By Mary Otto
Jasman Thompson and her new baby were not on the lease at her mother’s apartment and last fall, after staying there for a month, they had to go.
The woman at the rental office at the apartment complex tried to help. She told Thompson about the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the intake center run by a city subcontractor, where homeless families could go to ask for services including shelter.
“They can’t turn you away,” the woman told Thompson. “You are homeless, with a baby. It’s cold.”
But Thompson was turned away that day in November.
“I was frustrated. I was scared,” said Thompson. She and her baby spent nights in a laundromat and a hospital emergency room before getting help. And they were not alone, according to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Over the fall and winter, city programs intended to protect homeless men women and children faltered in serious ways, according to a new report, “Should D.C. Residents Need a Lawyer to Access Emergency Shelter?”
The city has a legal obligation to provide shelter to individuals and families in “severe weather” or whenever the actual or forecast temperature, including wind chill, falls below 32 degrees. And last fall, responding to reports of homeless parents and children sleeping in parks and waiting rooms, city officials also offered assurances that the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) would assist so called “priority one” families with no safe place to sleep even on non-hypothermic nights.
But the department did not followed through with the policy, according to the legal clinic.
“The Legal Clinic worked with more than a dozen families over five weeks who were found to be Priority One but were not places initially because it was not a hypothermic night,” noted the report.
The report also describes cases where individuals, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were said to have been wrongfully denied shelter. And over several weeks in the fall and winter, a number of families reportedly received “respite stay placements” at the city’s family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. The conditions of the placements left them confused and frightened about whether they would be allowed to stay for more than one to three nights. Such procedures were in violation of District law, according to the report.
“Families, when they are in their most desperate hour, are forced to jump through so many hoops to prove that they qualify for emergency shelter, and even then they are often turned away,” said Amber W. Harding, a staff attorney at the legal clinic.
“It’s like an emergency room doctor asking a bleeding hit and run victim whether she caused the accident and demanding that she stitch up her own wounds before the doctor even considers treating her life-threatening injuries,”
At the DHS, officials stressed that they were familiar with the findings contained in the report.
“I work very closely with the legal clinic when these issues come up,” said Family Services Administrator Fred Swan. “None of the issues that they raised in the report came as a shock or surprise. They mentioned a dozen or so families but we’ve served over 1,000 families since the winter has begun. By and large we are serving families very well.”
DHS Director David Berns noted that the city had worked to accommodate families on non-hypothermia nights “up to the cap of 271 at D.C.General.” He also said that some of the problems reflected in the report came at a time of major transition for the department. The Virginia Williams Homeless Resource Center was moved in late fall to new quarters and a new staff and new procedures were put into place.
“It was a new system and I’m sure we had a few bugs and missteps,” said Berns.
The move was part of a larger shift as the city attempts to move homeless services away from an emphasis upon emergency shelter and welfare, also known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF and toward stable housing and self-sufficiency, said DHS spokesman Reggie Sanders.
“In this approach, families are not only provided with expanded shelter opportunities but more importantly often have opportunities for more appropriate alternatives including prevention of homelessness, interventions to stabilize their previous living situations, immediate housing opportunities in apartments and integration with TANF services such as employment, job training and supports necessary for their economic stability, “ Sanders said. “This has been a massive systemic change and we have learned and improved this approach even as we implemented the new model.”
While the legal clinic report contained far more criticism than praise, it gave DHS credit for progress in efforts to move homeless families into apartments. As of early January, the city had managed to place more than 150 homeless families into housing, the report found.
While falling short of a goal of moving 200 families out of the shelter and into housing, the report found DHS had largely managed to free up enough beds in the shelter to avoid the expensive last resort of placing homeless families in motels until the week of Jan. 21.
“Even since then, D.C. has only placed a few families in hotels. Compared to last year, this is significant progress,” the report noted. “During the same week last year 192 families were residing in hotels.”
Berns said he was not taking any time to pat himself on the back.
“There is still too much work for us to be celebrating yet,” he said.
After the legal clinic intervened, Jasman Thompson and her baby boy, now nearly six month old, were placed in a safe apartment. And Thompson says she is getting the help she needs to move off cash assistance and build a career. “I have applied for cosmetology and I am looking for a job,” she says hopefully.
Harding says she is glad families like Thompson’s found the legal clinic, and got safe placements. But she is not yet satisfied with the city’s efforts to meet the needs of the homeless.
“What I worry about the most is that the vast majority of homeless families never reach us, never reach a lawyer who can advocate for them to get the services they’re entitled to,” sys Harding. “What is happening to them?”