The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless posted this item on its blog a few days ago, but I thought it was worth a write up. The D.C. Council’s recent passage of a strict residency requirement for the homeless entering shelters had faced serious opposition from just about every local nonprofit. They—-and the New York Times editorial board—-warned Vincent Gray and the bill’s author Tommy Wells that the requirement could lead to families being left out in the cold. The Times called the new law “inhumane.”
I couldn’t think of a more apt description than what Marta Beresin, a staff attorney with the Legal Clinic, describes in her blog item. Recently, she writes, the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) told a homeless mother that she either had to leave town or have her kids put in fostercare.
What does this have to do with Wells’ legislation? Answer after the jump!
“What’s sadly ironic is that this mother had been to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (‘FRC’), the central intake site for homeless families in need of shelter repeatedly during the prior two weeks, pleading for the very thing that the District claimed she was neglectfully failing to provide. Each time she had been told – as many others have been this winter – that there was no room for her and her children at DC General, the filled-to-capacity (with 152 families as of 2/10/11) winter shelter for families in the District.
In part, this mother’s odyssey may have been due to action the DC Council took in December, when 9 members of the Council passed the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2010 (‘HSRA Amendment’). The bill establishes, for the first time, strict residency verification requirements for families applying for life-saving hypothermia shelter. While the HSRA Amendment has yet to become law, some of its harshest consequences are already being visited on families. The attempt to force the aforementioned mother to move to another state for shelter for her family was born out of the misimpression that she was not a District resident. Nobody at the FRC had checked her ID (which was a DC driver’s license) or her other documents showing existing ties to the District.”
The District government had given the mother a motel voucher, according Legal Clinic staff attorney, Julie Broas, who represents the family. She was able to move into a motel on Jan. 21. Like other families seeking shelter, she went back to the Virginia Williams Resource Center on Feb. 2 to complete her intake process. This is when the dispute over her proof of residency began. “She showed her D.C. license,” Broas explains, adding that the mother also other documents confirming her residency. “I don’t know why that was not acceptable. As events unfolded, that was not enough.”
On the night of Feb. 2, the mother paid for a motel room. She went back to Virginia Williams the next day and was told that her file was closed. Workers did not consider her a D.C. resident. That night, Broas said, the mother went to a police station to ask for help. A stranger gave her money which used with the last of her savings for one more night in the motel.
On Feb. 4, she again returned to Virginia Williams to plead her case: She had nowhere to go and no money left. At that point, her children were already enrolled in D.C. public schools. It didn’t matter to the workers at the Virginia Williams Resource Center.
At this point, the mother finally reached out to the Legal Clinic. While at Virginia Williams, and in front of Broas, a Child and Family Services Agency social worker delivered the bizarre ultimatum: Give up your kids or take a bus out of town.
Broas recalls the social worker explaining: “Because she is not being placed in a shelter, therefore she is unable to provide a safe place for her children to stay. If she does not agree to accept the arrangement that has been made for her [the bus out of town], we will be forced to take her children away from her.”
City workers put “tremendous pressure” on her to get on the bus, the lawyer explains. “The social worker was pacing saying ‘we’ve got to go right now. She has to make this choice.'” This was at 4:30 p.m. The bus wasn’t leaving until roughly 11 that night.
Broas requested an emergency hearing on the city’s refusal to provide this District family shelter during hypothermic conditions. Based on the mother’s original documents that she had been trying to show the intake workers for days, the Department of Human Services finally agreed that the family had a right to shelter.
The Child and Family Services Agency did not return requests for comment. If the agency responds, we will update this post.