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There are too many homeless families crowding into the city’s inadequate shelters. On that, all parties agree. But when it comes to what should be done about it, tempers start to flare.

Earlier today, a group of homeless families from the D.C. General shelter headed to the Wilson Building to protest the amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act proposed by Mayor Vince Gray to address the growing demand for homeless services. “He’s saying, OK, there’s a swelling number of families at D.C. General, so what we should do about that is make it easier to kick them out,” says Janelle Treibitz of the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition, which helped organize the protest. “You can read between the lines and can tell that the mayor is basically saying he thinks that families are at fault for being in the shelter system, and that families want to stay in the shelter system. Which is the craziest thing ever if you talk to anyone down there.”

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro takes strong issue with the protest, saying that the homeless families are being used “as pawns by activists.”

“The advocates are mired in the work of the past,” he says. “To them, they see shelter as the single number-one overriding priority. What we’ve said is, simply expanding shelters is not the best thing for families. What we’re doing is trying to catch people on the front end so they never need to go into shelters in the first place.”

Treibitz responds that the families planned the protest themselves, with help from the Fair Budget Coalition and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “I would ask him, if you were in the same situation, don’t you think you would be mad and want to advocate on your own behalf?” she says. “There’s nothing in those amendments that helps families maintain stability. It’s pretty much all punitive. Actually, it’s all punitive.”

OK, let’s take a step back and examine the actual policies being debated. According to the Department of Human Services, there are three changes being proposed, two of which require amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act. First, families applying for homeless services are now required to complete comprehensive assessments to determine their eligibility and appropriate services; this does not necessitate an amendment. Second, an amendment would allow the mayor to place homeless people in “provisional placement status” while their assessment is being completed and alternatives to a shelter are being explored. Third, an amendment would allow the mayor to require certain recipients of homeless services to put a portion of their income into an escrow or savings account to help build assets to exit shelter.

The interpretations of these provisions differ widely. The Washington Legal Clinic charges, for example, that provisional placement would allow homeless people to be thrown out onto the street and that they could be terminated for extended hospitalization. The Department of Human Services counters that provisional applicants can only be terminated if they’re deemed ineligible, fail to participate in the assessment, or engage in prohibited behavior. As for the hospitalization charge, DHS Director David Berns tells me, “That is a gross misrepresentation of what this is all about.”

Berns says that the changes will help the city better invest in homeless services. Housing a family in a shelter costs $50,000 a year, he says—-enough to house three families in subsidized apartments, which he says also improves their odds of finding a job. The changes, he says, would save the city $5.3 million.

“Without this, we’re going to have to make cuts in other programs like in the adult shelter system in order to live within the budget,” Berns says. “This will allow us to keep the adult shelters open.”

Berns also takes issue with the charge that the mayor is taking homeless families out of shelters while simultaneously cutting funding for support programs that could keep them off the street. Even though demand for shelters has increased, Berns says there were no unsheltered homeless families or minors in the city’s latest survey, though that survey showed 512 individuals on the street.

Next Tuesday, Treibitz says, homeless advocates are planning to interrupt the D.C. Council’s scheduled breakfast with a “Mother’s Day brunch.” Expect that to inspire similarly heated reactions.

Photo by Lydia DePillis