In a climactic vote just now in the Wilson Building, the City Council passed Councilmember Tommy Wells‘ proposal to require that homeless shelters turn away people who can’t demonstrate District residency during the coldest part of the year. By my count of the 30-day Congressional review period, the bill will go into effect on March 16, only a couple weeks before the end of hypothermia season.
The discussion was some of the most emotional and at times accusatory I’ve seen in the Council chambers this budget season. Four Councilmembers spoke passionately against the measure, with Harry Thomas reminding his colleagues that baby Jesus was displaced while homeless. Phil Mendelson called the bill “cruel,” and Mary Cheh said she could find the money in her committee’s budget to take care of all comers if it came to that. “When I go home at night, and I’m scurrying to my front door freezing and shivering, and I think of this measure, I just don’t want to do this,” Jim Graham added.
Wells called bullshit on his colleagues, reminding them of past opposition to shelters in their own wards, and the council’s refusal to raise new revenue. “This is a hollow call for justice,” he said. (Though, to be fair, Graham and Thomas led the charge to hike taxes on high income earners). “…What you want to do is just dump more families into D.C. General.”
Wells received the full-throated support of David Catania, who wondered whether homeless advocates opposing the bill had been down to Richmond or Annapolis to lobby for more social services funding in surrounding jurisdictions. For her part, Ward 4 Councilwoman Muriel Bowser took the arguments of those who would continue to welcome homeless people from outside the District as a personal attack for her objection to using a District-owned building on Spring Road NW as a family shelter.
“I hear the undercurrent of this conversation,” she said. “I didn’t see any suggestions for Wisconsin Avenue, Connecticut Avenue…they want to overconcentrate in our ward, and I won’t stand for it.”
So, the bill goes into effect. Important caveats: Low-barrier shelters, as well as victims of domestic abuse and human trafficking, are exempted. Families seeking shelter have three days to provide evidence of residency, which can include a mailing address, school enrollment, registration for public benefits, or the written testimony of a “verifier.” Oh, and families may not be housed in “non-apartment-style” shelters, but when no non-apartment-style shelters are available, private rooms will suffice.
For more analysis, read Kathryn Baer.