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.

Before finding herself homeless and bouncing around shelters with her four children, one witness at this morning’s D.C. Council hearing was a victim of domestic violence. But she sometimes wishes she could go back to the way things were. “I would have better endured getting hit every day than to be homeless with four children,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous because of her history.

The witness and her children are one of 472 D.C. homeless families living at motels in the District and Maryland, paid for by D.C. taxpayers because the 285 family shelter rooms at the former D.C. General Hospital are full. She says the unpredictability of her life in shelters and hotels—-the Virginia Williams Family Resource Shelter, which does homeless work on the city’s behalf, has turned her down for shelter several times, she complains—-has made it nearly impossible for her to get back on her feet. “If I had a place to go, I would get a job and get out of this situation,” she says.

The trouble is that as the number of homeless families in the District grows, the city’s at an increasing loss for where to put them. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the Committee on Human Services and called the hearing, announced this morning that Prince George’s County has requested that D.C. stop sending homeless families to motels in the county. Department of Human Services spokeswoman Dora Taylor says in an email, “Due to concerns raised about placements outside of the District, those options have been lost.”

There appears to be some confusion on this point. Barry L. Hudson, spokesman for Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, says Prince George’s “can’t and would not” kick out D.C. homeless families. The county simply had some questions about providing support services for those families, he says. “There are 77 families here now that we have staying in the Cheverly area, and they’re going to be here for a while,” he says.

Regardless, sheltering homeless families in faraway motels isn’t exactly ideal, given the distance they and their children have to travel daily for work, school, and services. But Graham says it’s better than the likely alternative, creating overnight shelters in D.C.’s recreation centers. Marta Beresin, a staff attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, testified at the hearing that many homeless families leave rec centers after a night or two because they feel less safe there than in cars or public spaces.

A coalition of homeless advocacy groups has proposed a greater investment in permanent housing support for homeless families in order to keep them out of shelters and motels. The plan, which has not been endorsed by the city, would actually save money, the advocates say.

It’s clear that the status quo is unsustainable, particularly if more families like the witness’s continue to fall into homelessness. “We very clearly have a crisis on our hands,” said Graham, who noted that at this time last year, there were only 44 D.C. homeless families in hotels.

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells agreed. “Not since the Reagan administration have we seen so many homeless families needing shelter in our city,” he said.

This post has been updated.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery