delay.