by Scott McNeilly

Last month, one hundred and ninety-seven families came into the District of Columbia’s Virginia Williams Family Resource Center to apply for emergency shelter.  Fifty seven of those families were determined to have no other temporary or safe place to stay the night they applied.  None of those families received emergency shelter.  Until the weather turns hypothermic, none will.

Next week, DC’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) will decide whether to approve a Winter Plan for 2012-2013 premised on the notion that it is acceptable to allow struggling families who have no home and no personal safety net to sleep in emergency rooms, bus stations, and abandoned buildings, except when the temperature falls below freezing.

The plan was developed in good faith by members of the ICH who learned at nearly the 11th hour that the resources the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) had indicated were available for families will not be available after-all.  DHS only recently revealed to the ICH that it has no budget and thus no intention to maintain the full family shelter capacity on which the final draft of the plan had already relied.  Instead of utilizing 271 units at DC General Family Shelter as had been discussed for months in the planning process, DHS intends to scale back DC General capacity to 153 families, hoping to make up the difference by placing families in housing.

Providing affordable housing would clearly be the ideal solution to our current crisis.  But for housing placements to work as proposed in the plan, DHS would have to place families in housing at an average rate of at least 95 families per month throughout the winter.  To put this in perspective, last winter DHS’s goal was to place a mere 150 families over the entire winter season into the same type of housing they plan to use this year.  Because it wasn’t possible to do that in a timely way, the city ended up with over 200 families sheltered in expensive motels.

The plan’s fallback, if DHS fails to meet its housing goals, is to bring back on-line the DC General units DHS is presently trying to shut down, and if (or when) those units fill up, we’ll be back to placing families in motels.

The context of this plan is an annual homeless services budget that is grossly inadequate to meet the need.  In fact, this year’s Winter Plan was probably doomed to failure when the Mayor proposed and the Council approved a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that leaves a gaping $7 million shortfall for homeless services – a budget that is leaving families, even now, literally out on the streets.

Implementation of the Winter Plan will require front-loading this budget so that the District can meet its legal obligation to provide shelter during hypothermic conditions.  This will leave the city poised to shut down half of its singles shelter system (which may mean the loss of more than 1000 emergency beds for men and women), along with cuts to transportation, outreach, meal programs and more, next spring.

As a member of the ICH and a member of the Operations and Logistics Committee of the ICH which develops the language of the Winter Plan, I am more and more persuaded that the process is set up to fail.  The Operations and Logistics Committee has developed formulas for anticipating need that have proven to be quite accurate for individual men and women who need shelter.  We’ve struggled to develop an equally effective method for anticipating the need for family shelter, and this year may have arrived at a calculation that gets us closer.   But formulas and numbers and plans on paper don’t keep people safe in freezing weather.  It takes a public commitment to full funding of sufficient resources to bring in everyone from the cold.  The ICH, or at least its non-government members, has no ability to command the resources necessary to meet that projected need.

I recently spoke with a woman who applied for emergency shelter in June for herself and her three young sons.  She lost her security guard job in January when the company she worked for lost a contract.  She was turned away from shelter because the District is working feverishly to scale back that DC General capacity.  This mom has managed to persuade friends and family to put her up for a night here and there, but mostly she’s spent nights with her three sons in hospital emergency rooms.  Despite that, she’s been able to secure a new part-time job (she can’t afford market rents with her part-time hours but could probably get more hours if she had a stable place to stay and could resolve child care issues).  The way things are now, it’s unlikely she’ll receive shelter or any other meaningful assistance until the first night the temperature drops below 32 degrees.

This can’t be the best we can do, and as a member of the ICH, I can’t vote for a Winter Plan that allows this to happen.