DC Council Votes to Lower the Legal Standard for new Family Shelters: "What's wrong with us?"

Last week, the DC Council voted 9-4 against requiring that the new DC General replacement shelters have private bathrooms. Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced an amendment requiring private bathrooms for every unit, and Councilmembers McDuffie, Silverman, and Orange supported it. Councilmembers Mendelson, Grosso, Bonds, Nadeau, Evans, Todd, Allen, Alexander and May voted against Cheh's amendment. Instead, they voted for Chairman Mendelson's "compromise"-- an amendment that mandates that just 10% of the new units have private bathrooms and that there be one family bathroom for every five units. The issue was not, as some characterized it, about whether or not to close DC General. The Mayor and Council had previously committed to closing DC General, and this bill does not speak to nor require its closure. The debate was about what the minimal legal standards should be for the six new shelters that will replace DC General. Right before the vote on Councilmember Cheh's amendment, she grew exasperated and said "Spend a little more money for dignity and safety! What's wrong with us?" We need to stop and think about this question before we can move forward.

We do believe that there's something wrong with the Council's failure to require that each shelter room have its own bathroom. Our position, that private bathrooms are necessary to protect the health, safety, and dignity of homeless families, remains unchanged. We got our marching orders from our years of working with families sheltered in communal settings, and from a recent survey we did with 53 homeless families. We heard our clients and affected community members loud and clear when they said private bathrooms are critical in shelter to protect their own and their children's physical and emotional health and safety. The "compromise" could require 90% of families to share residential bathrooms with strangers, shifting the balance almost entirely away from the expressed needs of the affected community.

We do believe there's something wrong with the Council's vote last Tuesday, not only because the legislation as passed could have serious, negative repercussions for homeless families for decades to come, but because it signifies that 9 out of 13 DC Councilmembers abdicated two essential responsibilities of the legislative branch of government when they failed to listen to the needs of the affected community and failed to exercise independent decision-making to enact sound public policy.

The entire process leading up to the Council's vote was structured in a way that excluded the voices of the affected community, from scheduling a hearing at 2PM on a weekday when parents had to pick up children from school, to refusing to allow families to testify earlier to accommodate their schedules, to an Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) process that didn't include even one homeless family. When we attempted to remedy these omissions, by conveying survey results, the family input was derided as not "relevant" and we were asked if we had any "studies" or "experts" to back up what the families were saying. Our view is that the real experts on the harmful effects of shared bathrooms are the families who are living right now in shelters with shared bathrooms.

While there was broad agreement from affected community members, most advocates, and many members of the public that private bathrooms are critical in the new shelters, the Administration claimed an ever-shifting series of terrible consequences if the law required private bathrooms. And yet, in spite of repeated requests from the Council, the Administration never provided any demonstrable evidence of these consequences. Nevertheless, 9 out of 13 Council members simply took the Mayor's word for it, at considerable expense to the health and safety of the District residents they were elected to serve. We believe there's something wrong with that.

Our criticism is not just about bathrooms, not just about families, and not just about homelessness. It's also about the judgments that are made and the "-isms" that bleed into conversations and decisions about policies affecting people experiencing poverty in DC. It's about the way the Administration claimed that private bathrooms would make homeless families too "comfortable" even when their data supported the opposite conclusion. And the ease with which decision-makers put up barriers to democratic participation by homeless families. And the ease with which these families are blamed for their homelessness when institutional racism and the resulting disinvestment in poor black communities are far more powerful forces in creating homelessness in DC than any one individual's decision-making. We believe there's something wrong with that...and with us as a community that lets this happen.

We can do better. All of us. While the standard in the law for family shelters has been lowered, that doesn't mean that Mayor Bowser cannot far exceed this floor--and she has promised to try to do so. As the process unfolds - as a design committee is convened, as buildings and sites are secured, as plans are drawn and construction begins - there are opportunities to do right by homeless families. We urge the Administration to find a meaningful way to engage families, seeking their input and not simply their feedback, at every step along the way. It's up to us now--including the DC Council--to hold the Mayor to her promise to exceed the new lower standard in the law, and to root her decisions about shelter design in the input and stories of the people who will one day have to live in those shelters.