The D.C. Council yesterday gave initial approval to a bill that lays out design basics for the smaller shelters that will replace D.C. General and that allows the city to place homeless families in shelter on a temporary basis as eligibility is determined.

But first, councilmembers debated the need for private bathrooms in these replacement shelters, with Councilmember Mary Cheh introducing an amendment to mandate one in each room. “Basic safety, security, and dignity of people would require that we have a private bathroom,” Cheh said before growing exasperated as her colleagues voiced opposition to the amendment. “Spend a little more money for dignity and safety. What’s wrong with us?” 

The amendment ultimately failed 9-4, with many councilmembers expressing faith in the Bowser administration’s plan as presented.

“People would think we’re setting up cages,” said Councilmember Yvette Alexander, who heads the Committee on Health and Human Services, of the shelter replacement debate. “The advocates really need to work with us.”

Whether families should be placed in apartment-style shelter (with bathrooms and kitchens) or private rooms has been heavily debated over the past several years, as the family homelessness crisis has surged. D.C. General, the former hospital that has been used to house families on an emergency basis since 2007, is currently home to dozens of families. Even more have been placed in motel rooms on New York Avenue NE, or in apartment-style units scattered throughout the city. During the 2013-14 winter, when the city was legally required to shelter the homeless from cold weather, the Department of Human Services began sheltering families in recreation centers. The practice was later deemed illegal.

The Bowser administration is working to close D.C. General and replace it with six smaller shelters (with a minimum of 280 units total) throughout the city. To aid in the process, the administration asked the Council to approve the Interim Eligibility and Minimum Shelter Standards Amendment Act of 2015, which amends the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act to remove the requirement that families be placed in apartment-style shelter unless it’s unavailable.

A D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness committee of government officials and advocates recommended earlier this month that the replacement shelters feature private rooms with mini-fridges and a mix of private and shared bathrooms.

“Much of the debate that preceded the establishment of this committee focused on whether families experiencing homelessness could receive the safety, security, and support needed to stabilize their circumstances and exit homelessness in a private (single) room setting, or whether full apartments were required,” ICH Executive Director Kristy Greenwalt wrote [PDF]. “Stakeholders felt that more desirable design options existed (e.g., private bathrooms) but that it was important to balance desires with constraints, particularly related to the timing of closing DC General. Given these tradeoffs, however, stakeholders felt that it was critical for developers to capitalize on different options within each facility to maximize privacy and control for clients.”

The most popular choice among the appointed members and committee participants featured at least one private room with bathroom per floor; two family-style bathrooms per floor; and two shared bathrooms on each floor with at least three shower stalls and three toilet stalls. An amendment introduced by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, approved yesterday, specified that at least of 10 percent of the replacement units will have a private bathroom.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which opposed shared bathrooms, asked 53 families living at nine shelter sites to weigh in on the replacement designs. Seventy-seven percent said a private bathroom was needed for a shelter stay of less than three months, while 85 percent said private bathrooms were needed for a shelter stay of longer than a year. “When I was at D.C. General before moving to Girard Street, there were lots of unsanitary things in the bathrooms. There was no privacy,” one participant wrote. “My son wouldn’t even be potty trained when he was there because he was scared of the bathrooms.”

The bill, approved by the Council on consent vote yesterday, also amends D.C. code to create an “interim eligibility placement,” which gives DHS the right to place families in emergency shelter for up to 12 days as it determines if families are in need of shelter or have access to other “safe housing.” Families who are determined to have “safe housing” but who lose it within 14 days can then be placed in shelter. But another amendment introduced by Mendelson “clarifies that the Mayor has no obligation to house such a family, other than during a hypothermia alert, if there is not capacity in the shelter system or DHS’ appropriation for family shelter services has been exhausted.”

Photo of D.C. General by Darrow Montgomery