Kids Living With No Heat at Homeless Shelter in Freezing Weather, As DC Homelessness Spirals Out of Control
February 3, 2014 |
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Washington DC's Department of Human Services has a really big problem. The city's population of homeless families has skyrocketed this winter, filling up every one of the 285 shelter rooms at the former DC General Hospital and forcing officials to place hundreds of families in hotels around the city and in Maryland.
"It sounds bad, but it's worse than it sounds," David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services, said at a hearing held Monday, testifying that the city expected to provide shelter for 509 newly homeless families all winter; that number has already shot up to over 700, and is expected to top 1,000 before April, said Berns.
At this deeply inopportune time, two counties in Maryland—perhaps mindful of upcoming tourist season—are demanding that the city remove homeless families from their hotels, where DC has been paying to put them up. The city has reached an agreement with the counties of Prince George and Montgomery to relocate the homeless families taking up residence in their hotels. One hundred and ten homeless families have to be out as soon as space opens in DC, the Washington Post reported. The city has committed to moving the others by spring, the Post added.
They will likely be funneled into emergency shelters recently set up by the city in recreation centers as a short-term solution to the increase in homelessness—the kind of emergency shelter used when a flood or hurricane wipes out a town. The shelters lack partitions, according to Stern's testimony, but so far that's not such a big problem, since only nine families came to that shelter the first night it was opened, and no families were staying there as of Sunday night. But that might change when hundreds of families who previously stayed in motels are forced out and have no other option.
DC Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who called the Monday hearing, wondered why the Maryland counties are demanding the measure and why the city agreed to their demands.
"I'm missing something," Graham said. "I assume we're paying for these rooms in American dollars. Families would probably rather live in a hotel room in Maryland than a rec center in DC."
A motel also sounds better than DC General, whose residents testified Monday about the harsh conditions endured by their families. The District is required by law to shelter the homeless on nights the temperature drops below freezing. Oddly, that mandate has not extended to providing families at DC General with heat or hot water, according to residents' testimony.
"There's never hot water, or warm water... there's icicles in the water," said Dondai Blount. "How can you bathe your children in water that temperature and then go out in 14 degree weather? When you complain about heat, they say there's nothing you can do."
Other residents confirmed the shelters' unreliable heating system. "We've had no heat, on and off for a month. Sometimes some heat on one side of the building, then you might have none. On one floor there might be heat, on another there might not be," another woman said.
Michele Williams, chief of systems integration for the nonprofit Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, said that only the common areas lacked heat and residents were equipped with individual heaters in their room. But residents disputed her testimony, saying that the heating devices blew in cold air and that they had to ask for individual space heaters.
Another resident testified that the cafeteria offered a view of a giant mountain of dirty diapers. He claimed it had been there for a year.
"I do not have to be a scientist to know this is a major breeding ground for diseases," he said. "It's unacceptable for these families to be kept in those hazardous conditions."
Officials blame the shocking rise in family homelessness on a variety of factors, including problems they've faced moving families into permanent housing and the drop in affordable housing units, the Washington Post reported. The District's housing program, Rapid Re-Housing, which helps subsidize rent for a minimum of four months or up to two years is not popular with landlords, who do not like short-term leases, the Post reports. Getting rid of affordable housing in the city and building condos has not helped matters either, according to advocates interviewed by the Post.
“The numbers are going in the wrong direction,” Berns told the Post. “The inability to get people out of shelter has been predominantly driven by their inability to find affordable, appropriate apartments.”