Bill 18-1059, the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2010 (HSRA), introduced by Council member Tommy Wells, presents a number of serious problems for at-risk District residents (including vulnerable children), for providers of homeless services, and for the DC government itself. The bill puts the lives of DC residents at risk, is administratively and financially cumbersome, and opens the District to potential legal trouble. Additionally, the proposed law would reduce homeless services while increasing cost of administration.

What Bill 18-1059 does:

Requires verification of DC residency before one can access emergency shelter or almost any other homeless service, including winter shelter, outreach, Housing First, meal programs and crisis intervention services, and defines residency more narrowly than any other program in DC.

Attempts to exclude a) those who seek “low barrier” shelter (which does not include any family shelters or “severe weather[1]” shelters), as well as b) applicants to shelter who are victims of “domestic abuse, sexual assault, or human trafficking” (but provides no information on how a person would verify such exemption prior to receiving services), from residency requirements during severe weather only.

Eliminates the longstanding health and safety protections for families with minor children by removing the requirement in the winter that family shelter be “apartment-style.”  Removes any limit on the number of families that can be placed together in one room with communal sleeping, eating, and bathroom facilities.

Bill 18-1059 is dangerous for DC residents.

  • The risks of B18-1059 do not justify the benefits. The anticipated benefit of B18-1059 is the possibility of excluding a small number of non-DC residents from shelters and services in the District by requiring proof of DC residency before one can receive shelter or services. This benefit, however, is far outweighed by the potential risks: leaving the District’s most vulnerable residents—the homeless—out in the cold on hypothermia nights.
  • B18-1059, by mandating proof of District residency, may disproportionately exclude the most vulnerable DC residents. Many individuals become unexpectedly homeless following an eviction, an apartment fire, or a dangerous domestic situation—these same individuals are likely to lack proof of residency when seeking services.
  • B18-1059 defines “DC resident” more narrowly than any other District program.[2] Homeless individuals are the most likely DC residents to lack proper documentation. By imposing a residency standard that is more stringent than would be required for other social services, DC is certain to deny services to District residents.
  • B18-1059 denies emergency services to individuals facing imminent danger. Mandating proof of residency for residents seeking hypothermia shelter is akin to requiring ID before administering life-saving medical emergency services.

Bill 18-1059 is administratively burdensome and financially taxing.

  • B18-1059 places an unprecedented burden on outreach and shelter workers. Upon implementation of this bill, all employees and volunteers conducting outreach or intake at DC’s homeless shelters and service providers would have to become experts on verification of residency.  Training service providers would require specialized instructions, and many organizations will need new intake procedures, increased staff, and updated technology to comply.
  • Verification of exempt status could be impossible, or in some cases, illegal. Requiring victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, or human trafficking to announce, and presumably prove, status is not only administratively problematic, but may also constitute a violation of civil rights under local and federal confidentiality and fair housing laws.[3]
  • In a time of budgetary strain, B18-1059 will increase costs while reducing services. Requiring proof of identification will make outreach and intake procedures more cumbersome, thereby reducing the number of individuals served and increasing cost per client. Operational and logistical restructuring required to implement a new residency documentation mandate may also be expensive and inefficient.

Bill 18-1059 is legally problematic.

  • B18-1059 puts the District at risk of lawsuits. This bill puts the health and safety of DC residents at risk. Any individual unable to access life-saving services because of the bill’s implementation may have a cause of action against the District.
  • Adverse impact on protected classes may violate civil rights law. The strict verification of residency requirements in this bill will be prohibitive to certain protected classes, including survivors of violence, immigrants, and persons with limited English proficiency.

Bill 18-1059 will put DC children in winter shelters at increased risk of harm and abuse.

  • Communal-style shelters are dangerous and unhealthy for children. Cramming families into spaces with strangers instead of providing them with basic privacy and safety protections puts children at increased risk of abuse by unrelated adults and at increased risk of contracting communicable diseases.  The communal environment can also lead to poor school performance and attendance.
  • B18-1059 puts families this winter at risk of being placed in small rooms with unlimited numbers of unrelated families. Throughout the last winter, large numbers of families (sometimes as many as 18) were piled on top of one another in one room at DC General, causing great stress to these parents and children.  The only way families were able to protect the safety of their children was to assert their right to apartment-style shelter—the same right that this bill would take away.
  • Non-apartment style shelter can be lethal for persons with immune-compromised disorders such as HIV/AIDS or lupus. Families shouldn’t be forced to choose between sleeping on the street and risking their health and life in a crowded, communal environment where disease is easily spread.
  • Communal-style shelter is dangerous for victims of domestic violence.  Victims would be at risk of living in close proximity to the perpetrator of violence, endangering their safety and the safety of their children.

Conclusion: Bill 18-1059 may have been a well intentioned effort to prioritize scarce resources for DC residents, but the actual effect of the bill will be to divert those scarce life-saving resources from the very residents who need help the most.  Any concerns, however minimal, that non-DC residents are taking away resources from DC residents should be resolved in a thoughtful, data-driven manner that brings regional partners to the table.  The District could better serve its homeless neighbors by limiting residency documentation requirements to certain long-term, non-emergency services and by coordinating with surrounding jurisdictions.   

A hearing on this bill will take place on November 8, 2010 at 11:30am, Wilson Building, Room 500.  For more information contact Nassim Moshiree at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless,

[1] “Severe Weather Shelter” is the same as hypothermia shelter.  It is public or private space that the District makes available of the purpose of providing shelter to individuals and families who are homeless and cannot access other shelter during hypothermic weather (when the actual or forecasted temperature falls below 32 degreed Fahrenheit).   Often severe weather shelter is located in the same space as “low barrier” shelter for individuals.  All shelter for families is either “severe weather” or temporary shelter.

[2] See DC ST § 4-205.03 for DC residency as defined by the District of Columbia Public Assistance Act of 1982.

[3] DC ST § 14-310; D.C. ST § 7-1201.01(11); 42 U.S.C. § 10601-10604; 42 U.S.C. § 13925(b)(2); 42 U.S.C. § 11375(c)(5); and 42 U.S.C. § 11383(1)(8)(A);  DC ST § 14-310; D.C. ST § 7-1201.01(11); 42 U.S.C. § 10601-10604; 42 U.S.C. § 13925(b)(2); 42 U.S.C. § 11375(c)(5); and 42 U.S.C. § 11383(1)(8)(A); DC ST § 2-1402.21; and 42 U.S.C.A  § 3604