Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For two weeks, Donnell Harris begged every morning for a motel room. Last Friday, he got his wish.

Harris, his wife, and their two young children were bouncing between two recreation centers that the city had converted to makeshift shelters for a swelling population of homeless families. The conditions weren’t good. While most homeless families slept in private rooms at the former D.C. General Hospital or the motels that have become de facto overflow shelters, Harris’ family shared a basketball court with a dozen other families, separated by movable partitions that did little to create privacy or block noise.

Until their very last night at the rec center, there were no showers available. Some families were able to duck into a friend or relative’s home for a shower periodically, but others, like Harris’, did their best to wash up at the restroom sinks. For most of their stay, the lights were on all night, making sleep difficult. Stephanie Williams, Harris’ wife, says she and their daughter were bitten by bedbugs. Residents accuse the staff of handling their dinners with bare hands, and Harris says that one night last week, there was no dinner at all.

Every day, Harris and Williams had to travel to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center on N Street NE to reapply for shelter. There, they usually waited several hours for a meeting with a member of the center’s staff, whom they petitioned for a room at one of the motels that the city has been using to house the families it can’t fit into D.C. General. Their request was always denied, and they were sent back to a rec center for another night of troubled sleep.

And then, last Friday, their pleas were answered. A D.C. Superior Court judge found that the partitioned spaces at rec centers didn’t comply with the law that requires the city to house homeless families in apartment-style shelters or private rooms during extreme heat or cold. The judge, Robert S. Tignor, issued a temporary restraining order that blocked the District from sheltering the families listed in the lawsuit at rec centers, and Harris’ family was transported to the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.

Their stay lasted all of one night.

Saturday brought warmer weather, and the city lifted its hypothermia alert, meaning it was no longer obligated to shelter the homeless. Harris and Williams were told to check out by 10 a.m. They were on their own.

Harris’ family and others like it have taken the city by surprise this winter. Through January, the number of families placed in shelter was more than double the figure from the same period last year, while the number staying in motels has increased tenfold. As of this week, there are 827 families in shelters and motels, including 1,591 children.

City officials didn’t see the surge coming. Last winter, D.C. placed 463 families in shelter. This year, the Department of Human Services tried to play it safe with a worst-case-scenario forecast of 10 percent more homeless families in shelter than last year, or 509. But already in November, 617 percent more families required shelter than in November 2012. There was no way the city could keep up.

With spring around the corner, the city’s requirement to house homeless residents seeking shelter will end, but the crisis itself will continue. And as the rec-center dwellers find themselves facing the street, there’s little consensus on why there are so many more homeless families this year, how we should be providing for them, or what’s to prevent the same thing from happening next winter.

***

It used to be easy for Melvern Reid to keep up her 10-year-old grandson’s perfect attendance at school. The two of them would walk the half-mile to the LaSalle-Backus Education Campus on Riggs Road NE every day, making sure to arrive by 7:50 a.m. for the school’s eight o’clock breakfast club.

“Always 10 minutes early,” says Reid, as if repeating a mantra.

But since the family friend they were staying with put them out, getting to school has become more of a challenge. Like with Harris and his family, the city placed them in a series of rec centers, starting with the Benning Park Recreation Center on Southern Avenue, a part of town Reid doesn’t know. In order to navigate the series of buses required to get her grandson to school, nine miles away, Reid ushered him out the door at 5:45 a.m., and they didn’t arrive at LaSalle-Backus until 8:40. He missed breakfast club but still caught the beginning of class.

So far, she’s been able to maintain his perfect attendance—no absences this year, no tardies—but it’s taking a toll on her. I’m sitting with Reid on a recent frigid afternoon at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the point of entry into the city’s shelter system for families. She’s wearing a gray Loony Tunes sweatshirt and a look of exhaustion. Between the daily trek to Virginia Williams to re-enroll for a spot at the rec center, the job training classes, the early mornings, and the late nights—at Benning Park, she says, people didn’t quiet down until 2:30 a.m., and the partial partitions between families didn’t provide any privacy, let alone noise protection—she’s hardly getting any sleep.

“The past two days, I’ve gotten five hours of sleep, total,” she says.

Life at the rec centers isn’t ideal, but for Reid, it’s much better than the alternative. When it warms up, the city won’t be obligated to put up homeless families, and the rec centers will close their doors at night. At that point, Reid and her grandson will have few places to turn.

