Today, starting at 2pm, the District of Columbia Council’s Committee on Human Services is conducting a roundtable to discuss the Department of Human Services’ plan to protect the lives of people who are homeless this winter. Below is the testimony that will be delivered by Legal Clinic Staff Attorney Amber W. Harding.

Council of the District of Columbia
Committee of Human Services
Hypothermia Roundtable
Thursday, October 20, 2011

Testimony of Amber W. Harding, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless

It has long been the stated policy and law of DC to provide emergency shelter to each and every person experiencing homelessness when the temperature outside falls below freezing. As the Winter Plan reminds us, exposure to wet and cold conditions can cause hypothermia, which is a life-threatening condition. Unfortunately, for far too many years, DC has failed to administer this right to shelter equally and justly when it comes to DC families, placing their lives at risk and violating their constitutional and statutory rights.

Today I am going to summarize some of the patterns we saw last year, patterns that we believe will persist unless DHS takes strong preventative steps. These patterns are based on cases our office handled last year, and I can provide specifics if necessary. I also have 7 specific recommendations for DHS.

For individuals, the Winter Plan presumes that there will be nights that all the regular beds will be filled. DC is prepared to bring overflow beds online as needed. There is no overflow commitment in the Plan for families, despite the fact that DC General fills up every year. While DHS has verbally committed to place families in hotels or motels if DC General fills up, it has not shared how quickly the hotels will be brought online or how food, case management and transportation will be provided to these families.

DC endeavors to reach out to every individual staying on the street to make sure he is encouraged (or even coerced) to come into shelter when the temperature dips below 32. There are outreach agencies tasked with finding those folks and getting them in, and there is a public education campaign encouraging DC residents to call the Hypothermia Hotline to pick up any adults they see needing shelter. No similar outreach or public education campaign exists for families—not even through the centralized intake center, much less through the schools their children may attend or hospitals where they may be found sleeping in the lobbies. Families that seek shelter are often discouraged from applying and entering shelter at every step along the way. This occurs despite the fact that families are staying in many inappropriate or life-threatening environments—in their cars, at bus stops, in hospital waiting rooms, and in unheated hallways or vacant buildings.

If an individual calls the Hotline, a van is sent to pick her up and take her to a shelter. If a family calls in, a parent may hear from a Hotline worker that “we
don’t help families” and then must scramble – unaided and in frigid conditions – to find transportation to the sole severe weather shelter for families, DC General, or else face another night in an unsafe or unhealthy situation.

If an individual walks up to a shelter during hypothermia conditions, he is shown to a bed or driven to a different shelter with open beds. If a family walks up to DC General, that family is more likely than not turned away and told it must first go to the Family Resource Center (FRC) before being served, even when it is the middle of the night, it is hypothermic, FRC is closed and the family has no place to go.

For singles, the intake process for severe weather shelter is simple, operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and presumes eligibility. The person states that he is homeless and needs shelter. No verification or documentation is required. For families, the intake process is onerous, operates only 6-7 hours a day 5 days a week, and presumes ineligibility. Families are often told there is no space in shelter and to try back another day—despite DC’s obligation to provide shelter to all who have no safe place to sleep. If they persevere and apply, they must do so early in the morning or risk being told that the workers have “met their quota” of applications for the day and will not meet with anyone else. If they are allowed to complete the application, then they must be able to document every single element of their eligibility, from custody of their children to DC residency to their inability to find housing—all this despite the legal requirement that lack of verification not stand in the way of eligibility. Workers then challenge them to find someone, anyone, to stay with, without any assessment of the risks of that situation. If a parent is reluctant to provide verification that her family is sleeping in an unsafe setting because she is afraid her kids will be taken away, the parent is assumed to be lying about the urgency of her family’s shelter needs. When turned away, she will likely not get anything in writing explaining the decision or telling her that she can challenge it. If the family is admitted, it is placed at DC General, even if living in that environment makes her family sick from the mold or the shared conditions.

Severe weather shelters for individuals are low barrier and easy to access for a very good reason—as a community we have decided that bureaucratic barriers should not get in the way of providing lifesaving shelter. Our community would not possibly support risking the lives of small children because of red tape—yet that is how our system runs and how it has run for years.

I have been encouraged by Director Berns’ approach and philosophy, and my impression is that he genuinely cares about the people he has been tasked to serve. Unfortunately, he has inherited a homeless services system that is deeply flawed—in particular a family intake system that is deeply suspicious of the people it is supposed to serve and operates as if its mandate is to refuse lifesaving services to as many families as possible. Because the status quo is unjust and disparately treats families, DHS must take serious steps to reform the system. Otherwise Director Berns risks not only legal liability, but more importantly, an unthinkable tragedy occurring on his watch.

DC is running a shelter program that is outside of the law. In order to come into compliance with the law and reduce the risks to the lives of DC families, DHS must do the following:
1. Be ready to implement a back-up plan for families the moment DC General fills up. That means having agreements with hotels/motels to reserve rooms, having a clear protocol for FRC and the Hotline to place families in those hotels/motels the same day they apply for shelter, and preparing to provide food, transportation and case management services to all families who are placed outside of DC General. DHS has committed to doing this verbally, but the absence of this commitment in the Winter Plan is troublesome, as is the absence of any verification that such steps have been taken in preparation for the winter.
2. Beginning today, reach out to all families experiencing housing crises to make sure they are encouraged to enter shelter this winter if they have no safe place to go. Families have been turned away every day since April and have not been told that they have the right to shelter when the weather gets cold. If DHS wants to ensure that more families access this lifesaving resource, they should be doing outreach to families who come into FRC, IMA, and other government agencies, schools and recreation centers.
3. Prepare written directives to hotline workers and DC General staff instructing them to facilitate transportation and entry to DC General or hotels/motels immediately if a family applies for shelter after FRC is closed. Families should be referred to FRC the next business day for a full assessment, but no one at the Hotline or DC General should be doing eligibility screening—they should be focused on getting the family to a safe, warm place as quickly as possible.
4. Prepare written protocol/script for intake specialists at FRC to reduce the number of unlawful denials of shelter to families and to clarify that families should be placed even if they do not present with documents to verify eligibility factors. First, it is fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional to require verification of eligibility only from families. But if DHS wishes to proceed with that system, it should at least do so in compliance with the Homeless Services Reform Act (HSRA) and in a way that does not prioritize bureaucratic barriers over the lives of families. Until FRC comes into full compliance with the law, DHS should designate a staff person to approve any recommendation of FRC to deny a family shelter this winter. Only intake specialists should be allowed to advise applicants about whether or not they will be placed—receptionists and security personnel should not be telling people over the phone or in person that they are not allowed to apply or that there is no room in shelter. (DHS agreed to provide a script and directive to FRC last year, but we have not seen it and if it has been shared with FRC, it has certainly not been implemented well, or at all.)
5. Provide written notice of eligibility to all families. The HSRA and its regulations require that written notice of eligibility or placement denials are provided to every applicant. DHS has agreed to do this, but families are not receiving such notice.
6. Exempt DC General from the residency requirements of the Homeless Services Reform Act. Severe weather shelters that operate as low barrier shelters are exempted from the requirements by the statute, but since DC General is not a low barrier shelter, only families have to prove their residency during hypothermia. DHS has the authority to exempt any of its services from the provisions, and it should do so with DC General or risk violating equal protection rights.
7. Use Office of Shelter Monitoring to test the compliance of FRC and the Hotline throughout the season. DHS should regularly test compliance and enforce its directives and the law through additional focused training, personnel disciplinary recommendations and contract penalties or termination, if necessary.