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Number of Families Seeking Shelter in DC Rises Sharply

  • Milena Djurdjic

The number of homeless families in the Washington, D.C. shelter system more than doubled this past winter - well beyond earlier expectations of a 10-percent increase.

The rise, which many consider unprecedented, has surprised some officials. But homeless advocates say it should have been anticipated and that the U.S. capital is becoming too pricey for the lowest-income families.

The fast-growing city has been adding more than 1,000 new residents each month, according to the mayor. But some say this development is leaving the city's poor behind.

Among them are Donnell Harris, his wife Stephanie Williams and their two children, who have been homeless for a year.

“We had our own apartment," he said. "I lost my job, bills got stacked up, rent got stacked up, so we were evicted. It’s been a struggle. Trying to get money just to have somewhere to sleep and have food for the children as well as get my oldest daughter to school.”

The District of Columbia is legally obligated to shelter the homeless when the temperatures drop below freezing. With DC General, a family shelter housed in an old hospital complex, already filled up at the beginning of the winter, the city had to rent more than 400 motel rooms.

Some of the families, including Harris', were placed in public recreation centers, where they slept on cots separated by portable partitions. They had to leave every morning and then wait for hours to reapply for shelter again, but only on freezing nights. A judge recently ordered the administration to stop housing families in recreation centers because, among other things, the practice may be harmful to children.

“It is an experience that no one should have to go through. No one,” he said.

Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says the situation should have been anticipated - and blames the entire community for not addressing the problem.

“Families who were on the edge, who were presenting for shelter because they could no longer afford housing in a market like this," she said. "And now their situations are much worse.”

According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the city has lost more than half of its low-cost rental units and 72 percent of its low-value homes over the last decade. This, as household incomes have not kept pace with the rise in housing costs.

Mayor Vincent Gray has pledged another $100-million investment in affordable housing, on top of last year’s $187-million commitment to preserve and build 10,000 units by 2020.

But Council member Jim Graham, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, says the city should be doing more. He warns of dire consequences if the problem of family homelessness is not resolved.

“Because, what we sow we will reap," he said. "And what we are sowing here is all manner of problems relating to child development, education, crime, you name it."

VOA’s request to the DC Department of Human Services to visit the shelters was left unanswered - as well as a request for a comment from the DHS director on why there are so many homeless families this year.

Meanwhile, Donnell Harris and his family will no longer be provided shelter because the so-called "hypothermia season" is ending. The warmer temperatures, which many Washington residents welcome, will only bring more struggle for families in need of a home.

“We live day by day," he said. "Whatever comes, that’s what we got to deal with. If we don’t get money tomorrow, then I don’t know what we might do. It is confusing and it is hard.”