Friends? “I’m 59,” she says. “Most of the people I grew up with, if I haven’t lost track of them, they’re buried.”

Family? Her younger daughter’s also homeless. Her older daughter, the mother of her grandson, is six and a half months pregnant, and her boyfriend deals drugs. Reid allows her grandson to spend time with them, she says, but “I just don’t want him staying the night.”

Reid says she’ll have three options. The first is an all-night laundromat in Maryland where she’s slept before when she had nowhere else to go. The second is to send her grandson to his mother, risks and all. And the third is to give him up to the Child and Family Services Agency.

What’s the best option? She doesn’t hesitate: “The laundromat.”

City officials say the problem isn’t that there are more homeless families, but that they’re seeking shelter more often this year. “Family homelessness has not spiked,” says Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services B.B. Otero. “The use of shelters has spiked.”

The theory in the Wilson Building is that because motel rooms were available from the start of winter, they became a too-attractive option, so families who might have otherwise endured crashing with family or friends saw a chance for greater comfort. (Individual homelessness hasn’t increased as much, partly because more individuals are chronically homeless and less affected by economic swings, partly because it’s easier for an individual to stay on a friend’s couch for an extended time than for a family.)

After they became homeless, the city sheltered Donnell Harris, Stephanie Williams, and their children Peytyn, 3, and D.J., 2, in rec centers with difficult sleeping conditions. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

The solution, administration officials say, is to enact tighter controls to make sure families who have another place to stay do so, even if it’s not ideal. That was the idea behind legislation Mayor Vince Gray submitted to the D.C. Council last month that would give the city the power to remove homeless residents from shelters if it determined they had somewhere else to sleep.

Less than a week later, Gray changed course and announced he wouldn’t seek an immediate vote on the measure, which appeared unlikely to pass. Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says the mayor decided there was no need for emergency legislation, since the number of families seeking shelter declined after the city began putting them in rec centers. “It looks like the ‘crisis,’ quote-unquote, is over,” he says.

David Berns, the director of the Department of Human Services, says legislation is still critical, or next winter’s shelter crisis will be even worse. “Without that, all of the beds at D.C. General will fill up immediately, we’ll be back into hotels, we’ll have another 1,000 families begging to get in, we’ll close it down just like last year, and it’ll be just a repeat, and that’s unacceptable,” he says. The District needs more control over the system, Berns says, so people aren’t guaranteed unlimited housing if they get in on a cold winter night. Housing advocates counter that the city already screens everyone seeking shelter, and if families have other options, D.C. shouldn’t be admitting them in the first place.

But the administration’s argument assumes there’s a significant number of families in shelter that have other viable options. It’s not at all clear that that’s the case. For families like Reid’s, the alternative to shelter isn’t a slightly cramped apartment with a friend or relative; they’ve already exhausted that option. It’s the street, or a shared space that’s not safe for children, or the laundromat.

In this regard, Harris is lucky. He recently landed a job at the Georgetown Safeway, and he expects to start training soon. The promise of a steady income allowed him to borrow money from friends so his family could stay in the Motel 6 in Camp Springs, Md., for a few nights after checking out of the Days Inn on Saturday. But he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to keep borrowing—or, if not, where his family will sleep.

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” he says.

***

When the economy is strong, D.C.’s shelters ought to be relatively quiet. Few homeless families show up, and the ones who are there move quickly to more permanent housing, helped along by city programs. But the recession threw things off in ways that are being felt most intensely only this winter, four and a half years after the recession officially ended.

A year ago, Harris and his family had their own apartment in Anacostia. Then he got laid off from his security job and fell behind on rent. He applied for the city’s emergency rental assistance program but was evicted before he received any funds. For a year, the family stayed with a series of friends and relatives, until they had nowhere to go. Last month, they checked into Virginia Williams.

Reid’s path to the rec centers was similar. She lost her home three years ago and managed to stay with acquaintances until late February, when the last one finally asked her to leave. As with the Harris family, it’s her first time in the shelter system.

It’s stories like these that lead homeless advocates to argue that, contra city officials’ claims, there is a real spike in family homelessness. And while the city may have been taken by surprise, they say the crisis was foreseeable.

“It may seem sudden, but it’s really not such a surprise,” says Marta Beresin, a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, “because we knew D.C. General was full on Nov. 1, and we knew our plan was dependent on moving families into affordable housing at a fast pace.”

