D.C. General
D.C. General Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

A coalition of advocates and District officials are divided over proposed reforms to D.C.’s shelter system, with city lawmakers expected to mark up and vote on the reforms in the coming months.

For the first time since 2005, D.C. is pushing for sweeping changes to the laws that govern its homeless services. This time around, they are facing the extra strain of a deeper affordable housing crisis.

Councilmembers are considering a revamp that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration says will align the District with federal regulations that have existed for several years, and also reduce demand on overstretched shelters. But nonprofit groups—including the Legal Aid Society of D.C., Bread for the City, and the Children’s Law Center—say some of the contemplated changes would endanger the welfare of homeless families in particular by tightening emergency-shelter access, impairing independent review of service-denials, and perpetuating problems with short-term subsidies.

The ball rests in the court of a committee chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. In June, this committee held a hearing on the legislation that Bowser submitted to the council a month earlier, and Nadeau says a vote likely won’t occur until after the council’s summer recess.

“We’re going to have to see how long it takes to do this right,” Nadeau explains in an interview. “Even the most technical aspects of this bill impact people’s lives, so I take that very seriously.”

As drafted, Bowser’s proposal would increase the number of documents homeless people must present to be admitted into emergency shelter from one to two. The bill lists 13 options for individuals and families to prove they live in the District, including evidence of receiving local public assistance like cash benefits, an unexpired driver’s license, a recent pay stub or eviction notice, and school enrollment records. Though the city already screens shelter applicants based on proof of residency, it says from last October to April, one in 10 applicants weren’t D.C. residents.

The legislation would also give the executive branch broad authority to presume a household is not eligible for emergency shelter if it has “an ownership interest in safe housing or is listed on a lease or occupancy agreement in safe housing”—with exceptions built in for cases of “domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.” A household would have to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that it “cannot return to such housing.” 

Advocates say this is too onerous a legal standard for people who often come from unstable situations or are rotating among places. From last October to April, the District denied 16 percent of shelter applicants by ruling that they already had safe housing.

“By doubling documentation requirements—even for families who have already demonstrated their D.C. residency for the purposes of identification, school enrollment, or public benefits—the bill effectively creates a residency standard for homeless services that is higher than any of these programs,” Damon King of Legal Aid testified to the council’s human services committee on June 14. 

Amber Harding of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless told the council that the bill reflects “the myths that there are significant numbers of people in shelters who do not actually need shelter services, or who are somehow ‘gaming the system’ to access housing programs, and that there are significant numbers of people flooding our shelters from other jurisdictions.” Harding suggests there’s also a legal risk that the proposal may run afoul of the constitutional “right to travel” to other jurisdictions upheld by the Supreme Court.

The proposal mirrors stand-alone legislation that Bowser, who in part campaigned for mayor on ending homelessness, introduced last September—a move that triggered similar consternation from members of the homeless advocacy community. That legislation never came up for a vote and has been incorporated under D.C.’s pending Homeless Services Amendment Act of 2017.

In a letter to the council when she submitted the latter, Bowser wrote that the District must put its own residents first. “When the homeless system is stretched to fill affordable housing gaps, it is not equipped to adequately address the needs of residents experiencing a housing emergency and who have no safe place to sleep,” she explained, noting that D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness solicited input on issues in the legislation for a full year.

Kristy Greenwalt, who has directed the ICH since 2014, says that as a public policy matter, the District’s homeless services must be narrowly tailored because shelter stock and resources are scarce. This also means it is incumbent on D.C. to divert families from the shelter system when possible through mediating family disputes, stopping evictions, and stabilizing homes, she adds.

“There’s a reality when you’re in an implementing position, which is that the trajectory we’re on is not sustainable,” Greenwalt says. “We need a regional response. That’s not happening right now.”

The D.C. General family shelter, which houses roughly 250 families, is at capacity, and the city currently spends about $65,000 a day on housing homeless families in hotels. “We can’t use our shelter system as a holding zone for people waiting for affordable housing,” Greenwalt says, noting that there are an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 households in D.C. who pay more than half of their income on rent or are in severely distressed units. 

Although investments in housing vouchers have increased the number of shelter exits in recent months, there were still more than 800 families in emergency shelters as of last week. The Bowser administration also points to a problem of efficiency: Approximately one in four overflow motel rooms “are not consistently used by clients.”

Advocates say the legislation would give the D.C. Department of Human Services too much power to decide appeals over denials of certain public benefits, and would codify issues with the rapid rehousing program. That program provides rental subsidies for one or two years to families who leave the shelter system, but who in many cases face significant effective rent increases once those subsidies lapse. For example, a person with a rapid rehousing voucher covering 60 percent of the rent on a $1,000 per month apartment would need to pay $600 more out of their own coffers each month (assuming the landlord doesn’t raise the rent) after the voucher period ends. For those with limited streams of income, this jump can spur an eviction, or even a return to homelessness. DHS insists that rapid rehousing is largely successful, saying that more than 80 percent of participants do not immediately return to shelter.

For some advocates, Bowser’s support of tighter shelter requirements came as a surprise. The mayor pushed through a plan to close D.C. General and open smaller family shelters across the District by 2020, despite loud protests from neighbors purportedly worried about property values and quality of life issues. Bowser also phased in year-round access to D.C. emergency shelters beginning in summer 2015, which has helped to relieve the system during hypothermia season.

The administration says these efforts led to a 10.5 percent decrease in total homelessness from 2016 to 2017, and a 21.8 percent decrease in family homelessness over the same period. (January’s count, though, which was conducted on a warm night, found a sharp, 182 percent spike in cases of homelessness among unsheltered individuals.) 

As the 2018 mayoral election nears, Bowser has been quick to say there is more work to be done, while simultaneously touting the positive change in numbers.

She’ll have to convince some of her colleagues on the council that the most controversial parts of the proposal are fair. A spokesman for At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, who sits on the human services committee, says Grosso is still reviewing the legislation but wants to make certain it “does not fundamentally change the philosophy of our shelter system by narrowing or even closing the door on those who seek assistance.” He shares concerns about rapid rehousing.

Nadeau’s committee still has to publish a report on the bill, with comments from the council’s committee on housing and neighborhood revitalization, before it heads to a full council vote. Public comments on the bill have closed. “The consequence of not moving forward is curtailing our ability to serve the homeless,” Nadeau says.