Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her plan to address Washington, D.C.’s homelessness crisis response system with a set of proposed administrative and legislative policy changes during a meeting with the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness Sept. 1.
“Homelessness can seem so big and so insurmountable, but the fact is we can quantify the challenge,” Bowser said during the official announcement. “A city as prosperous as ours should and must solve the problem of homelessness.”
An expanded homeless shelter application process, a new interim shelter option during that process and additional housing options are among the changes and proposed legislation Bowser outlined.
Additionally, Bowser’s budget for the 2016 fiscal year, “Pathways to the Middle Class,” included a $23 million down payment toward reducing homelessness. The mayor’s office also pledged to establish new emergency housing throughout the District to replace the existing D.C. General Family Shelter.
Previous policy dictated that the District would only accept shelter applications from homeless families on nights when the temperature dropped below freezing — a time known as hypothermia season — which historically resulted in a large demand crunch. Only 1,007 of the 1,942 families that applied for shelter last winter were offered housing, according to the Washington Post.
However, Bowser’s administration implemented a year-round application process for shelter in April.
D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger also spoke about the necessity of providing families with both an emergency response system and a strong support system once they are placed in housing.
“People with children need to have a safe place to be when there is a housing crisis,” Zeilinger said. “It is very important that we have a crisis response system that has all of the necessary tools.”
Additionally, Bowser and her team proposed two main changes to the city law to be enacted later this year, pending D.C. Council approval.
The first is to amend the configuration of family shelters so that the District has the ability to shelter homeless families in both apartments and private rooms in addition to current public spaces.
“These new emergency housing facilities will be safe, clean, modern developments with private rooms for families and the amenities and services they need to succeed in the long run,” according to the Office of the Mayor’s website.
The second proposal involves amending the Homeless Services Reform Act, which dictates that homeless families must prove that they have nowhere safe to stay before being admitted to a shelter.
Bowser’s amendment would allow for an interim shelter of at least 12 days to families applying for housing as the city determines their eligibility, starting this November.
D.C. Councilmember David Grosso expressed support for Bowser’s initiative in an email to The Hoya.
“It is very important that we change our approach to homelessness,” Grosso wrote. “For too long, we have been warehousing individuals and families in decrepit buildings, without sufficient services to help people get back on their feet and lead successful, self-sufficient lives.”
Zeilinger was similarly optimistic regarding the success of the initiative.
“It’s going to be hard, but I have full confidence that we will be very effective,” Zeilinger said. “It is such an exciting time in D.C. that the mayor is fully committed to creating a system of care that works for homeless families. The time is really now for us to fix what has been broken for a long time.”
Grosso offered an example of these facilities and highlighted suggestions for more effective ways to provide housing to families in need.
“After visiting some of the shelters for our homeless individuals, I was appalled at the conditions,” Grosso wrote. “People were only let in for the night, were kicked out at 7 a.m., and were not provided any services. I think we have models in the city to help people out of homelessness effectively, such as Friendship Place, which offers wrap-around services with an emphasis on housing and employment as well as mental health supports.”
Bowser and the District’s ICH are enacting these changes in accordance with the Homeward D.C. plan, a citywide initiative that aims to significantly reduce homelessness over the next five years.
Grosso added that homelessness has been a citywide concern for years and supports efforts to address the issue.
“Our efforts must continue to focus on preventing people from becoming homeless, while effectively supporting those who are homeless to get back on their feet,” Grosso wrote.
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