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Are Homeless Kids In D.C. Out In The Cold?

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Doorway to the Sarah Bruce House in Northeast D.C.
Sasha Bruce Youthwork
Doorway to the Sarah Bruce House in Northeast D.C.

This week's Metro Connection is all about "House and Home," but what happens when — for the time being, anyway — you don't have either one?

That's been the experience for Lamar, a sophomore at Anacostia High School. He's been staying at the Sasha Bruce House in Northeast Washington: the District's only short-term shelter for young people, ages 11 to 17.

"What first brought me here, I'm going through substance abuse, with drugs," Lamar says. "My father kicked me out on the street. So I was living on the street for a full 24 hours. And then I had to go to school the next day. So I said, 'I can't live on the street and still try to go to school, so I'm going to go to the 6th district, the police department station and see what they can do.' And they took me here the same day."

Tragic as his story may be, Lamar is actually one of the lucky ones. Between February and May of this year, Sasha Bruce House had to turn away at least 150 unaccompanied minor children due to lack of space.

"A year ago, we had 16 beds, through this program and another program that no longer exists, specifically for homeless runaway kids," explains Jim Beck, the development director of Sasha Bruce Youthwork. "And now we have five. And the city doesn't pay for any of those."

Instead, the federal government pays for those five beds.

"The city historically, through Child and Family Services and the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, had appreciated the need for prevention of kids getting in the system," Beck says. "And so they had made available funds specifically for shelter for unaccompanied youth. But they changed that. And those no longer exist, just in the past year. And so the city doesn't pay for any emergency shelter for unaccompanied homeless youth."

But that may soon change.

David A. Berns directs the Department of Human Services, which oversees the provision of homeless services in D.C. He says the city has agreed to fund a new emergency shelter with six beds. He explains that it will give unaccompanied minors in the District a place to stay "for as much as two weeks, with parental or court approval to allow the kids to stay there while we are working on the other issues.

"So if the average is one-week stay, that provides a place for up to 300 children on an emergency basis throughout the year," he explains.

But there's one time of year when emergency shelter is especially in demand. And it's pretty much upon us.

"In the city of Washington, D.C., we have what's called a Right to Shelter on hypothermia nights, when the temperature including the wind-chill index is 32 degrees or lower," Berns says.

So this mayor-appointed group called the Interagency Council on Homelessness has this annual "Winter Plan."

As Berns says, "the Winter Plan is a description of all of the different processes we use, like where are the shelters, what's the capacity that we need, how many people are likely to show up during this period of time, and do we have adequate resources to meet that need?"

But here's the thing about D.C.'s Winter Plan. Berns says they discovered that the city doesn't have a definitive plan dealing with unaccompanied minors — those that are under age 18 — under the Winter Plan.

Just this week, the Interagency Council on Homelessness met about the Winter Plan. The Council agreed to site Sasha Bruce as the first line of defense for unaccompanied minors, unless there's suspicion of abuse and neglect, in which case the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency would step in.

But at this same meeting, when the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless proposed new language be written in to the plan — language that would explicitly require the District to house unaccompanied youth — it was not approved.

"There are two groups of people that I think should not be in our shelters: the very old, and the very young," says Council member Jim Graham, who represents Ward One, and chairs the Committee on Human Services.

In terms of homeless people in D.C. this winter, Graham says they're projecting a 10 percent increase in families and individuals.

"We have an enormous problem when it comes to unaccompanied youth," says Graham. "We're going to be facing a crisis situation in the District in terms of homelessness."

Graham strongly approves of those six new beds. As, of course, does Jim Beck at Sasha Bruce House. But, he echoes Graham's sentiments when he says, "it's certainly not enough. You need a comprehensive plan to help young people develop. It's not just shelter. You have to have lots of other supports to make sure they become stable, and families are healthy."

That's why Sasha Bruce House also offers counseling, group sessions and case management. All these things, Beck says, cannot only help combat youth homelessness, but adult homelessness, too.

He says 50 percent of all adult homeless individuals report having been homeless as youth, which is why it's important to intervene quickly for kids who are living on the street, or at risk of being put out on the street.

For Anacostia High School sophomore Lamar, he's hoping this will be the last time he's homeless.

"Soon as I walk out the door I see me rebuilding my relationship with my father, I see me rebuilding my relationship with my brothers, I see me rebuilding my relationship with my sisters, and I see myself just progressing," he says. "And just experiencing growth.

"I want to be with my family. I just want to go home."

[Music: "Homeward" by The Sundays from Static & Silence]

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