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During hypothermia season, which runs from November through March, the city is required by law to find shelter for homeless people. Last winter, that meant housing some of them in hotels, since family shelters didn’t have enough room—-as former City Paper staffer Jason Cherkis reported, around 70 were staying at the Comfort Inn on New York Avenue NE.

This winter, the problem is much worse. Since at least the beginning of January, the city says it has put up between 185 and 210 families per night in motels, at a rate of $100 per room. So renting rooms costs about $20,000 per night, and there’s about half again on top of that for food, transportation, and other associated costs. That adds up really fast: at least a million bucks since the beginning of the year out of the city’s homelessness budget. Which, needless to say, could be much better spent somewhere else. 

It’s just about panicking the homeless advocates and government types who showed up to today’s Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting. “I just want to make sure we’re elevating this to a crisis urgency level,” said Kelly Sweeney McShane, executive director of the Community of Hope. The need is especially great among young families, she says.

“When I first came here, I had no idea that the number of families facing homelessness would increase so much,” said Department of Human Services director David Berns, noting that he’d expected the 327 spots in the family shelter system to be enough this year (by and large, there’s so far been enough capacity for single men and women). They’re building out 100 more spaces at D.C. General Hospital, which will bring the total up to about 250—-larger than ideal for one family shelter.

According to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless’ Scott McNeilly, once you get a placement in a hotel, you’re good to stay for a bit. The problem has been finding transitional housing for families to move to as they get stabilized, since the pace of construction and acquisition of permanent supportive housing has slowed.

Where is the bump in homeless families coming from? A combination of factors. The New York Times shed light on a lot of them earlier this month: Many families are living otherwise normal lives, but are living on the edge, and suddenly can’t make rent or live with family members anymore.

That’s a big problem to solve.