In light of an influx of families seeking shelter during a record-breaking winter storm this year, homelessness in Washington, D.C., became an increasingly prominent issue, with Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) recently announcing plans to close the city’s dilapidated D.C. General Family Shelter.
According to the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness, there are an estimated 7,298 homeless individuals in the District on any given night. This includes 544 unsheltered persons, 5,085 individuals in emergency shelters and 1,669 residents in transitional housing.
In D.C.’s first Homeless Youth Census conducted in August, the D.C. Department of Human Services found that homelessness disproportionately affects LGBTQ youths, with 43 percent of the District’s 330 minors without shelter identifying as LGBTQ.
The D.C. ICH and Bowser have led concerted efforts to address the District’s homelessness crisis since September, when they launched “Homeward DC,” a plan that seeks to eliminate chronic homelessness by 2017 and all long-term homelessness by 2020. The mayor also committed $23 million of her $12 billion 2016 fiscal year budget to combat the crisis.
“Homelessness can seem so big and so insurmountable, but the fact is we can quantify the challenge,” Bowser said at the plan’s official announcement Sept. 1. “A city as prosperous as ours should and must solve the problem of homelessness.”
The plan proposed reforms to expand emergency housing options and enable the housing of families in both apartments and private rooms in addition to public facilities. The proposal also amended the Homeless Services Reform Act, which previously required individuals to prove they had no safe place to stay before being admitted to shelters. The amendment allowed for the provision of at least 12 days of interim housing to homeless citizens as the city determines their eligibility.
The reforms proved vital as nightly temperatures in the District began to plummet below freezing — a period known as “hypothermia season” — and the city faced an influx of more than 700 families seeking shelter in November. The season, which lasts from Nov. 1 to April 1, activates the right-to-shelter law that requires D.C. to provide housing to all homeless people. With shelters filled to capacity, the city resorted to renting motel rooms for 400 families.
Homelessness in the cold weather was further exacerbated by the arrival of Winter Storm Jonas on Jan. 22, which tied for the fourth-highest snowfall on record in the District and pummeled the city with over 2 feet of snow.
The storm prompted the D.C. Department of Human Services to set up temporary warming and overflow hypothermia shelters in recreational centers, libraries and churches throughout six of the District’s eight wards.
“Our staff is doing a whole host of things, making sure they have food, and a plan, meal cards and if need, making sure they have bags of groceries,” D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger said to The Washington Post on Jan. 22. “Yes, they will be marooned, just like everybody in the city will be marooned. That’s why we’re getting out to them in advance.”
Shortly after the storm passed, Bowser unveiled an initiative Feb. 9 to replace D.C. General with facilities in each of the District’s eight wards. The shelter at D.C. General has come under fire for its allegedly poor living conditions, lack of security and staff misconduct since 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared from the shelter in March 2014. Rudd still has not been found, despite the Metropolitan Police Department’s renewed search efforts in April at the U.S. National Arboretum.
Under the mayor’s initiative, the proposed shelters would house up to 50 families each and would cost an estimated $22 million annually to maintain, around $5 million more than is currently used to operate D.C. General. The total cost of the proposal is expected to reach $660 million over the next 30 years.
hough the plan initially received praise from District officials, as more details were revealed throughout March and April, it began to face criticisms over its potential costs. The D.C. Council, which was initially set to vote on the proposal April 19, postponed its consideration until the initiative is further fleshed out.
“We should not overpay for what we’re doing. If it’s worth $1 million, then we should pay $1 million — we shouldn’t pay $10 million,” Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said to WAMU on April 6. “A lot of folks who are very knowledgeable about real estate say that we need to ask tougher questions about the cost.”
The initiative has met further resistance over its proposed shelter sites, particularly due to its plan to establish a facility in Ward 5 that would be in close proximity to a strip club, a waste-treatment facility, a nightclub and a large Metrobus depot.
Critics have also taken issue with a potential conflict of interest reported by The Washington Post on March 16, which indicated that the proposal — which would lease private land for shelters as well as use public property — has the potential to increase the value of properties owned by mayoral donors by up to 10 times.
As of now, the future of Bowser’s plan to address homelessness remains unclear, but the mayor has continued to push for its implementation, stressing the urgency of the crisis at hand.
“I urge us not to be distracted by arguments that are based on fear or convenience, or apples and oranges comparisons that falsely represent the cost of lifting our families out of homelessness,” Bowser said in her State of the District address March 22. “Because make no mistake, if we fail to act, we will fail.”
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