By Marta Beresin, Staff Attorney

Last week a mother of three was given an ultimatum by the DC Child and Family Services Administration:  get on a Greyhound bus for a shelter placement in another state or we’ll place your children in foster care.  The alleged neglect or abuse?  Being financially unable to afford to provide a home for her children.   As a matter of law, the District had no basis for making such a threat.  It is firmly established that parents have a Constitutional right to care for their children and that a parent’s inability to provide for a child due to circumstances of poverty is not a basis for removing a child.

What’s sadly ironic is that this mother had been to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (“FRC”), the central intake site for homeless families in need of shelter repeatedly during the prior two weeks, pleading for the very thing that the District claimed she was neglectfully failing to provide.  Each time she had been told – as many others have been this winter – that there was no room for her and her children at DC General, the filled-to-capacity (with 152 families as of 2/10/11) winter shelter for families in the District.

In part, this mother’s odyssey may have been due to action the DC Council took in December, when 9 members of the Council passed the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2010 (“HSRA Amendment”).  The bill establishes, for the first time, strict residency verification requirements for families applying for life-saving hypothermia shelter.  While the HSRA Amendment has yet to become law, some of its harshest consequences are already being visited on families.  The attempt to force the aforementioned mother to move to another state for shelter for her family was born out of the misimpression that she was not a District resident.  Nobody at the FRC had checked her ID (which was a DC driver’s license) or her other documents showing existing ties to the District

Unfortunately, the denial of shelter to families has been commonplace this winter, even on days when freezing temperatures trigger the right to shelter.  Residency has been but one illegal barrier placed in the way of families accessing shelter:  FRC staff have also demanded custody orders and verifiable proof that the family is in an unsafe place or sleeping outside, the absence of which cannot be grounds for denying shelter placement under current law.

The myriad barriers to families accessing shelter have made clear that, more than the recently passed residency bill, shelter denials are the result of poor planning by the Department of Human Services and the Interagency Council on Homelessness (“ICH”).  As advocates on the ICH had predicted, the Winter Plan did not create enough capacity for homeless families this winter.  The District’s plan to move families into housing to free up enough shelter space to meet the increased winter need has not moved forward as fully or quickly as promised.  Every day, the FRC sees many more families than the system can accommodate; it is District parents and children who are forced to pay the price.

What’s more, a huge budget deficit looms for FY 2012, and the DC Council has shown little inclination towards raising revenues to preserve safety net programs – despite the fact that we are in the midst of the greatest recession since the Great Depression and that as a result family homelessness has risen 35% between 2008 and 2010.  For families in crisis trying to access shelter, any cut to homeless services in FY 2012 clearly will have devastating consequences given the already inadequate system of support currently in place.

The family described above is now sheltered safely in the District, but you can help us assure that no parent again faces such a choice.  Join us in asking the Mayor to open up additional hypothermia capacity for families so that the next family in crisis who turns to the public safety net for assistance can secure the lifesaving supports they need to survive the harsh winter months.  You can email Mayor Gray at