By Amber Harding, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Staff Attorney

A mother walks the city in 100 degree heat with her 10 year old son and 2 year old daughter, desperately searching for help to get her family off the streets.  They have spent the last five weeks repeating this pattern since losing their housing; told daily that there is no room for them in shelter.  This mother lives in fear that she will lose custody of her children because she cannot provide a safe place for them to rest their heads.

After being evicted from their home in mid-July, a single father and his two sons, ages 2 and 4, knock on the doors of former neighbors and strangers, desperate to stay out of the heat and off the streets.  The family spends each day calling the central intake site for families only to be told the same thing– the shelters are full and they will have to wait their turn on the list.

For the first time in at least ten years, the District is not providing emergency shelter or housing to even the most vulnerable, highest priority families—those who are sleeping with their children on the street, in abusive settings, in cars, at bus stops, or in other dangerous settings.  We have been inundated with calls from families in truly desperate situations, and we have been unable to help most of them—there are more than two dozen families with no safe place to sleep on any given day.  Because there is no legal right to shelter in DC unless it is below 32 degrees outside, all WLCH has been able to do is plead for help for each individual family, and plead with the District government to come up with additional resources quickly to serve the families in greatest need.

Since 2008, when the recession first hit, family homelessness has skyrocketed by 36.3% in the District.  Housing and shelter resources have not kept up with this increase.  Family emergency shelters were horribly overcrowded last winter, there was a brief respite from March to May due to some new housing resources, and then the shelters have been almost or completely full since May.  The city’s centralized intake center has been overwhelmed with applications for shelter, and families are turned away daily.  As of July 18, there were 543 families on the waiting list for emergency shelter.

From what we’ve heard from officials at the Department of Human Services (DHS), they are trying their hardest to come up with a plan to meet this pressing need.  Currently, their plan (while not yet final or public) is to provide affordable housing to some families in the shelter system over the next few months, which would then open up the front door of the emergency shelters to new families.  While we fully support the Administration increasing permanent housing and are heartened that DHS has been able to find any resources for housing in this tight economy, the reality remains that the Administration’s plan will not help families who will be living in cars and on the street this August because housing won’t be ready for at least a month.  The Administration has not developed, much less implemented, any plan for emergency relief.

Luckily for the two families described above, community members answered their calls for help.  A local church let the mother and her two daughters sleep on the church’s floor at night for over a month, a dinner program provided the family with meals and alerted the community to their plight, and a local nonprofit connected the family to services and asked their local councilmember to help find temporary solutions.  After we sent out an email over the broad community listserv for the Fair Budget Coalition, several individuals and local non-profits responded with offers to help the father and his sons find a roof over their heads temporarily.

We disagree with the Administration’s lack of a plan to provide emergency relief to the dozens of families who have no safe place to sleep tonight.  But as a community it is our responsibility to respond when our neighbors are in crisis even as we voice our disapproval of the Administration’s failure to meet the needs of DC families.  We have been truly amazed by the outpouring of support for our clients in need this summer, and we know that if we ask, community members will continue to join us in supporting the families.  To help our neighbors, join us as we:

  1. call or email the Mayor at 727-2980 or and ask him to put all families in crisis in hotels tonight so no child is at risk from the heat or a dangerous sleeping situation;
  2. ask our houses of worship to open their doors to a few families each night;
  3. sponsor a family’s hotel stay; and/or
  4. spread the word, including linking to this blog on Facebook or our blogs, to raise awareness and urge others to take action as well.

If you would like more information or to help a family with a place to sleep, please call or email us at (202) 328-5500 or