Homeless advocates say D.C.’s winter shelter plan falls short for families, couples
Homeless advocates told a D.C. Council hearing Tuesday that city’s winter shelter plan has “gaping holes” in it.
Advocates and homeless people testified that the plan lacks low-barrier shelters for families, coed shelters for couples and revised hours that won’t leave people out in the cold.
“It goes without saying that no deaths are acceptable, and the agencies that make up the [Interagency Council on Homelessness] are committed to learning from past efforts and continuing to improve our hypothermia response,” the District’s “FY2019 Winter Plan” reads.
Four people two of whom were homeless died of exposure last winter, according to the 42-page document.
The District’s annual “Point-in-Time” count of homeless people last year estimated that 6,904 people were living on city streets in the dead of winter.
City agencies this year are adding more transport vans and shelter beds for adults and youth to prevent hypothermia deaths.
The District guarantees shelter for people during extreme cold, and opens emergency warming shelters whenever the National Weather Service forecasts temperatures below freezing or below 40 degrees with precipitation.
Amber Harding, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, testified that several centers where single adults warm up during the day close at 5 p.m., but nighttime hypothermia alert shelters don’t open until 7 or 9 p.m. leaving individuals outside in the cold for hours.
Kristy Greenwalt, director of Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), said “our ability to provide services is limited” because many centers share space with other programs with conflicting schedules.
Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS), did not comment on extending hours but noted that some night shelters open at 5 p.m.
The ICH comprises officials, advocates and homeless persons who develop the annual winter plan, as required by the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005.
Ms. Harding accused the DHS of acting “far more as a gatekeeper than it does an agency charged with preventing families from suffering from hypothermia.” She said families seeking shelter must enter a complex intake system, then wait sometimes for hours for transportation to a temporary shelter. Then they enter another intake process to be assigned to a hotel hosting homeless families, she said.
Ms. Zeilinger defended the intake process, telling The Washington Times that it creates a holistic way to “respond to the situation that is happening, providing shelter when it’s needed, but not providing shelter to every problem.”
ICH member Reginald Black, a homeless advocate, also criticized the winter plan Tuesday. He said the Office of the City Administrator scrubbed a coed shelter from the plan after the council had approved it on Sept. 11. Without a coed shelter, some couples risk cold streets rather than be separated into women’s and men’s shelters, he said.
“Once we have a freeze that activates all the services in that plan, we pretty much just have gaping holes in it,” said Mr. Black, who is living in a shelter on the St. Elizabeths Hospital campus in Southeast.
Ms. Zeilinger said DHS is committed to naming a replacement coed site this winter, after being questioned by council member Brianne Nadeau, Ward 1 Democrat, who chaired the meeting.
“By Nov. 1?” Ms. Nadeau asked.
“That is the goal,” Ms. Zeilinger said.