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.

As of Jan. 15, the District was putting up 349 hotel families in motels, in both D.C. and Maryland, because the city’s shelter system was maxed out. It’s a solution that’s preferable to leaving these families to fend for themselves, but it’s far from ideal. First, it presents substantial hardships to the families themselves, who may have to send their children to school from a Howard Johnson off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Cheverly. And second, it comes at a considerable expense to taxpayers, who shell out around $100 a night for the motel rooms.

Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services, is holding a roundtable hearing this morning on sheltering the homeless this winter. (The city is required by law to house all homeless residents in need when temperatures drop below freezing, causing a bigger crunch in shelters during the winter.) But in advance of the hearing, a coalition of advocacy groups and city officials has released a plan it says can house the homeless more effectively than the status quo, and at less cost.

The plan, put out by a working group within the Interagency Council on Homelessness, calls for changes both big and small. The most expensive proposal involves offering rapid rehousing—-a program to place homeless families in housing with temporarily subsidized rent that has struggled to house adequate numbers of D.C. families—-to more families, plus providing short-term rent assistance to the families best able to support themselves and permanent supportive housing to those least equipped to do so, such as disabled residents. Other proposals with lower price tags include beefing up the program to find suitable apartments for homeless families and increasing training and services around the housing programs.

The total annual cost of these proposals, the plan’s authors estimate, would be nearly $29 million. But they say the current system can be much more expensive: If the city has to house 1,000 families in shelters or motels for $150 a night, that costs almost $55 million a year.

One can quibble with the numbers, but if the costs are even remotely comparable, advocates argue, it’s hard to make the case that sheltering families in motels is a better use of the city’s money than providing more permanent housing solutions. The trouble thus far—-one the advocates’ plan aims to ameliorate—-has been the short supply of affordable housing into which to place these families, with the expectation that they can reasonably pay their own way once city subsidies end.

D.C.’s Department of Human Services and the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness both provided input into the plan but have not officially signed on, according to Kate Coventry of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, one of the groups that crafted the plan. Other groups behind the plan include Community of Hope, the Transitional Housing Corporation, and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery