By Scott McNeilly, Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Staff Attorney

The Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) voted on Tuesday to approve the Winter Plan for 2010-2011.  The Winter Plan describes how the District will implement the severe weather provisions of the Homeless Services Reform Act –how individuals and families can exercise their right to shelter on freezing nights and the steps the District will take to prevent weather-related deaths and injuries.  The Plan was developed by the ICH’s Operations and Logistics Committee through a process that involved lots of meetings and hearings and consequently lots of community input.  (I am a member of the ICH and was active, along with other Legal Clinic staff, in the Committee process).  Although the Committee’s process was thoughtful and thorough, it ultimately has no power to compel the District government to provide the resources necessary to implement the plan.  Primarily because of concern about whether the Plan is backed by adequate resources, I was the lone “No” vote on the question of whether or not the Plan should be adopted.

There are many issues related to the Plan, but two major concerns.  First, on October 15th, the DC government closed the La Casa low barrier shelter in Columbia Heights (displacing 90 residents) in order for the parcel of land to be developed by its private owner.  The District has known for years that La Casa would eventually have to close, but government officials made no arrangements for an alternative site in the Columbia Heights neighborhood.  Service providers who work with the men who have relied on La Casa are concerned that many of those men will not travel across town to the remaining shelters in northeast or southeast.  Some may not go because of language or other cultural barriers.  Some may not go because they rely on employment, health, mental health, food or other programs in the Columbia Heights area.  The Winter Plan calls for a bus that will pick up men needing shelter from the corner of 16th Street and Park Road, NW and take them down to 9th and G Streets, NW, where other buses will take them out to the shelters in northeast and southeast.  There will be buses back to 9th and G in the morning with another bus then returning men from there to Columbia Heights.  It will likely be a very long ride and, for men who work or who are seeking day labor, it’s unlikely they will be able to get back to Columbia Heights before 9:00 am.  They will face a choice that no one should have to face: keep a job, or have a safe, warm place to sleep at night.  In order to maintain their employment, some of La Casa’s former residents may risk staying outdoors, even after the weather snaps cold.   Going forward, the District government must better anticipate and plan for any shelter closings so we don’t continue to shut down critical facilities without a replacement…especially on the eve of hypothermia season.

The other major concern is whether the plan to serve families is sufficient.  Like last year, the DC General Hospital facility is the primary source of emergency space.  Unlike last year, we begin the hypothermia season with DC General filled to capacity.  The District has a plan to move up to fifty families out of shelter and into housing by November 1st intending to free up fifty slots in the DC General facility.  If the District is successful in that effort – and we fervently hope it will be – its success will likely be short-lived, as the newly created vacancies will be almost immediately filled.  There are currently thirty-five families who have demonstrated that they have no place to go but who have not yet been placed in shelter.  On the first frigid night, those families will have a right to be sheltered, leaving only fifteen available spaces at DC General.  In addition, there are presently more than 400 families who are homeless and also await placement.  If only 5% of the families from this general pending list seek placement when the temperature drops to 32 degrees, the system will quickly fill to capacity.

The Plan indicates that the District will open two new buildings that will serve as transitional shelter for families with a young (18 to 24 years old) head of household.  The process of identifying providers to operate the facilities has just begun and one of the buildings is tied up in some disagreement with its neighbors.  It’s not clear how soon families will be able to move into those facilities.

The rest of the plan for families is based on the District’s pledge to house families as fast or faster than they present at the intake office.  The goal of providing housing rather than shelter is one we completely support.  The concern is that to date, the District has not proven that it has the capacity or resources to house families at that pace over the course of an entire winter.  There’s no plan currently in place for what happens if DC General is full and the rate of families coming in exceeds the rate the District can place them in housing.  There’s no back-up plan in place if the housing resources run out and DC General is at capacity.

Again, the goal of providing housing is absolutely the right one.  I voted “No” on the Winter Plan because lives are at stake.  I did not feel it was responsible to risk adopting a plan that had no safety net, just in case the District can’t do what it’s never been able to do before.   Isn’t it better to have a back-up plan that’s ultimately never needed, than to have no back-up at all and risk a child dying of exposure on the streets of the nation’s capital?

We all have to hope that I’m wrong.