Credit: Darrow Montgomery

No sooner had Mayor Muriel Bowser pressed for legislation that would restrict families’ eligibility to access the District’s homeless shelters than advocates for this vulnerable and growing population objected to her proposal.

At a regular breakfast meeting yesterday between the administration and the D.C. Council, Bowser called on lawmakers to pass a bill she originally introduced in September, but which has not been publicly vetted with a usual hearing or mark-up. Citing increasing costs for temporarily housing homeless families in area motels while the 260-unit D.C. General shelter remains at full capacity—more than $80,000 a night, according to Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger—the mayor argued that the District should more stringently screen applicants to emergency shelters. Bowser described the situation as “urgent,” with 12 percent of applicants not residing in D.C.; as many as 10 percent of them having other safe-housing options like staying with a relative; and occupants of a quarter of the motel rooms using their accommodations inconsistently. “We cannot serve the entire region,” she said, later adding on Twitter that “District residents experiencing homelessness” should be the first to get help.

The resulting quandary is as much a debate over the social contract as it is a practical problem of how to ensure the homeless do not go underserved—especially during hypothermia season—while using tax dollars efficiently. More than 8,300 people in the District were recorded as homeless this year, per the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a spike of 14 percent over 2015. Of these, 4,700 were families with children.

Advocates for the homeless were quick to criticize Bowser’s legislation on the grounds that it would move too quickly to a vote by the end of the year if resubmitted to the council under an expedited timeframe. Primarily, the proposal forces families who were not already on the streets to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that they cannot return to their previous dwelling (except in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, or human trafficking). DHS would be able to deny these families emergency shelter. The bill would also require applicants to provide at least two of 11 documents demonstrating D.C. residency, like school enrollment forms for children and evidence of receiving local public assistance. In a September letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Bowser framed D.C.’s present homeless system as “stretched to fill affordable housing gaps.”

“They’re taking that budgetary constraint and trying to narrow the door to make it harder for people to get into shelter, and to make it easier to terminate people from shelter,” says Amber Harding, a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who spent much of Tuesday lobbying councilmembers to oppose the legislation if it’s considered next month. “It creates a higher barrier for everyone, including the people who need shelter the most. There are people we see on a daily basis in our office right now who, under current law, without these added restrictions, are desperate for shelter and just don’t have documents to prove they can get into [it].”

WLCH and other nonprofit organizations such as Bread for the City, the Children’s Law Center, and the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia sent policymakers a memo today highlighting issues with the bill. “We believe it would be premature and risk harming extremely vulnerable D.C. residents to pass this bill as an emergency, particularly right as hypothermia season begins,” they wrote, adding that they have attempted to “work with DHS on this legislation for months” and were “assur[ed]” that it would receive a hearing. “While we appreciate the agency’s concern about spending dollars wisely, and support such efforts, there have been no data provided to support the claim that these provisions would lower costs.” The bill does not strike the right “balance,” they said.

Asked to comment on the memo, Kevin Harris, Bowser’s communications director, said in a statement that “the mayor is committed to a program that is compassionate to those in need, but also ensures that District families experiencing homelessness remain our top priority.”

As of now, it remains to be seen whether the legislation will come up for a vote either on Dec. 6 or Dec. 20—the last two days of a council session crammed with banner proposals, including one for universal paid leave for all private workers in the District. A councilmember would have to provide notice to advance the bill as emergency or temporary legislation by noon tomorrow for it to appear on Tuesday’s agenda. (The same pattern would hold true for Dec. 20, but because that’s scheduled as an “additional legislative meeting,” the day’s agenda is at the discretion of the chairman, per council rules.) A spokeswoman for Mendelson says he “intends to hold a hearing on the legislation in January.”

It’s also unclear whether Bowser currently has the nine votes needed to pass an emergency version of the bill. While Councilmembers Jack Evans and Anita Bonds spoke favorably of reigning in costs for shelter services, Councilmembers Robert White and Elissa Silverman voiced concerns about the speed and impact of the bill.

“We’re somewhat as confused as the rest of everyone about this,” a council staffer speaking on background says, referring to Bowser’s motivations for urging the legislation’s passage before the end of the calendar year.

For Harding, limiting access to shelters could “open the door to tragedy.” “No family I work with wants to be in an emergency shelter if they have a better alternative,” she argues. “The reason they’re there is because they don’t have a better alternative.”