D.C. Mayor asks council to push through family homeless shelter changes

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is asking the D.C. Council to push through, by the end of the year, legislation that would change how the city’s homeless shelters process families applying for shelter.

In a series of tweets on Tuesday night, Mayor Bowser said the legislation, which was first introduced in September, is to ensure that District resources are helping District residents.

Laura Green Zeilinger, the Director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, said that about ten percent of families applying for shelter are from out of state. She said the proposed legislation is part of a larger reform effort needed to ensure that emergency shelter is available when it is needed and when the system is so far stretched that it’s meeting a larger regional need it’s not operating as well as it could.

"We’re really on the brink of not being able to afford the system that we have and having to restrict access and we don’t want to have to do that," said Zeilinger.

The proposed change causing the most concern among some D.C. councilmembers and homeless advocates, is one that would require families applying for shelter to provide two items of documentation proving that they are D.C. residents.

"People who are homeless are looking for shelter. They’re not wondering if they’re in the correct jurisdiction, they don’t have documents proving a place of residence, which is really part and parcel of being homeless," said At-large Councilmember Robert White.

Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said her organization already gets calls daily from families that can’t meet what she said is the city’s already high barrier system for its shelters.

"Even more families would be excluded from shelter just for not being able to get through the process and prove. And I don’t think anyone intends that consequence, but I think that is a natural consequence of pushing this legislation forward as emergency," added Harding.

The other proposed change causing concern is if the department believes someone has access to what it calls “safe housing” and isn’t truly homeless.

"When somebody has access to safe housing, we would ask them to either, to provide some sort of reason why they cannot stay there," said Zeilinger.

Exceptions are made for people suffering from domestic violence, sexual exploitation, or human trafficking, but again, advocates said it is still a tough burden of proof on someone going through a difficult time.

"That means that you need to ask your grandma to sign a letter that says you’re not allowed there, that means that your grandmother needs to ask her landlord to sign a letter that says you’re not allowed there. These are deeply painful and traumatic things that people have to go through, that no one should have to go through just to be able to make sure there’s a safe place for their child to lay their head at night," said Monica Camen, an advocacy coordinator with DC Fair Budget Coalition.