A report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute last week highlighted the unevenness of the recovery from the recession, with real wages for low-earning Washingtonians and residents with only a high school degree declining between 2008 and 2012, even as they rose for other groups. Meanwhile, housing prices have shot up, leaving very few market-rate units that poorer D.C. residents can afford.

This is where subsidized housing should help. But the city’s main tool for the production and preservation of affordable housing is the Housing Production Trust Fund, paid for with deed transfer and recordation taxes, which shriveled up as the housing market tanked during the recession. The fund was further depleted during Gray’s first two years in office, when the administration addressed recession-exacerbated budget shortfalls by taking about $20 million out of the Trust Fund each year to pay for the Local Rent Supplement Program, a low-income rental subsidy previously paid for out of the city’s general fund.

Since it takes about two years to build affordable housing, the effects of running down the Trust Fund are just being felt now, after the economy hit bottom and started bouncing back. (Recent Gray administration initiatives will mean more money invested in affordable housing in coming years.) Likewise, people like Harris and Reid who lost their homes during the downturn have maxed out their options for doubling up with friends and family, leading them to seek shelter now, despite the improving economy.

For these reasons, Beresin and other advocates take pains to point out that while DHS has taken much of the heat for the crisis, this is not a situation of the department’s making. “This is an affordable housing problem,” says Beresin, “and it’s being laid at the wrong agency’s feet.”

As housing has become increasingly unaffordable, the city has struggled to move people out of shelter and into long-term housing. The neediest shelter residents require permanent supportive housing, but the city directs about four-fifths of shelter families to a five-year-old program called rapid rehousing, which subsidizes a family’s rent in a market-rate apartment for a limited period of time until the family’s able to pay the full rent itself.

The dearth of affordable housing is making that harder. It’s not for lack of money: The city ended the last fiscal year with a $321 million surplus. But DHS won’t move families into apartments through rapid rehousing that they won’t eventually be able to afford on their own, since the subsidies are temporary. And every month, there are fewer apartments poor residents can afford without help. (In his annual State of the District address on Tuesday night, Gray laid out a plan for increased outreach to landlords to locate available apartments.)

Antoinette Jackson, who’s been staying at a rec center with her two sons, is in line for rapid rehousing, but she has yet to find an apartment she can afford with her sole income source, the $721 a month in disability benefits she receives for her autistic son. “In D.C., you can’t even find a one-bedroom for that much,” she says.

***

This isn’t the first time the city’s turned to rec centers to shelter the homeless. It happened in the mid-1990s, when gaping D.C. budget deficits led Congress to hand the city’s finances over to a federal control board. These days, with surpluses growing, the District is the financial envy of many cities and states around the country. But the rec centers are back.

The decision to use the centers this winter came after the city ran out of available rooms in D.C. hotels that were willing to put up homeless families. Hotels can’t refuse to house homeless families, says Berns, but they can decline to accommodate the special arrangements the city seeks and the “pretty deep discounts” it’s received on rooms.

So the city started placing families in Maryland motels and transporting them to and from the District. But then DHS’ general counsel informed Berns that the Maryland placements violated the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005, which requires the city to “make available appropriate space in District of Columbia public or private buildings and facilities” for shelter in extreme weather. Since then, Berns says, he’s “reasonably confident” there have been no new placements in Maryland motels, although 63 families remain there as of this week.

With its traditional shelters full, the city has housed hundreds of homeless families at motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Instead, the city has turned to rec centers. According to city officials, the switch has succeeded in deterring families from seeking shelter. The numbers are stark: While 307 families entered shelter in January, just before the move to rec centers, in February that number was just 59. A large part of the reason is that “only a fraction” of the people referred to rec centers for placement actually showed up, according to DHS spokeswoman Dora Taylor. The average stay in a rec center is just three nights.

“We did see the spike when we had hotels as the option,” says Berns. “But then when we didn’t have hotels as the option but provided for their safety in another way, the spike went completely in the other direction. And we actually now have a decline in the number of families that are classified as homeless in the last month.” In other words, with the “attractive” hotel option removed, families chose to stay with friends or relatives, giving them greater community support and saving the city money in the process.

That’s the rosy version. Homeless advocates see it differently: The city has been putting homeless families in such a bad environment that they’re sometimes opting for unsafe alternatives, like staying with abusive relatives or sleeping in public spaces.

Residents of the rec centers complain about all kinds of mistreatment. When I pay a recent visit to one center—DHS, which granted me access, requested that I not report its name—the residents can’t line up fast enough to share their stories. Upon learning that a reporter is present, one middle-aged woman breaks out into a dance on the basketball court that serves as a temporary home to more than a dozen families.

