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.

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D.C. might be spared the worst of tonight’s snowstorm, but the surge in the number of homeless families requiring shelter continues unabated. The city is legally obligated to shelter all homeless families in need when temperatures drop below freezing, and with all its traditional shelters full, the District has resorted to renting hundreds of motel rooms to house families. In mid-December, there were 59 homeless families staying in motels, in addition to the more than 25 that had been placed in motels last winter and had never managed to leave. By early January, that figure was 251. Last night, it reached 357.

For those who have been keeping score at home, that number might seem impossibly high, given that the city had only 310 motel rooms under contract as of earlier this month. But the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser has steadily added shelter capacity at city motels. Last week, the administration contracted a sixth motel, bringing the total number of rooms under contract to 370.

This is not the way things were supposed to go this winter. Last year, Director of Human Services David Berns and his successor Deborah Carroll both predicted that the city would clear all the families out of the motels, by placing them into permanent housing, and put a substantial dent in the population at the D.C. General shelter before winter set in. (And then D.C. General was supposed to be closed altogether, possibly as early as this coming fall.) Instead, there were more than two dozen families still in motels and D.C. General remained full as the so-called hypothermia season began.

There are two reasons for this. First, there are more families requiring shelter: In advance of the winter, the city expected a 16 percent rise in family homelessness. And second, the city has moved much more slowly than intended in shifting homeless families from shelter into housing through the rapid rehousing program. The city had aimed for 65 families per month to find housing. But between Nov. 1, 2014 and Jan. 2, 2015, just 79 families total found housing, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which runs the shelters for the city government.

The motel rooms are costing taxpayers millions of dollars. When I asked for room rates, the Department of Human Services referred me to the Office of Contracting and Procurement, which in turn declined to provide specific rates in order to remain competitive when seeking future motel contracts. But according to OCP, the city spent $509,944 on its first contract with the Quality Inn on New York Avenue NE, which ran from Nov. 24 to Jan. 20, and has spent $73,968 on its second contract there between Jan. 21 and today. At the nearby Days Inn, the city spent $994,500 on its first contract from Nov. 17 to Jan. 20 and has spent $91,800 on the second contract starting Jan. 21. OCP did not provide figures for the other four motels, and DHS declined to name the motels.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery