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 necessary to solve any identified problems. Furthermore, DHS has only recently taken over the operation of Virginia Williams Family Resource Center and we should re-evaluate these needs once we have data about how this hypothermia season goes under DHS direct operations.

We urge the Council to oppose moving forward on this Bill until a hearing is held next session in order to get thoughtful feedback from the community and to be able to engage DHS and advocates in meaningful conversation about the Bill.

There is no emergency that supports moving forward such a potentially problematic Bill with no community input. While we appreciate the agency’s concern about spending its dollars wisely, and support such efforts, there has been no data provided to support a claim that these provisions would lower costs. Every family currently in shelter has had to prove that they are DC resdients and have no safe housing. Current law allows DHS to turn away families who are not DC residents. The Administration’s proposal would just make it harder to document residency, meaning DC saves money only if families who qualify as DC residents but don’t have the additional paperwork to prove it are turned away. Current law also allows DHS to turn away families who have a safe place to stay. The Administration’s proposal would just make it much harder for families to prove that they have no place to go or that the place they have is unsafe by requiring that families provide clear and convincing evidence even on hypothermic nights.

DC has a problem with increasing family homelessness, but restricting shelter access is not the solution. The root cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing in the District. We must focus on policies, programs and funding that preserve and create affordable housing for people with extremely low incomes. Restricting shelter access even more than it already is—for emergency family shelter has by far the most onerous application process of any DC public benefit—will not solve family homelessness, and will not solve the financial pressures caused by failing to adequately invest in housing.

We hope to continue to work with DHS to see if we can come to mutual agreement about how to appropriately balance the needs of the system with the safety of people experiencing homelessness. But the Bill in its current form does not appropriately strike that balance and we urge you to oppose emergency passage. Some of us plan to do walk-arounds today, in the afternoon, and we hope to meet with you and your staff to talk about our concerns further.

Sincerely,

Bread for the City
Children’s Law Center
DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence
Fair Budget Coalition
Homeless Children’s Playtime Project
Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia
Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

These additional organizations signed on to support the concerns expressed above:
Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS)
DASH (District Alliance for Safe Housing)
DC for Democracy
DC Hunger Solutions
DC Statehood Green Party
Good Faith Communities Coalition

See the letter’s addendum – a more detailed analysis of the proposal – here.