We cannot on the one hand declare DC a “Sanctuary City” and claim that we welcome diversity, but then enact laws meant to keep vulnerable families from accessing safe shelter, placing them at greater risk of harm.  Nassim Moshiree, ACLU of DC

Under consideration by the DC Council right now is the Bowser Administration’s proposal to double the number of documents required to prove residency for emergency shelter applicants. We oppose this change, on philosophical, legal and practical grounds—yet we ask the Council not only to reject that proposal, but to reform the current standard in order to better protect the safety of those within our borders who every day are denied access to emergency shelter even though they live in DC and intend to stay here.

DC emergency shelters and housing programs, for families at least, have always required that its residents be DC residents. Prior to 2010, the residency standard for shelters was the same as all public benefits: applicants had to show that they were in DC voluntarily and not for a temporary purpose, and that they did not intend to leave soon. In 2010, DC created a new, much stricter definition of residency for homeless services, and chose to only exempt singles severe weather shelters from the requirement. At the time, here’s what the New York Times had to say about the proposal:

In another example of how budgetary pressures can lead to very bad public policy, the City Council of the District of Columbia is considering turning away homeless people from winter shelters if they cannot show ties to the district through proof of a recent legal address or receipt of public assistance. That would put the lives of many vulnerable people at risk, and it won’t save a dime…Poverty, hunger and homelessness know no borders. The Supreme Court underscored this truth 41 years ago when it said states can’t adopt policies to restrict the freedom of the poor to travel from one to another, whether pursuing their destiny or survival. If the nation’s capital won’t honor the spirit of the law — and its own statute and long history — all Americans will be shamed.

Nevertheless, in 2010, the DC Council approved the legislation by a 9-4 vote (with Chairman Mendelson and Councilmember Cheh voting against it). As a result, the current Homeless Services Reform Act (HSRA) requires that, to qualify as DC residents and receive homeless services, applicants cannot be receiving public benefits from another state, must live in DC voluntarily and not temporarily, and cannot plan to move out of DC in the immediate future. Additionally, applicants have to prove their residency with one of the following: “(i) A mailing address in the District, valid within the last 2 years; (ii) Evidence that the individual or family has applied or is receiving public assistance from the District; (iii) Evidence that the individual or a family member is attending school in the District; or (iv) Written verification by a verifier who attests, to the best of the verifier’s knowledge, that the individual or family lives in the District voluntarily and not for a temporary purpose and has no intention of presently moving from the District.” D.C. Code § 4-751.01(32). There is a 3 day grace period to establish residency. D.C. Code § 4-753.03. Low barrier shelters operating as severe weather shelters (no family shelters fall into this category) are exempt from residency requirements.

The residency requirement is only used for emergency shelter for families and some transitional housing or permanent supportive housing programs. It could also be applied to youth shelter programs that are not low barrier severe weather shelters. The law allows (but does not require) the Mayor to adopt an exemption for domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking survivors. No Mayor has ever implemented this exemption, though, and the potential exemption does not include refugees. See § 4-753.01(c)(3)(B).

Over the last 7 years, we have probably worked with over a hundred families denied shelter on the basis of residency, yet the vast majority of these have long ties to DC or are fleeing an abusive environment. For instance:
•       Just last week a mother who had lived in DC for 35 years was denied shelter.
•       A mom with a newborn baby was denied shelter in Prince George’s County for being a DC resident, and denied in DC for being a Maryland resident. Until we represented her, she was sleeping in a car in DC with her newborn baby.
•       A mom with a serious medical condition was denied shelter because she still had Medicaid benefits in Maryland, even though she had moved here and her kids were enrolled in DC schools. She had been advised by DHS (the same agency that runs the shelter program) benefits workers to wait until the first of the month to terminate her Medicaid in Maryland to avoid a gap in health care and expensive out-of-pocket prescription costs that she couldn’t pay. She had to choose between health care and shelter.
•       A family seeking asylum fled to DC but was denied shelter for not having any documentation.
•       A family was denied shelter because years ago one of the children went to a Maryland school, placed there by DC Public Schools as part of her Individual Education Plan (IEP).

The Mayor’s data shows that the current residency provision is responsible for denying shelter and services to about 10% of applicants. The data also shows that many of these families are able to prove residency on appeal or re-application. This indicates that some of the families initially denied for residency were in fact residents, but may not have had the required documentation at initial application. It may be that families were just denied shelter until they were able to find the right documents to prove their residency. Some of the populations least likely to have sufficient documentation to prove DC residency include youth generally, youth aging out of foster care, undocumented immigrants, families with kids who are not yet school age, domestic and familial violence survivors, and people coming out of institutions.

Emergency shelter access on freezing nights should have the lowest, not the highest burden on applicants to prove residency. It does not make sense that a family can walk into two different DC government offices and be found a DC resident in one and not the other. For instance, a family applying for benefits through the Economic Security Administration of DHS must meet the following standard: “A homeless person who generally resides within District borders is considered a resident of the District. Homeless persons should be encouraged to give a mailing address so that they can receive notices from IMA. However, a mailing address is not a requirement to receive benefits.” See ESA Policy Manual, Part IV, Chapter 2, Residency. It also states: “A person must not be denied program benefits because s/he does not reside in a permanent dwelling or does not have a fixed mailing address.” This is a particularly reasonable standard for homeless services.

Even the most notoriously difficult residency requirement to meet in DC, the one to enroll children in school, is a lower standard than what is in effect now for emergency shelters, and applies an even lower standard for applicants who are homeless. In fact, Mayor Bowser’s City Administrator, Rashad Young, claimed he needed a special exception to the deadline for school enrollment because he had just moved to DC and couldn’t get documentation of residency in 30 days. But the current law (and doubly so for Mayor Bowser’s proposed changes) demands that homeless families, with far fewer resources and connections than the City Administrator, meet an even higher standard for residency on the very same night that they apply to emergency shelter. The consequence of failing to provide those documents is not that their children can’t enroll in their first choice school. The consequence for homeless families is that their children are not safe.

Let the Committee on Human Services know that #DCvalues mean serving all the people within our borders who need help, regardless of what documents they have with them at a time of crisis:

 

Brianne Nadeau Chair, Ward 1 Councilmember 724-8181 bnadeau@dccouncil.us
Brandon Todd Ward 4 Councilmember 724-8052 btodd@dccouncil.us
Trayon White Ward 8 Councilmember 724-8045 twhite@dccouncil.us
Robert White At large Councilmember 724-8174 rwhite@dccouncil.us
David Grosso At large Councilmember 724-8105 dgrosso@dccouncil.us