By Tashira Halyard, Washington Legal Clinic Post-Graduate Fellow
February 18, 2011

Watching tears stream down the face of a 24-year-old woman with two young children, I see a reflection of myself. Maybe at one point our lives were interchangeable and only a few decisions caused our paths to diverge. She’s been kicked out of her friend’s house and has no where to go. She was told by a social worker at the family intake center that she would most likely not be placed in safe housing for the night. She gets angry when I describe to her DC’s hypothermia laws, notifying her she doesn’t have a right to shelter on a warm night. With a look of disbelief, she asks if I’m telling her that because it’s above 32 degrees she and her children must sleep outside. I hang my head and assure her the legal clinic will do our best to find her safe shelter.

As a recent law school graduate, I admit I had some preconceived notions about the homeless population in Washington, DC. I pictured the men and women sleeping on park benches and asking for change—however, after just a few weeks of advocacy at a local intake center, I realize homelessness doesn’t have a face or age. It can be sleeping on a friend’s couch or cramming several families into a one bedroom apartment. Overall, it is instability and uncertainty surrounding a fundamental human need—housing. Although DC has a right to shelter in hypothermia conditions (when the weather is below 33 degrees including wind chill) seeking safe housing on cold nights can be stressful and burdensome. For families, DC’s shelter system is especially under-resourced, making their right to shelter the most difficult to realize.

I now know what the housing crisis looks like. Not the one on Wall Street tied to predatory lending, massive foreclosures, and bank bailouts, but the one that denies single mothers and their children a safe place to stay at night. While others are celebrating this rare warm-day, I’m struggling to advocate within a system that does not recognize housing as a human right. However, I’m among a staff at WLCH that fights tirelessly for systemic change. I too have joined this battle, and the young woman’s tears fuel my passion.