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Updated at 5:25 p.m.
Throughout this hypothermia season, the District has managed to keep D.C. General’s emergency family shelter from becoming overcrowded. The good news is there aren’t families sleeping in hallways next to trash cans or enduring sleepless nights in the cafeteria (see here, here, and here). D.C. General has been held at a capacity of 150 families or so—down from last year’s high of 200 families.
And yet the number of homeless families hasn’t gone down. It turns out city administrators have come up with an expensive solution to D.C. General’s limited space: The city has spent tens of thousands of dollars putting homeless families up at the refurbished Comfort Inn on New York Avenue.
Ashley Edwards, a sales coordinator at the Comfort Inn, estimates that at least 70 homeless families have stayed at the hotel since January. According to a mother who currently resides at the hotel and has seen her bill, the city is spending $89 per day on each family. She and her children have been staying at the hotel for more than a month. (Another mother says she was told her bill comes to $119 per day).
The number of families residing at the hotel could be a lot higher than 70. In an earlier interview, Edwards had estimated that closer to 140 homeless families had stayed there.
D.C.’s Department of Human Services, despite repeated requests, couldn’t say just how many families had stayed at the Comfort Inn. “I don’t know,” explains Fred Swan, head of the Family Services Administration with the city’s Department of Human Services. “The need could be 20 one day, 25 the next. It changes every day just about.”
Swan later says the number of homeless families residing at the Comfort Inn just wasn’t public information. “We don’t give that information out,” he says. A few days later, he says he thinks the 120 figure “seems kind of high to me.” But since he wouldn’t give an actual number of his own, it’s hard to know what to make of that.
The Comfort Inn provides for the families like any other hotel guests. In the morning, they receive a free continental breakfast of sugar cereals and bland muffins. Families can also use the hotel chain’s fitness room and free WiFi. In their rooms, they could watch free cable on flat-screen televisions.
But homeless mothers tell City Desk life at the Comfort Inn lacked the one thing they desperately needed: A good case worker to help them find housing.
Advocates had argued for two years that the city’s shelter capacity wasn’t enough to meet demand. This past fall, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser quashed the city’s plan to convert a building on Spring Road into a shelter. The costs would have been minimal; city officials stated the building just needed showers installed. Instead of adding capacity, the D.C. Council spent months debating a stronger residency requirement for those seeking shelter. Of course, the consequences were brutal.
At the Comfort Inn, mothers say District officials spent the majority of time telling them they weren’t like other hotel guests. In a mid-February meeting at the hotel, all the families were told they could not have guests, they could only eat meals in their rooms, and they could not visit other guests.
“We can’t even go in the lobby basically,” says current Comfort Inn resident Tasha Coleman, 20, who came to the hotel with a nine-month-old boy. She says she had previously slept outside a church. “When we go to breakfast, we have to show our keys. They tell us we can’t go in the lobby to get a cup of coffee.”
“If you do want visitors, you had to meet them off the property,” recalls Teneisha Davall, 25, a mother of three and who stayed at the Inn for a month. “It just felt like they had no respect for us. We had nowhere to go. We were not a priority to [the Comfort Inn staff]. They just brushed us off.”
That meeting was essentially the most attention these mother received at the Inn.The mothers say they wanted help finding apartments. Both complain they haven’t gotten the help. “It’s frustrating,” one says. “You don’t know who to talk to.”
Coleman says she’s been told by her case worker that “there’s nothing they can do. You just have to wait to be placed in D.C. General. And then once at D.C. General, you go from there. Coleman has been living at the Comfort Inn since January 8.
A few weeks after the meeting, the mothers finally got some attention from the city. They were called and told they were being moved temporarily across New York Avenue to the Budget Motor Inn. The Comfort Inn needed to make way for some conventioneers. One mother says she was given 20 minutes notice to pack up everything she owns. Another got an hour.
Both say they woke up at the Budget Motor Inn to police making drug busts. They were shuttled back to the Comfort Inn that day. In the rush to get everyone back across the street, the hotel was still a mess. Davall says she saw bloody tissues in the hallway, alcohol in the stairwell, and black panties and black boxers stuffed between the wall and vending machine.
Davall says soon after, she and her three kids noticed the room’s phone was broken. The Inn never fixed it. Later, her 1-year-old daughter dropped her sippy cup. Davall says when she reached down to pick it up, she noticed a new addition to the room: a used condom under the bed.
“It was disgusting. I don’t even know if the sheets were ever changed to be perfectly honest,” Davall says.
*photo of New York Ave. Comfort Inn courtesy of Comfort Inn.