One complaint is the lack of showers. Several people staying at the rec center have heard vague rumors of a shower, but no one I speak to has actually used one. Berns says in a statement that “showering facilities are not a criteria for partial day shelters used during hypothermia alerts,” but that showers were made available last week due to families’ prolonged stays and will remain available.

Another is the sleeping conditions. Tignor wasn’t the first judge to find the rec centers wanting: On Feb. 24, a judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings found that the setup at the rec centers violated the Homeless Services Reform Act, which requires hypothermia shelter for homeless families in private rooms if apartment-style shelter isn’t available. That judge, John P. Dean, rejected DHS’ argument that the sleeping spaces in the rec centers, separated by movable partitions, conformed to the third Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of “room,” which is “a partitioned part of the inside of a building.” (The first definition, preferred by homeless advocates, is “a part of the inside of a building that is divided from other areas by walls and a door and that has its own floor and ceiling.” Tignor made sure to stipulate that the plaintiffs in his case be moved to rooms with “four non-portable walls, a ceiling, and a floor that meet at the edges.”)

There are 570 homeless children staying with their families at the shelter in the former D.C. General Hospital as of this week. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

When the families filed their complaint with OAH, there weren’t even partitions; families slept communally in the open. Shortly thereafter, Red Cross partitions arrived, but Dean found that they still violated the law because the thin materials and large gaps didn’t allow for privacy or quiet. DHS ordered new partitions it said would address these issues, yet when I visit the rec center, the new partitions are being used only on three sides, with the Red Cross barriers still in place at the front of each family’s enclosure, allowing others to peer in.

Families tell me that until the day prior, the lights were kept on all night, and that DHS staffers have been appearing on a small overhead balcony and looking down into their sleeping areas. “They say it’s a private room, but anytime we’re sleeping—if we get any sleep at all—they can walk out and look,” says Harris. “It’s nothing private.”

When the latest snowstorm hit, public buses and shuttle vans didn’t run, so families were stuck inside the rec center all day. Their sole source of entertainment was a single DVD, the 2002 Lil Bow Wow film Like Mike, that played repeatedly throughout the day.

And then there’s all the shuttling back and forth. Unlike residents of shelters and motels, who are guaranteed rooms as long as they need them once they’re placed, the rec center families must re-apply every day for a place to stay. For Sarah Drawn, that means leaving the rec center at seven each morning, hopping two buses to Deanwood to drop off her 1-year-old son at daycare, taking two more buses to her job at a juice bar on H Street NE, backtracking to pick her son up, then dashing to Virginia Williams to secure a place to spend the night. Fortunately, her boss understands when the travel makes her late for work, but her schedule doesn’t allow her any time to try to accomplish long-term goals, like finding permanent housing.

“I’m like a rubber band, just popping left and right,” she says. “I’m young. I’m 20. I have plans, I have goals. I feel like I’m getting nowhere.”

City officials say their aim is to put families in a situation where they have enough stability to find jobs and housing, but the need to re-apply daily for a rec center spot appears to undermine that mission. Most residents I speak with say they have no spare time during the day to seek out new opportunities—meaning that when they’re finally put out of the rec centers, they’ll be exactly where they started.

One resident, who asks, to the horror of her 11-year-old son, to be referred to as “Ms. Kay Kay,” carries a to-do list with her at all times, with items like finding a place to store her belongings, straightening out child support payments, and trying to enroll at the University of the District of Columbia. But she can’t find time to check any of them off because she spends so much time in the Virginia Williams waiting room. “This takes up my whole day,” she says.

Her son, who’s been visibly restraining himself from interjecting, finally chimes in. “Isn’t this illegal?” he asks. “Aren’t they supposed to be giving us private rooms?”

***

Tignor’s ruling may have spared a small number of families the indignities of rec-center living—three of the families listed as plaintiffs were moved to motels; the fourth had already been brought to D.C. General—but it’s not the final word. The temporary order will remain in place until an upcoming hearing that could result in a preliminary injunction against the use of shelters for all homeless families, not just the plaintiffs.

That hearing will take place on March 21, one day into spring. At that point, barring unseasonably cold weather, hypothermia conditions ought to be just about behind us, meaning that the city won’t have to put up homeless families anywhere. Any relief for the rec-center families not covered by Tignor’s restraining order will have come too late, at least for this year.

