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Conditions at D.C. General Hospital last winter.

Councilmember Tommy Wells is holding a roundtable on the District’s plan for housing the homeless this winter, and just dropped a not-actually-surprising statistic: According to a survey of D.C.’s shelter population, approximately ten percent of our homeless individuals are most recently from outside the District.

At a time when the city is trying to cut $175 million from the fiscal 2011 budget, they’re not wanted. Wells says that he’s considering legislation to restrict homeless services to people who, when they last lived somewhere, lived outside the city. Clarence Carter, the director of the Department of Human Services, vigorously agreed.

“The District does not have the resources to share its compassion with the nation,” he said. “I think it is absolutely appropriate for us to be very jealous about reserving these resources for District residents.”

What’s more, Wells has reason to believe that surrounding jurisdictions are directing their homeless to D.C., where they might be able to find a place to sleep for the night. Recently, he said, a mother and her six children arrived in his office, saying someone in Prince Georges County directed her to D.C. Wells put them in a hotel room using his constituent services fund, and noted that every councilmember has done the same, but that’s obviously not a sustainable strategy.

Trying to screen homeless people by last residence, however, might not be a workable strategy either. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled on equal protection grounds that neither the states nor D.C. could deny people welfare benefits on the grounds that they had not resided there for at least a year (one of the plaintiffs in the case was a Washingtonian who tried to move back to the District in 1966 and couldn’t get assistance for her children). Justice William O. Brennan wrote:

The purpose of inhibiting migration by needy persons into the State is constitutionally impermissible.

This Court long ago recognized that the nature of our Federal Union and our constitutional concepts of personal liberty unite to require that all citizens be free to travel throughout the length and breadth of our land uninhibited by statutes, rules, or regulations which unreasonably burden or restrict this movement.

More fundamentally, a State may no more try to fence out those indigents who seek higher welfare benefits than it may try to fence out indigents generally. Implicit in any such distinction is the notion that indigents who enter a State with the hope of securing higher welfare benefits are somehow less deserving than indigents who do not  take this consideration into account. But we do not perceive why a mother who is seeking to make a new life for herself and her children should be regarded as less deserving because she considers, among others factors, the level of a State’s public assistance. Surely such a mother is no less deserving than a mother who moves into a particular State in order to take advantage of its better educational facilities.

(Thanks, @oblivious_dude!)