For nearly thirty years, District of Columbia law has embraced the ideal that all residents should have a warm and safe place to sleep when the temperature is freezing. For those who are homeless, that ideal is expressed in the legal right to emergency shelter. However, the D.C. government’s current practices do not comport with the law. The shelter system’s front door has been blocked by unlawful procedures that have created almost insurmountable obstacles for far too many families trying to access emergency shelter this winter.

Families like that of Ms. G*, a pregnant mother with two young sons (ages 5 and 2) who were forced to sleep in their car on a freezing weekend in December after a week of seeking assistance from the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center (FRC), the centralized shelter intake site for families. Each day that week, Ms. G sat in the waiting room of the intake center from opening until closing. She repeatedly told intake staff that her family had no safe place to go, but her appeals fell on deaf ears. Desperate for a warm place to stay in freezing weather, Ms. G. and her kids tried to sleep at a train station. There, they met a woman who took pity on them and invited them to sleep in her home for one night. Ms.G risked her family’s safety by sleeping at a stranger’s home, about whom she knew nothing, because she had no other choice. Luckily, the stranger was kind and no harm came to the family that night. But they continued to be denied shelter by FRC staff until another parent seeking services at the shelter intake site shared the Legal Clinic’s contact information with Ms. G. The family was finally placed in shelter, but only with the assistance of a lawyer.

It should not take the intervention of a lawyer to assure that:

  • hypothermia alerts are called accurately and in a timely manner;
  • the District government acts consistently with its stated policy of sheltering D.C. families with no safe place to go whether or not an alert has been called;
  • eligible families are admitted to shelter in accordance with the law;
  • parents don’t lose jobs and children don’t miss school because of threats of wrongful termination or unreasonable demands by shelter intake staff; and
  • families that are placed in shelter have access to heat and hot water, pest-free living spaces and cribs for their babies.

It should not, but unfortunately this winter, it has.

That’s why today, we have released our Report on the Violations of the Legal and Human Right to Shelter in the First Half of Winter Season 2012-2013.

Too many vulnerable families have already been turned out into the cold. It is our sincere hope that D.C. takes swift action to prevent further violations before a tragedy occurs on its watch.

* Name changed in order to protect the privacy of the client