Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For a sense of what it’s like to live in a Days Inn, consider this: The group of chronically homeless D.C. residents sheltered there refer to it as “the compound.”

Their rooms are “cells,” a former resident named Victoria says, and The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness—a group D.C. pays about $75 million annually to manage the Days Inn and other homeless shelters—is “the warden.” 

Children can’t eat, walk, or sleep alone, and they’re not allowed to play outside. (If they do, according to a notice the New York Avenue NE Days Inn has distributed since 2014, it’s grounds for eviction.) A monitor makes rounds every Wednesday for “room checks,” and each night at 9:30 p.m. for “curfew checks.” Parents have to sign out in a ledger at the front desk when they leave the motel, and sign in when they enter. 

And though officials who run the Department of Human Services chronically refer to the motels as “temporary” and “emergency” shelters, families live there for months at a time. Many have lived in motels for years.

This service runs the District about $3,000 per family each month—comparable to the cost of a luxury two-bedroom apartment with a waterfront view. D.C. contracts with a string of motels along New York Avenue NE and Georgia Avenue NW for homeless shelter space, including the Quality Inn, Holiday Inn Express (the “halfway house,” Victoria says), Howard Johnson, and Motel 6. As of mid-April, 325 families lived in these five shelters, nearly double the 169 families currently living in D.C. General, the city’s largest family homeless shelter.

D.C. councilmembers and DHS officials have long acknowledged the significant cost of these motels, as well as how consistently DHS has relied on them despite promising periodically to eliminate their use. 

But despite saying in 2017 that the agency plans to stop motel placements by the end of next year, DHS Director Laura Zeilinger is quietly banking on the city’s contracts with motels to help offset the influx of homeless families into the city’s shelter system when the District closes D.C. General this fall.

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On June 25, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh convened a roundtable in response to City Paper’s reporting that contracting issues have delayed the construction of new shelters in wards 7 and 8. At the roundtable, DGS Director Greer Johnson Gillis acknowledged that the projected substantial completion date for both shelters moved from Aug. 31 to Oct. 1, while DGS project manager Brian Butler expressed ongoing concerns about the Ward 8 site, noting that the new projected completion date could shift further.

Nearly five hours into the hearing, At-Large Councilmember Robert White asked Zeilinger whether DHS “has a contingency plan if the ward 7 and 8 shelters are significantly delayed?”

“Yes,” Zeilinger responded. “We have letters of intent with motels in order to, in pre-negotiated rates for blocks of rooms in order to be able to do that. That would be how we would handle if we were to have more overflow as needed because new units were not online for new placement.” A DHS spokesperson says these are Howard Johnson, Ivy City, and the Motel 6 on Georgia Avenue NW.

Later, Zeilinger told Council Chairman Phil Mendelson that conditions “may be better” in the motels than they are in D.C. General, when Gillis interjected, saying definitively that conditions in motels “are better” than they are in D.C. General. 

But the conditions of the motels have long garnered significant concerns from residents themselves, as well as the pro-bono lawyers and advocates who represent them.

Victoria, who lived in the New York Avenue NE Days Inn for about one year and asked City Paper not to use her last name, says that she was sexually assaulted by an officer with Capital City Security, the firm under contract with TCP to patrol and guard the property. She says that after a verbal altercation with a CCS officer, a male guard handcuffed her, groping her thighs and genitals as he and other officers dragged her upstairs to her unit. These events are consistent with a police report obtained by City Paper

For months afterward, Victoria says, she saw the male guard stationed at the Days Inn front desk, where she was expected to sign the entrance ledger. Victoria tells City Paper she stopped signing in and out because she didn’t want to confront the officer again, and consequently received citations for violating the terms of her agreement with the motel. (D.C. requires motels serving children to obtain “sexual/physical abuse and molestation coverage,” to guard the city against a claim in the event a motel employee assaults a resident.)

A DHS spokesperson says that its Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation is “looking into” this case, and the agency is “not aware” of any prior substantiated claims of sexual harassment by CCS, but that TCP has contracted with a new security company. 

Five months after the assault, Victoria says she was again assaulted by CCS officers, a group of whom arrested her after a 45-minute dispute. Victoria says she was watching from a doorway as her aunt packed clothes for her cousin’s children. They charged her with “assault on a police officer” after “blocking the entrance of a room” at the Days Inn, but later dismissed the charges. City Paper received photographs of extensive bruising along Victoria’s arms after the incident––as did Zeilinger, who in early June was copied on the same email detailing the assault as this reporter.

Victoria’s daily life at the Days Inn brought her anxiety and disgust, she says. Her first room had one bed that she was apparently expected to share with her pre-teen son. It was infested with cockroaches, such that she woke up with the insects lodged in her ear. She showed City Paper photos of the vermin scaling the walls of her unit. Friends at the shelter were “stepping on mice to get to the bathroom,” she says, and found their sheets littered with cockroaches and animal droppings. (The DHS spokesperson says that all motels have “monthly routine pest control plans,” and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is responsible for inspecting properties.) 

The unit did not come with any shelving––the single set of drawers in her unit was broken, and a magnet for roaches––so Victoria left her belongings tied in bags on the floor. She then received another citation for an unclean room during a weekly room check.

In March, a former Days Inn resident currently living in D.C. General told City Paper that her motel unit had broken locks, allowing her 3-year-old son to wander out of the room before dawn and onto New York Avenue NE. The motel is supposed to have security guards monitoring the entrance.

She said at the time that, while living conditions in D.C. General are substandard, quality of living at the shelter is still superior to the motels. The New York Avenue shelter-motels are more difficult to access by public transportation and lack the comparatively robust support services available at D.C. General. 

Jewel Stroman, a formerly homeless D.C. resident who has become an outspoken advocate against rapid rehousing and motel shelters, emailed this reporter and a handful of DHS employees in April to report that the Howard Johnson unit she lived in for two months “is infested with mice and had leaking pipes. The Motel 6 on Georgia Ave. is no better. Please be aware that I have a 20 week-old [baby] and am hopeful DHS won’t  place my family in one of their rinky motels.” 

Stroman says she has connected more than 200 homeless families to services over the last two years, and that most have articulated similar complaints about the motels. “I feel like [housing families in motels] is just going backwards,” she says. “These families have been sitting there for god knows how long, and meanwhile the city is spending more money housing them there, when they could just use it to build more affordable housing.”