Since 1990, people experiencing homelessness, advocates, activists, and other community members have used the Winter Solstice – the darkest day of the year – to celebrate the lives and mourn the passing of those who died homeless during the year. This year 51 people were mourned.
The Bowser Administration has proposed amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act that would impose upon homeless families in DC stricter standards for proving their residency and eligibility for live-saving shelter. We are concerned that the proposal will impose barriers that could prevent DC’s most vulnerable families from accessing desperately needed shelter. Set out below is a letter to the DC Council from the Legal Clinic and a number of our colleagues in the provider and advocacy community, urging the Council to provide an adequate opportunity for community input about what the impact of these changes will be. We hope you’ll join us in calling on the Council not to move the legislation forward on an emergency basis. Contact information for your councilmembers can be found here. November 30, 2016 Dear Councilmembers, Last month, Mayor Bowser introduced the HSRA Modernization Act of 2016, a bill that makes significant changes to the primary law governing our homeless services systems. We write as a group of concerned service providers and advocates to urge you to oppose the introduction of this measure as emergency legislation this session. We believe that we share goals with the Administration of 1) making sure that every person who has no safe place to sleep at night is served, no matter the weather; 2) protecting the legal and human rights of people experiencing homelessness; and 3) having a system that efficiently and effectively meets the needs of such people. We believe, however that this Bill, in its current form, does not meet these intended goals. Additionally, because a hearing has not yet been scheduled, affected community members have not yet had an opportunity to offer their feedback on ways to improve the legislation. We believe it would be premature and risk harming extremely vulnerable DC residents to pass this Bill as emergency, particularly right as hypothermia season begins. As a group, we have been attempting to work with DHS on this legislation for several months, including having two meetings with them and providing a letter highlighting some specific concerns, questions, and alternative suggestions to meet their goals. We only learned this week that Mayor Bowser is advocating for this as emergency legislation in spite of assurances from DHS that this Bill would have a hearing and that the agency would work with us to redraft parts of the Bill. We have requested information from DHS, some of which was provided and some of which was not, to better understand why they believe all of these provisions are necessary. We have also made recommendations for how DHS can accomplish its goals in the short term while we are in the process of determining if legislation is in fact...
Last Tuesday, the DC Council made changes to the Mayor’s proposed legislation to close the DC General family shelter and voted unanimously in favor of the bill. (It requires two votes to become law). We strongly support the changes to the bill and urge the Mayor and Council to work out any remaining kinks and expeditiously finalize and pass this important legislation. The new version of the bill maintains the overall approach proposed by Mayor Bowser—that DC General be replaced with smaller shelters dispersed throughout the District. It also keeps more than half of the sites that the Mayor recommended (Wards 1, 4, 7 and 8). The major changes are to authorize DC to purchase or use eminent domain to acquire the Wards 1 and 4 properties, and to switch the Wards 3, 5, and 6 sites for specific DC-owned properties. The Council also included capital dollars in the FY17 budget to fund such acquisition and/or development of the properties into shelters. If none of the sites are leased, the District will save about $165 million. In our view, the changes to the bill fairly reflect three months of community input into the specifics of the Mayor’s plan. The Mayor has held at least two community meetings in each ward to solicit input on the plan and the Council held a hearing at which we testified on March 17th. Overwhelmingly, community members supported the Mayor’s overall approach to closing DC General yet raised serious concerns about high leasing costs, the short term of shelter leases when family homelessness looks to be a long term problem, the lack of private bathrooms and cooking space in the designs, and problems with the sites in Wards 3, 5 and 6. There were sign-on letters from advocacy organizations, letters from health professionals, and multiple stories in the press that echoed these concerns (such as the Ward 5 site’s asthma risks, the Ward 6 site’s proximity to the Blind Whino, and overall costs). For the sites in Wards 3, 5 and 6, there were also significant concerns about upcoming zoning battles and resulting delays. Of the three sites replacing the Mayor’s suggestions, at least two (Wards 3 and 5) were proposed as alternatives by Ward constituents and Councilmembers to the Mayor’s office and vetted openly. It’s easy to become distracted by the political drama surrounding this issue, but step back for a moment, and we achieve a brighter perspective. First, this is how democracy should work. The Mayor can and should take leadership to propose a major initiative that the Administration will have to execute. And when that initiative is laid out in legislation, it is up to the Council to hold a hearing and mark up the...
