Sarah* and her two young kids have lived in DC their entire lives. Sarah works 7 days a week as a hair stylist but only makes $1,100 a month. Sarah and her children were recently put out by Sarah’s mother.  Every night Sarah tries to find someone to take her kids while she spends most nights sleeping in a car.  Sarah’s family applied for shelter last fall but was told that no families would be placed unless the weather dipped below freezing.  Every week she called the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (VWFRC), DC’s central family intake site for emergency shelter, and left messages asking for help.  Her calls were not returned.  In late March, a VWFRC worker finally returned her phone call, only to tell her that her family would not get any emergency shelter because the weather was too warm.  The staffer threatened to call the Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA), DC’s child welfare agency, because Sarah’s children didn’t have a safe place to sleep at night.   Sarah and her kids fled to a friend’s out-of-town home for the weekend, but were back on the street after a few days of respite.  Sarah and her children, while still looking for housing, remain homeless today.

Family Homelessness on the Rise in the Nation’s Capital 

  • From 2008 to 2011—the first three years of the Great Recession—family homelessness in the District increased by 46%.   While it is true that national economic trends are in part to blame, DC is doing far worse than the majority of cities—nationally, family homelessness increased only 1% from 2008-2011.
  • From 2011 to 2012, an even greater increase occurred: the number of families in the city’s hypothermia shelters at the end of the 2011 – 2012 winter season was nearly 2.5 times higher than last year (an increase of 138%).
  • As of April 1, there were 213 families in motel placements, 273 families at DC General Hypothermia Shelter, 148 families in year-round apartment-style emergency shelter units and 308 families on the waiting list for emergency shelter.

The District’s Response to the Crisis

As a result of the steep rise in family homelessness and the associated costs of providing shelter to families this past winter,  the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS) has determined that it is unable to serve any new families between now and next winter, no matter how urgent their situation.   This means that for the next seven months, children and parents will be forced to sleep at bus stops, in cars, in hospital emergency rooms, or to remain in abusive relationships because of the lack of shelter placements or affordable housing options.

To make matters worse, a new protocol requires staff at the VWFRC to report to CFSA for investigation every family seeking their assistance due to lack of a safe place to sleep.  Not only is this not helpful (CFSA has no available housing or shelter resources to respond to the children’s needs), it may cause tremendous harm.  This punitive policy has the potential to break up families merely for being poor.

And that’s not all.  The Mayor’s FY 13 proposed budget leaves DHS with a $7 million shortfall starting October 1, 2012, which could leave the agency unable to meet its bare minimum legal mandate –- to ensure all District residents have life-saving shelter on hypothermic nights next winter –- without making significant cuts elsewhere in the shelter system during the remainder of the year.

The Smart and Simple Response: Housing Ends Homelessness

Let’s not play games with children’s lives.  The Council should restore the shortfall in DHS’ budget and invest in affordable housing to resolve this dilemma now.  For a small amount of money spent wisely, the city could house 250 families in crisis and create enough space in the shelter system to ensure that no child is left outside.   Without swift DC Council action on behalf of homeless children, the odds are not in their favor.  Stay tuned for our specific recommendation for the FY 12 Supplemental Budget and the FY 13 Budget.

* Name has been changed.