David Watts
David Watts Credit: Darrow Montgomery

At first, David Watts says, he was told he needed to provide proof that he and his family had nowhere else to go. That task was near impossible for a family that’s spent months sleeping in parks, Metro stations, and, when they can pull together enough money, hotels. Watts, his partner Heather Beall, and their almost 1-year-old son have been seeking emergency shelter in D.C. for more than a year. Most recently, they say they were turned away on July 15, in the middle of a record-setting heat wave.

“She told me it wasn’t nothing they could do for me,” Watts says of his conversation with the intake worker at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, where families apply for emergency shelter. “So I told her to have her supervisor call me, and she kept trying to say, ‘Well, it’s nothing we can do for you.’”

He never received a call back. So that night, Watts and Beall slipped through the backyard fence of a property in Southeast and spent the night in a shed. Their son stayed with a family member.

The next day, July 16, Watts called the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless looking for help. Staff attorney Amber Harding inquired with the Department of Human Services, which provided an explanation that conflicts with Watts’ version of the circumstances and that she says runs afoul of the law.

DHS responded to Harding via email that the agency never denied Watts and Beall shelter. “The family abruptly ended the call,” a DHS representative writes in one email. “Due to this, there was no eligibility determination.”

In another email, an agency representative writes that Watts and Beall refused to provide information verifying that they are D.C. residents, a requirement for emergency shelter in the District, and would not provide photo ID. The email says they became “irate” and ended the call before the intake worker could finish the eligibility process.

Watts disputes that he ended the call, and says the intake worker hung up the phone after promising to refer him to a supervisor. Harding notes that DHS used similar terms to describe Shadon Freeman, a pregnant mother City Paper spoke with last year, who was also initially turned away from Virginia Williams.

Harding says the information DHS asked of Watts and Beall shouldn’t have been required in the first place. Watts receives public benefits in D.C., which require District residency, and DHS has access to a database where they can verify that, Harding says. Additionally, Harding says DHS Director Laura Zeilinger told her in March that the agency wouldn’t initially require documents to determine eligibility for shelter during the pandemic. She committed to place families on an interim basis and collect verification later, Harding says.

Part of the thinking was to avoid sending people all over the District to collect written proof that they have no other safe housing. In the past, DHS has required letters from previous landlords, family members, or friends saying a person seeking shelter can no longer live with them.

“There’s only three things you can inquire about: Are they a family, are they homeless, and are they D.C. residents?” Harding says. “And they’re saying, ‘We want to know everything about this family and where they’ve been.’”

She adds that photo identification is not a requirement for emergency shelter. A spokesperson for the agency declined to comment on the specifics of Watts and Beall’s case.

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified issues and disparities in virtually every aspect of life, and homeless services are no exception. In D.C., people living in shelters who show symptoms or test positive for coronavirus are sent to quarantine in a hotel room. As of July 26, no individuals were in remote quarantine, city data show. 331 people in D.C. homeless shelters have tested positive for COVID-19 and 21 people in the homeless services system have died, according to city data.

The D.C. Council expanded the length of time families can stay in a shelter on an interim basis from three to 60 days, with the option to extend that placement as long as the public health emergency is in effect. The declaration is currently set to expire October 9. Harding counts at least 12 families in the past four months who have sought help from the Washington Legal Clinic.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom launched “Project Roomkey,” a program that leverages FEMA funds to rent up to 15,000 hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness. By the end of June, Newsom claimed the effort had housed 14,200 people. The Minneapolis Park Board voted in June to allow homeless individuals to camp in city parks. The decision came after more than 200 people set up an encampment in Powderhorn Park after they were evicted from a hotel used as an ad hoc shelter. The encampment continued to grow before the park board superintendent declared the park too dangerous, according to news reports. Police cleared some of the tents and residents last week.

As for Watts, this isn’t the first time he and Beall say they’ve been turned away. In an interview last week, they described three other instances in the past year when they weren’t placed in a shelter. Beall says she was told during one visit to Virginia Williams that she wasn’t far enough along in her pregnancy to qualify for placement in a family shelter. According to D.C. law, a pregnant woman must be in her third trimester to qualify; otherwise, she is potentially eligible for placement as an individual. At the time, Beall was only five months pregnant. 

Beall says she was also denied shelter days after she gave birth and was still wearing her hospital ID band when she visited Virginia Williams.

Watts says he’s provided his DC Jail identification, birth certificate, and social security card to show that he’s a District resident during previous applications. (Watts has a felony record and says he previously served time in prison. He and Beall were arrested in May, according to the Metropolitan Police Department, though prosecutors did not file charges.)

Each time they were turned away, Watts, who has asthma, says they slept on the streets in downtown D.C., unless they were able to afford a hotel.

DHS placed Watts and Beall in a shelter a day after Harding got involved in their case, despite the fact that they haven’t provided any additional documents about their residency or other housing options, Watts says. On Tuesday, July 28, they were deemed eligible for permanent placement, and Watts says he’s trying to get a job at the construction site next door to the shelter.

“I just got tired,” he says. “Knowing that I can’t live on the street with no child, self preservation kicks in sometimes. Like look, I ain’t got no clothes. I ain’t got no shoes. This is all I got.”