Its shelters overwhelmed, the city has been forced to house homeless families at motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.
Its shelters overwhelmed, the city has been forced to house homeless families at motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.

By many counts, this winter’s homelessness crisis was worse than last year’s. Where 723 families entered the shelter system last winter, this year that figure climbed above 900. Although the city saw the crisis coming and tried to prepare, it struggled to move families quickly enough out of shelter and into housing. The result was more than 500 homeless families living in motels as of the middle of last month, for lack of shelter space elsewhere.

But amid all these troubles, the city was able to point to one source of pride: Unlike last year, the District wasn’t forced to outsource its shelter crunch by putting up homeless families across the border in Maryland.

Until the past several weeks, that is.

Having run out of both shelter space and D.C. motel rooms, the city began placing homeless families in Maryland hotels in recent weeks. All told, 69 families were sheltered at three hotels in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties. Those 69 families all remain at the Maryland hotels.

“The need to partner with Maryland motels came as result of the increased number of families seeking shelter this hypothermic season, coupled with the extremely limited motel room availability within the District as a result of the tourist season,” says Department of Human Services spokeswoman Dora Taylor. “To ensure the safety of families experiencing homelessness, and to comply with the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment of 2014, DHS determined this decision is the best possible course of action.”

D.C. law requires the city to provide shelter for all homeless residents in need when temperatures drop below freezing. For families, that shelter has to take the form of apartment-style shelter or private rooms. The Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act, passed by the D.C. Council in November, defined “private room” to exclude makeshift accommodations like partitioned spaces in recreation centers, which the city attempted to use as shelter last year until a judge deemed the practice illegal.

The use of Maryland hotels last winter drew criticism from some lawmakers and advocates, both because it demonstrated the city’s lack of preparedness for the winter crisis and because the accommodations often required a substantial commute for families to get to work and school. As recently as February, city officials have said the city was not using any Maryland hotels this winter. But as the crisis deepened last month, and with the arrival of tourists to D.C. motels for the Cherry Blossom Festival, the city was forced to change course.

Taylor did not specify which Maryland hotels are being used. Last year, a Howard Johnson in Cheverly was among those used to shelter homeless families. City officials have also declined to state how much the city is spending on motel rooms for the homeless, although the cost this winter is well into the millions.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery