Credit: Darrow Montgomery

While the District spends more than $80,000 a night to house homeless families in motels because shelters are at capacity, local leaders have agreed to take up possible reforms to the shelter system early next year.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said Tuesday that he and Mayor Muriel Bowser met last week and charted a legislative path for a controversial bill proposed by Bowser in September and brought up at a city hall session last week. Bowser’s legislation would make it harder for families to access shelter by requiring them to provide documentation proving D.C. residency as well as “clear and convincing evidence” that they do not have other safe housing accommodations. Advocates have decried the bill as needlessly burdensome for one of the District’s most vulnerable populations, arguing that lawmakers should take more time to review it than would be allowed if it were considered by the council as emergency legislation, as the mayor had signaled.

Now, only one part of the bill concerning “medical respite care” for the homeless will be weighed before the end of the year, on Dec. 20, per Mendelson and Bowser’s agreement. The remaining pieces of the legislation will be reintroduced in January and receive a normal hearing and mark-up. (Neither has happened as of today.)

“There’s a lot of controversy as regards [shelter] eligibility and some of the attorneys and advocates argue the mayor’s proposal could be unconstitutional,” the council chairman said. “I don’t know that I agree, but it does illustrate that just quote-unquote ‘fixing’ eligibility is not so simple. We have to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t run afoul of constitutional limitations.”

In a memo to the council last week, nonprofit advocacy groups such as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, Bread for the City, and the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence detailed their concerns with the mayor’s legislation. They said the residency component of the bill “will face a constitutional challenge as the Supreme Court has consistently held that it is an impermissible state interest to keep indigent people from other states from entering [a] state.” Of the mandate for extra papers to prove one lives here, they said “almost all of the new documents require a residential address, which homeless people tend not to have.”

The medical respite care aspect is the least contentious in the bill. It clarifies what constitutes such treatment, thereby exempting these situations from requirements a person must fulfill to benefit from D.C.’s comprehensive homeless services, known as the “continuum of care.” The larger concern, as WLCH Staff Attorney Amber Harding told City Paper, was that the legislation’s other provisions would create “a higher barrier for everyone, including the people who need shelter most.”

Bowser has said the reforms are needed to reduce stress on D.C.’s shelter system, which is being used to “fill affordable housing gaps.” She also contended that the District should not be on the hook for serving the entire region’s homeless population, citing a statistic that 12 percent of shelter applicants are not residents. More than 8,300 people in D.C. were counted as homeless this year, with 34 percent more families recorded as homeless in January 2016 than in the same month last year. (Experts say this spike was influenced by a policy change in 2015 that let families access the District’s shelters year-round instead of just for the winter.)

Asked if the administration would amend its bill given advocates’ concerns, a spokesman for Bowser says in a statement that “the mayor has always been open to working with stakeholders to tackle this problem, but her fundamental position that D.C. families should be first in line for services being paid for by D.C. tax dollars has not changed.”

“If there are other approaches that get us to the same destination, then of course the mayor would take a look at that,” he adds.

Mendelson said the hearing on the proposed reforms would occur Jan. 23.