No Sweet Dreams For D.C.'s Homeless Children

As a dozen families settled into a makeshift shelter for the homeless on the second floor of the Reeves Municipal Center one night last week, Barbara Terrell cradled her frail 2-month-old, Monte...and whispered how desperate she was to get him into some kind of secure room of his own.

The above is an excerpt from a Washington Post article written in 1995 titled, "Suffer the Little Children: Shortage of Shelter Space Hits the Youngest of the Homeless." At the time, the District was in a deep financial crisis with a looming deficit of over $700 million, and Congress was poised to take over operations of the District of Columbia through the appointment of the Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority (the "Control Board"). The D.C. Government came under fire for using public buildings as 12 hour makeshift shelters for families who were homeless, where, as described in the article, "the heat is barely adequate, there is no hot water, and homeless mothers must still drag their children out of the facility immediately after breakfast before being allowed to return each day after 6 p.m." As a result of the public outcry over use of these makeshift shelters and the health and safety risks they posed to D.C. children, the government relented and committed to 24 hour shelter that provided privacy for families. That commitment was later formalized into law with passage of the Homeless Services Reform Act in 2005 (HSRA).

Fast forward to 2014. Not only is the District no longer under the constraints of the Control Board, but financially, it's doing better than ever. D.C. has been operating at a significant surplus for last two years and the most recent revenue forecast estimates another $139 million increase in FY15 revenues. We're doing so well that the Mayor recently spent $9 million on new trash cans for every D.C. household! And yet, 19 years later, as of late January, D.C. has reverted back to a practice that it conceded was unacceptable, even when the District was mired in financial strife: Placing children and their parents in makeshift shelters at rec centers.

Today, mothers and fathers "must still drag their children out of the facility immediately after breakfast" to return to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center and reapply each day in order to get a referral for the following night. If they don't, they don't get beds. If it's not freezing, and there's no hypothermia alert the following night, they're out of luck.

And what do families get when they are actually referred to a rec center? One father who became homeless after losing his job last year described the grind that he, his wife, and their two toddlers face each day. After spending anywhere from 4-6 hours at the family intake site to get a referral for the evening, the family then has to wait until 7 p.m. for transportation to the rec center. The van usually shows up about an hour later, and the family gets to the rec center around 9 p.m. Once there, parents then have to set up their own beds and partitions which allow little privacy and provide no sound or light barrier. The next morning, they get up when it's still dark out to report back to the intake site to repeat the process. The father has noticed that his babies can't sleep well at night in the large gymnasium -- it's drafty, crowded and they can hear the dozens of strangers sleeping nearby behind makeshift partitions. He had a job interview scheduled for 10 a.m. one day, but he knows he is supposed to be at the intake site during that time to get a bed referral. He's faced with the impossible decision of which appointment to make.

As the Legal Clinic testified at the DHS Oversight Hearing last week, the use of rec centers violates the HSRA, which requires that families be sheltered in apartment-style units and, when they are not available, in "private rooms." This law exists because protecting the health and safety of children is an important public policy concern. Twelve hour shelter in a gymnasium (with little to no privacy) that is only available on nights when the temperature is freezing is not healthy or safe for children.

The Administration claims that families have safe alternative placements because many of those who were referred to the rec centers only stay for a couple of nights or don't show up at all. We know there are families choosing to stay in dangerous, overcrowded situations or with abusers because the rec centers feel that much more unsafe to them. Most telling, we know that the Administration doesn't follow up with families to find out where they end up.

The Founder and Executive Director of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project, Jamila Larson, LICSW, also testified at last week's hearing about the effect of rec centers on children's health:

We are concerned that the use of rec centers is a serious threat to child development and that they are not the solution to reducing the homeless census, unless our goal is to make life as challenging as possible for families in crisis. The census being down does not equal family safety and stability and that needs to be our goals as a community. It is not appropriate to expect children to be up past their bedtime (by not being admitted until 9:00 p.m.) or have parents hustle every day to reapply for shelter, and not even get in when temperatures hover above freezing. When families do not have doors that lock, it can be very difficult for people who have trauma histories.

And, yet, the Administration still touts the use of rec centers as a solution to the family crisis, a crisis that they continue to frame as one of "too many families in shelter," instead of the more accurate "too many families in need of shelter because they don't have safe housing." On March 4, the D.C. Department of Human Services promulgated emergency rule-making to define "private room" as "a part of the inside of a building that is separated by walls or partitions for use by an individual or family" in an effort to make legal a situation that harms children and that was rejected nearly two decades ago as too dangerous and too high a price to pay to be worth the budget savings.

Are we really going to go back to the regressive policies of the mid 1990s? In the intervening years, this community has learned that there is another way. A better way. We owe it to DC's homeless children to put those learnings to use as we work to resolve the current family homelessness crisis, and as we work to assure that all District residents have a safe and decent place to call home.