Michael Morgan was staying at the Benning Park Recreation Center last week with his wife and 2-month-old baby, and watched several other residents there leave for motels after the court ruling. “We did everything they told us to do,” says Morgan, who spent the warmer weekend with his family in the hallway of an apartment building they managed to sneak into. “And now they’re telling us because it’s not freezing, we have to go out on the street with our baby. Just because it’s getting warm doesn’t mean I don’t need somewhere for my baby to be.”

Family homelessness won’t disappear when winter thaws. It’ll just be hidden better. The families who have shuttled between rec centers will seek out relatives or friends who can offer a couch, if not necessarily a safe environment. Or they’ll sleep in cars, or at Union Station. Or they’ll leave town in search of a friend who can offer a hand or a city they can better afford.

The one place that won’t see much change is D.C. General. The huge backlog of shelter families, and the slow pace of placing those families into permanent housing, means it’ll remain full all summer, and most likely into next winter.

Ever since D.C. General closed as a hospital in 2001 and began its second life as a homeless shelter in 2007, city officials have insisted it’s only a temporary solution. But its transformation from a hypothermia shelter to the full-time base for homeless families, together with the lack of any real alternative shelter spaces, has made it the epicenter of the city’s family homelessness crisis.

Twice a week, a stream of children enter brightly painted rooms at D.C. General for playtime. The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project gives kids who can’t invite their friends over after school—and their parents who might otherwise have to look after them all day—some time to relax. On a recent evening, volunteers have set up white flags for the kids to fill in with green and red paint for Mexico Night in the “Around the World” curriculum. When the children arrive, they mostly ignore the setup and rush to put on Spider-Man costumes or stick a plastic bread-and-banana sandwich into the toy microwave.

The playtime rooms are cheery; the one for younger kids, between ages 1 and 3, bears an abridged Bill Cosby quote, “The essence of childhood is play.” When I arrive, I’m apprised of the most important ground rule: The word “homeless” is never mentioned. Playtime is designed to help children and parents forget the grim reality of the crisis they’re in.

But when the games spill out into the halls, as they inevitably do, reminders start to crop up. There’s the old hospital waiting room, with scattered furniture and a defunct cashier’s window. There are the omnipresent signs for things like “nuclear medicine” and “EEG.” Since D.C. General’s use as a shelter is nominally temporary, it’s never been properly converted to its new use, and all the trappings of the hospital remain.

Twice a week, kids at D.C. General gather for the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

While D.C. General is no one’s idea of an ideal living environment, several people staying at rec centers tell me they wish they could secure a room there. Still, advocates say they don’t know anyone who sought out shelter at D.C. General or motels when other viable options existed.

“People do not want to be in the shelter,” says Danielle Rothman, who oversees Homeless Children’s Playtime Project programming at D.C. General. “Most of them came from either a domestic violence situation or were living with someone that became untenable. I haven’t met anyone who came to D.C. General because they thought it was a great option.”

It’s not a great option for the city, either. Putting up a family at D.C. General costs taxpayers more than $150 a night; motels cost about $140. For that money, says Berns, the city could keep three to four families housed through rapid rehousing or emergency rental assistance.

But the city’s ad hoc approach has created such a backlog that it’s hard to be proactive about keeping families in safe housing. So for an increasing number of families, shelter has become the only option. Now that the thaw is upon us and the rec centers will no longer be available, some of those families find themselves facing the prospect of nowhere to stay.

Or, in the case of Reid and her grandson, the laundromat.

Reid was the lead plaintiff in the case that prompted the temporary restraining order last week, and like Harris’ family, she and her grandson spent Friday night at the Days Inn. On Saturday, when she had to check out, she was able to stay with her sister, who lives in a senior building. But her sister is allowed a limited number of guest visits per year, and Reid thinks she may already be over the limit. Plus her sister’s emphysema is exacerbated by the cigarette smoke in Reid’s clothing. It’s not a solution—not when Reid’s facing eight months of warmer weather during which the city won’t shelter her, outside of a few potential days of extreme heat.

“If she says that she can’t let me come, I’ll stay at my favorite spot,” Reid says. It may not be comfortable, but at least it allows her to continue taking care of her grandson.

“I’m not gonna give up on him,” she says. “I try to keep his life as stable as I can. I don’t want him thinking, just because we don’t have a place, he can go and hit the streets. Oh, it’s not happening.”