Donnell Harris and his family sought shelter last winter amid a spike in the number of homeless families.
Donnell Harris and his family sought shelter last winter amid a spike in the number of homeless families.

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As winter approached, the Department of Human Services tried to play it safe. In coming up with a plan to shelter the homeless, the agency decided to forecast a worst-case scenario, a 10 percent increase in the number of homeless families from the winter of 2012-2013.

By November, it was clear that the real scenario was worse. That month, 617 percent more homeless families needed shelter than in the previous November. Through January, the number of families entering shelter more than doubled from last winter.

City officials argue that the increase is due to the attractiveness of motels, where the city started putting up homeless families because the main family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital was full. Homeless advocates counter that the cause is the lack of affordable housing, which is taking its toll as families who lost their homes in the recession have exhausted their options for friends and relatives with whom they can crash.

Whatever the cause, the result is that the city has been placing homeless families in recreation centers, where they share a partitioned basketball court and complain of subpar conditions and the time-consuming need to re-apply for shelter daily. In this week’s Washington City Paper cover story, I explore their struggle, their prospects once spring rolls around and the city is no longer obligated to shelter them, and the factors behind the family homelessness crisis.

It’s an issue that, beyond the obvious human implications, will factor into the last few weeks of the mayoral primary campaign, as Mayor Vince Gray tries to persuade voters that he deserves credit for an improving local economy. And it won’t melt away as winter turns to spring and summer, since unless the city can find some solutions, next winter could be as bad as worse.

Plus, it features some amazing photos by Darrow Montgomery. That alone is worth a click.