It may be easy to paint D.C. as being a pretty harsh place for homeless families. After all, there is D.C. General—its controversial and problematic emergency shelter. And there is the on-going capacity problem. The city just doesn’t have enough space for every homeless family. Placing families at the Comfort Inn on New York Avenue has now become routine.

But in reading emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, city workers agonized over the capacity problem throughout this hypothermia season. The emails swerve between desperation and confusion, from one crisis to the next. They show Department of Human Services administrators working diligently to fix the impossible: To find space for the city’s too many homeless families.

On December 7, Fred Swan, a DHS administrator, wrote up his concerns over the capacity problem. He emailed then-DHS Director Clarence Carter and others:

“Based on the current pace we are housing families and the capacity issue we are facing at DC General tonight, we need to step up the pace considerably to ensure we have enough capacity as we do not want to leave any priority one families out in the cold. I know everyone is doing all they can to place families as quickly as possible and there are several barriers (i.e. availability of 3-bedroom units and families declining to take units in our inventory). However we still need to work through these issues to get where we need to be capacity wise.”

Swan goes on to write about the lack of affordable housing problem—-and the reason some families rejected apartments:

“In regards to the exit assistance program I know a number of families are refusing our units because of price. Can we find some other cheaper units via the dchousingsearch.org website. Also, since families will have 12-months to get prepared to be on their own financially can’t they accept the units we currently have and work with case management to identify cheaper units that relocate to after 12-months? They would be able to get their security deposit back at the end of the 12-months and if needed we could provide some assistance with first months rent.”

The following night, Michele Salters, another homeless services administrator with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, wrote Swan that two families left D.C. General instead of the planned four families. This was a problem.

D.C. General was still basically full. They might have to start using hallways and play rooms to house families, Salters noted in her email: “If we have after hours calls tonight that meet criteria for placement we will be using common areas.”

Swan replied: “Hopefully we will not have to place anyone tonight.”

The capacity issue was an every day issue. Weekends could be especially rough. On December 17, Swan wrote: “Just wanted to get an update on how we are set for the weekend with families. There will be alerts on Saturday and Sunday as well as today so I wanted to see where we are at with housing, shelter capacity, reserve units and DC General and apartments that we have keys for. Let me know.”

In a little more than an hour, Salters replied: “We will have one vacancy today at DC General that will probably be filled by the Intake center. I have two furnished apartment units we can use over the weekend if needed. There may be other moveouts today that I am not aware of yet so I will update as I get more information.”

A month later, on January 18, Scott McNeilly of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless wrote Swan an urgent message regarding activities at the Virginia Williams Resource Center, the place families go when they need shelter.

McNeilly wrote:

“There still seems to be a problem with the message that staff at Virginia Williams is conveying to emergency shelter applicants. I just a call from a woman who called me from VWFRC. She stayed last night with her six year old son at the Motel 6 on New York Avenue but has spent all of her money. (She had to beg the bus driver to let her get on for free to get to VWFRC). [She] said that a worker came out to the waiting room where four or five families were waiting and said that because she is the only intake worker who has arrived at work it will take her a long time to get to everyone. According to Ms. (name redacted), the worker then went on to say that even if she is able to get to everyone, there are no shelter spaces so it is unlikely everyone will be placed. The worker then said that people should try to find a place with friends or family. [She] said that she has no one she can stay with which is why she’s at VWFRC.

While I was writing this, I received a second call from another woman at VWFRC who confirmed that staff came out and announced that there is no space in the shelter and that applicants should call back tomorrow and the next day to see if there is any space.

This needs to be fixed.”

Three minutes later, Swan forwarded the email to Salters and wrote: “FYI Are they really saying this?”

Swan labeled the email’s importance as “High.”