Today, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) released the results of its annual Point-in-Time Count (PIT) of homeless persons in the region, including those in shelter or transitional housing as well as those staying on the street. While the number of counted homeless individuals fell by 3.8% since 2015, the number of counted families (1491) rose by almost 32% since last year’s report. That number may raise alarms, and it should, but not for the reasons you might suspect. This year’s PIT count is a significantly more accurate reflection of the number of families in DC facing homelessness than in years prior. Our challenge now as a community is to meet this need for affordable housing head on. For years, the District artificially kept down the number of counted homeless families by severely restricting access to emergency shelter services, both during hypothermic weather, when families have a right to shelter, and outside of it, when they do not. Under the Gray Administration, in the spring, summer and fall months, shelter units were left vacant while families slept out on the streets or in other unsafe situations. The myriad of practices and policies violating the rights of homeless families and dissuading them from further seeking services led us to publish a report in the winter of 2013 titled “Should DC Residents Need a Lawyer to Access Emergency Shelter?” Even for families that applied for shelter on nights when the hypothermia alert was in effect, the Gray Administration’s use of recreation centers as shelter in winter of 2014-2015 led to families choosing alternatives like sleeping in their cars because they felt safer there than in unsecure and communal gymnasiums. (A class action lawsuit and later, the DC Council’s legislation, ended this practice). Not only did all of the above lead to an undercounting of DC homeless families in the PIT count (because families who cannot access resources are not included in the count), but it likely contributed to increased numbers of families not getting the help they needed and falling deeper into crisis. In the past year, the Bowser Administration has enacted a much more humane and efficient approach to serving families where they are. For the first time in years, DC’s Department of Human Services began placing families in shelter this past spring and summer, even outside of hypothermia season. Although not all families who needed shelter were placed, many more were placed than in previous years (464 families according to the MWCOG report). And this past winter, despite unprecedented numbers of homeless families in the system, DHS managed to meet the needs of families applying for shelter with lawful placements and reduced unlawful family shelter denials by 40%. As stated...
We’re heading into the final stretch of setting our collective budget priorities for 2017. The DC Council’s first full vote on the budget is next Tuesday, May 17th. Mayor Bowser and the DC Council have repeatedly touted their unprecedented collective commitment to ending homelessness. So far, we have not seen that political commitment play out in the budget process.
Last year, after a historic joint effort, we concluded: “via this budget, Mayor Bowser and the DC Council have shown that they have the political will to invest the necessary resources in ending homelessness.” Last July, Mayor Bowser, in an address at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness, agreed:
“DC is putting our money where our mouth is. Despite coming into office with an overall budget gap at the start of this year, I proposed historic investments to end homelessness in the District. And I’m proud to tell you that we passed a budget that invests $145 million for locally funded homelessness assistance, including a nearly $23 million down payment on the first year to implement our strategic plan.”
The Mayor also pointed out that there was more to be done to reach our collective goals:
“These investments are just a down payment. We have a long road ahead, but we’re committed… I understand these are bold goals – and there are people who doubt we can do it. But we owe it to our community to aim high. And we owe it to them to achieve high. We are making the investments – and taking the steps – here in our nation’s capital to show that it’s possible.”
“Take a deep breath.”
How many times have we heard, or made, that suggestion? Doctors say it when they are checking our wellness. Nature lovers say it when they want us to appreciate the fresh air of the great outdoors. We say it to ourselves when facing a particularly challenging situation, or couple it with “and count to ten” when we need to keep our tempers in check.
For asthma sufferers, taking a deep breath is no simple task. While so many of us take breathing deeply for granted, those who endure asthma cannot. Each deep breath is a precious commodity, nurtured by maintaining an environment that keeps asthma triggers in check. Unfortunately, homeless asthma sufferers don’t have much control over their environments. They have to go where the shelters are, or they get no shelter at all.