Under a new policy, D.C. will now offer emergency shelter in a year-round basis — not only during the winter.
D.C. officials have quietly moved to open emergency shelters to homeless residents on a year-round basis instead of only during winter months, reinstating a policy that had been discontinued under former mayor Vincent Gray.
Speaking outside a meeting of the Interagency Council on Homelessness on Tuesday, city officials said the expanded access to shelter would not only help individuals and families facing a crisis regardless of the time of year, but also start chipping away at the flood of demand for shelter that occurs once hypothermia season begins.
"When we've only let families in seasonally, we fill up with a lot of families in our shelter system and then in overflow motels for the winter season and then we shut the doors and spend the right of the year trying to help families exit, only to do that all over again. We don't think that's an effective way to serve families," said Laura Zeilinger, the director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.
According to Zeilinger, from April to August 2014 D.C. only gave shelter to seven families. During that same period this year, that number jumped to 290.
Gray discontinued the policy of year-round access to emergency shelter in 2011, saying that it often served as a replacement for finding the homeless more permanent housing options. But homeless advocates have pushed for the year-round access to be reinstated, saying that many homeless residents have been forced to live in their cars or with friends — and without access to many services — during the warmer months.
Zeilinger said that by getting individuals and families into shelter more quickly, they'd also be cycled into more permanent housing options more rapidly. She called the change a matter of "good public policy."
"We know that the sooner we can support them once they come in or experience a crisis, the faster they can exit and the more successful they are when they do it," she said.
Zeilinger said that while 311 families exited shelter form April to August 2014, during that same period this year the number increased to 433.
On Tuesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser spoke at the meeting of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, updating them on her promises to address the homelessness crisis that has hit the city in recent years.
Calling her plan to end homelessness by 2020 "ambitious, but achievable," Bowser said she remained committed to closing the family homeless shelter at D.C. General and replacing it with smaller, service-oriented shelters located across the city.
But she also seemed aware of the challenge of building new shelters, saying she would ask residents, advocates and members of Advisory Neighborhood Commissions — which could serve to organize any opposition to the shelters — to sign a "Pledge to End Homeless in D.C." The pledge says that "every neighborhood, and every resident, has a stake in preventing homelessness and supporting people who experience homelessness."
But for as much as Bowser's plan to end homelessness — which includes $100 million for affordable housing — has been well-received by homeless advocates, city officials say that none of the needed changes will happen quickly. According to its winter plan, the council estimates that D.C. General will again be at capacity this winter.