A homeless family at the D.C. General shelter
A homeless family at the D.C. General shelter Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The D.C. Council returned from summer recess earlier this week, and some affairs are already off to a rocky start.

Facing pressure from advocates for the homeless, who argue that Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s proposal to reform the District’s homeless services is flawed, the council’s committee on human services suddenly called off a key vote Wednesday morning.

Both sides in the fight over the legislation have mounted hashtag campaigns on Twitter. The administration is using #ModernizetheHSRA, while advocacy groups have opted for #VoteNoHSRABill. Those groups include the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C., Bread for the City, and the Legal Aid Society of D.C. Other local organizations say Bowser’s proposal would right-size services.

The Bowser administration had originally proposed a version of these reforms in fall 2016, arguing that the District’s shelter system must put D.C. residents first and, as a crisis-response system, cannot be used to “fill gaps” in affordable housing. The council didn’t formally consider that legislation in 2016, but the administration quietly reintroduced the broader “Homeless Services Amendment Act of 2017” in May.

After a public hearing on the bill in June, the five-member committee, which Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau chairs, was set to vote on it yesterday. But only minutes before the session was to start, according to people present in the room, a committee staffer came in and announced that the meeting would not happen.

A spokesman for Nadeau confirms that the mark-up was cancelled, saying “the bill required some additional discussion.” But he didn’t respond to follow-up questions about when the vote would be rescheduled for and who would be allowed to participate in further deliberation on the bill.

As chair, Nadeau gets to organize committee business. She recently had her first baby and is up for reelection in a packed race next year. Sources say she did not appear in the hearing room yesterday.

In June, Nadeau told City Paper, “We’re going to have to see how long it takes to do this [legislation] right. Even the most technical aspects of this bill impact people’s lives, so I take that very seriously.”

But it appears that as of Wednesday, she didn’t have the support necessary to advance the bill out of committee to the full 13-member council. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and At-Large Councilmembers Robert White and David Grosso had even prepared amendments for the draft committee print of the bill, according to the at-large councilmembers’ offices.

These would have established greater reporting requirements for the District’s main program for moving families from shelter to apartments, clarified definitions of who qualifies as “homeless” under the law, and reworked a provision allowing the mayor to reassess families’ eligibility for aid.

“I’ve been clear with the administration and the chair that I wouldn’t be able to support any changes to our homeless services that weren’t both compassionate and accessible,” says Robert White. “I don’t think we can say to people who find themselves homeless that we are going to narrow our entryway to homeless services.”

He adds that his office hasn’t received any indication about next steps around the bill, but notes that Nadeau would have to give 24-hours notice to the committee’s members before retrying a mark-up, per council rules.

“I think the bill is going to continue to suffer the same fate without amendments,” White says. “My hope is that [the] cancellation of the vote is the impetus to go back to the table and make a few reasonable changes to it.”

A coalition of nonprofit groups has opposed this bill on the grounds that it would make it harder for homeless families to access emergency shelter due to more-stringent proof-of-residency requirements. Under Bowser’s proposal, families would have to produce two official documents, like an unexpired driver’s license or a recent eviction notice, to be admitted to the shelter system. 

Currently, families only need to provide one such document. The system includes motels because D.C.’s traditional family shelters, such as D.C. General, are at capacity with hundreds of homeless families.

Advocates have also said the legislation would codify problems with the District’s rapid rehousing program. This program gives rental subsidies to families exiting shelter, but because it only guarantees a minimum of one year of benefits, many families can’t afford the large financial jump from subsidized rent to market rent once the year is over, and often return to homelessness.

Grosso’s amendment would require monthly reports on the program by the Department of Human Services, to include information on the number of participants, families’ outcomes and incomes, evictions, and more. A spokeswoman for DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the mark-up’s cancellation.

“I always have hope,” says Amber Harding, an attorney at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which remains opposed to the legislation. “We have paved the way for the committee to do something reasonable and positive.”