Homeless Families with Children Turned Away from Shelter: A Terrible Sign of the Times
Families with children should not have to sleep on the streets. Or in a car. Or under a bridge. That’s something nearly all DC residents would agree with.
And until recently, it was something DC was able to keep from happening. A long-standing policy in the District has been to provide shelter to families if they had no safe place to stay. That changed over the past year, however. The combination of rising homelessness and reduced homeless services funding has left the Department of Human Services unable to maintain that commitment.
The denial of shelter started last year, as some families were turned away despite having no alternative, but the pace soon will pick up a lot faster. Starting April 1, the end of winter hypothermia season, the District will stop taking in new families at its DC General shelter. Over the following six months, the shelter will go from serving 150 families to perhaps serving none, as families move out and no new families are allowed in.
Even before this change, the city had not sheltered all families seeking aid. If a family had anywhere to stay — even for a night — it was encouraged to come back later. Last month, over 500 families with children were on the waiting list for emergency shelter. Under the prior policy, only “tier 1” families with literally nowhere to go had received help. But now, even that commitment will not be made.
The reasons for this development are clear. The number of people in homeless families climbed more than one-third between 2008 and 2010, as thousands of residents lost their jobs in the downturn. Yet the drop in DC’s tax collections in the recession has led to cuts in many services, including human services, despite rising needs.
The funding gap for homeless services could get even worse next year. The District is receiving $10 million in federal aid for its permanent supportive housing program this year, but that funding will not be continued next year. Also, the District is using $15 million in federal TANF funds from the Recovery Act for homeless services this year, but that money will be depleted by the end of the year. Unless the city adds $25 million in new local funds, further cuts in homeless services will have to be made.
Given the effect that homelessness can have on the health, safety, and education of children, helping homeless families with children is important not only to the families themselves but also to the District’s future. It highlights the challenges faced by Mayor Gray and the DC Council as they grapple with a $322 million budget shortfall for 2012, and why DCFPI and others recommend taking a balanced approach that includes revenue increases to help preserve critical services, such as homeless services for families.