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Families Moved Out Of D.C. General, But Advocates Worry About Pace Of Progress

The former D.C. General hospital has been used as an emergency shelter for families in recent years.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
The former D.C. General hospital has been used as an emergency shelter for families in recent years.

A campaign launched by Mayor Vincent Gray has moved 198 families out of the homeless shelter at D.C. General, but housing advocates are expressing concern over whether enough is being done to prepare for the upcoming winter season.

Deborah Carroll, the interim director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, said at a D.C. Council hearing on Thursday that Gray's 500 Families, 100 Days campaign had identified 459 units throughout the city and placed 198 families since April, with 261 units left to be matched.

By Oct. 1, Carroll said, the city hopes to have moved the 220 families now living in motels to apartments and homes, as well as moving enough families out of D.C. General — which currently houses 240 families — to have 50 empty rooms by the start of the winter.

At the hearing, Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he was concerned with the pace of placements — especially the distinction between finding units and placing families in them.

"That's a mushy word, 'identify.' To identify an apartment is different than actually having the apartment," he said. Carroll could not provide details on the state of the 261 units remaining, but said that it can take up to six weeks from when a unit is found to when a family moves in.

According to Kate Coventry of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the city's progress on the campaign has benefited from the fact that few families have been coming back into D.C. General. Once the weather turns, though, she says D.C. will have to keep a high rate of placements to keep up with what is likely to be similar demand for shelter as last year.

"They're going to have to keep this high exit rate at the same time as they're getting people coming in. They have to be able to maintain 100 a month and they have to maintain that while families are coming in so we can keep up," she says.

If that doesn't happen, she says, D.C. will be faced with high demand for shelter — but fewer options for families than it had last winter. Gray did not budget any money for motel placements in the coming fiscal year, and in March a judge stopped the city from putting families in recreation center.

At the hearing, Carroll said that the city is already facing a $10 million shortfall in shelter funding for the fiscal year starting in October. Coventry says that the shortfall likely stems from the city under-estimating how many families would need emergency shelter during the winter months. From November 1 to March 31, D.C. law requires families to be provided shelter when the temperatures fall below 32 degrees.

Carroll told Graham that despite ongoing efforts to move families out of D.C. General, it's likely that the controversial shelter will remain in use for the upcoming year — if not longer.

"What assurance can you give this committee and the public that D.C. General in February 2015 is going to look any different than it did in February 2014?" asked Graham. "I can't give you that assurance," responded Carroll.

Graham has introduced legislation to close D.C. General, but only after alternatives have been found for families. Carroll said that it could take up to 18 months to get to the point where the shelter could be fully shuttered.

"Under the best of circumstances, [closing D.C. General] will not happen before the end of the year. Our goal is 18 months. It does take time," she said.

"Even with the progress the mayor has made... we're going to have the same ol', same ol' D.C. General coming in this February as we had last February. We're stuck with this horrible facility, which is such a dehumanizing place to raise children," said a frustrated Graham.

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