D.C. Legal Advocacy Groups Band Together Against Shelter Reforms

By Robbie Gramer

December 27, 2016


Washington, D.C., desperately needs to reform its homeless shelter system, according to Mayor Muriel Bowser. In a city where studio apartments can cost as much as $2,000, the local government is struggling to foot the bill for housing a burgeoning homeless population.

But the city's proposed reforms have drawn criticisms and controversy from a coalition of advocacy organizations that opted to band together to push for change, despite ostensibly competing for the same limited pools of funding and resources.

In January, the Council of the District of Columbia will review the mayor's proposed Homeless Services Modernization Amendment Act of 2016, meant to modernize Washington's homeless services. The act would adjust the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005, which established an interagency council on homelessness, codified the rights and responsibilities of homeless service providers and clients, and set new standards for entry to shelters and temporary housing.

Fixing a Broken System

Maintaining homeless shelters and carving out living space for low-income families is difficult in a city with both growing homelessness rates and rising housing prices. Last year, Mayor Bowser said, the city spent over $100 million investing in affordable housing under the auspices of the city's Housing Production Trust Fund. It's a significant price tag for the city, but experts say it's not enough. A May 2015 study by the Urban Institute found that fully addressing the city's affordable housing crisis would cost between $3.1 billion and $5.2 billion.

The proposed bill is meant to "fix a broken homeless system," Bowser wrote in a September 19, 2016, letter to the city council. "When the homeless system is stretched to fill affordable housing gaps, it is not equipped to adequately address the needs of residents experiencing a housing emergency," Bowser stated.

The legislation would establish eligibility standards for families looking for homeless shelters and prioritize housing needs of District residents, as opposed to those living in the wider metropolitan area, to ease the burden on the city's overstretched shelters and limited supply of housing, particularly with the onset of winter that drives many to seek shelter.

"Reforms are needed now so that resources can be prioritized for District residents without safe housing," Jenna Cevasco, a senior policy advisor for the mayor's office, told the D.C. Bar. The Department of Human Services "is spending more than $80,000 per night on overflow motel rooms. Nearly 25 percent of overflow motel rooms are not consistently used by clients, and 12 percent of applicants seeking family shelter are not D.C. residents," Cevasco said.

A Barrier to Those in Need?

But the bill was met with a volley of criticism from local organizations. "We are concerned that the proposal will impose barriers that could prevent DC's most vulnerable families from accessing desperately needed shelter," the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH) wrote on its Website. WLCH banded together with a dozen other advocacy and nonprofit organizations from around Washington to urge the council to reexamine the mayor's proposed bill.

"Restricting shelter access even more than it already is . . . will not solve family homelessness, and will not solve the financial pressures caused by failing to adequately invest in housing," the open letter said.

The bill would require "an individual or family to demonstrate residence by providing two of thirteen items required to demonstrate residency," such as a valid driver's license, personal tax document, or recent pay stub. But these may be hard to obtain, particularly for families who need emergency housing or homeless shelter in a system already laden with onerous bureaucracy, according to Amber Harding, staff attorney at WLCH.

"We already see that the system is very messed up," Harding told the D.C. Bar. "It seems pretty crazy to me that so many families actually need a lawyer to get into a shelter."

"There's a high level of bureaucracy required to get housing that's been so problematic for our clients," Harding said. Adding more requirements, while it may ease the burden on shelters and save the city cash, may push more of those in need out into the cold. "It's the families that have the most difficult time getting through the bureaucracy that are the ones that need it the most."

After facing a wave of criticism in recent weeks, the mayor's office and the city council agreed to table the bill and reintroduce it in January. However, the council will still assess one component of the bill on "medical respite care" before the end of the year, Cevasco said.

Beyond the High Price Tag

With the bulk of the bill tabled until next year, WLCH and the other organizations won their battle—temporarily. But working together may have helped their protests gain traction, according to Harding.

"We try to work in a coalition as much as we can because it strengthens our position," she said. On the surface, WLCH may compete with the other coalition signatories such as the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia or the Children's Law Center for grants and funding. But working together on shelter and housing reform is actually "good for business" in the long run, she said.

"We see over 100 cases of family shelter denial a year," Harding said. "If we were able to work together to solve some of these issues in a more systemic way, we wouldn't have to spend all the resources to represent people denied housing."

But solving the issues in a systemic way goes beyond the price tag. First, there's just simply not enough housing left in the city, particularly for families in need. "The city has moved in the direction of replacing family units with single or efficiency apartments," Harding said. "There's literally not enough housing stock left in the city to accommodate families."

And Washington's homelessness rate among families increased by 32 percent last year due to a struggling economy and the city's skyrocketing housing prices.

That doesn't mean the problem is insurmountable, according to Harding. "It is far cheaper to provide housing than it is shelter," she said. And, she added, the city isn't strapped for cash.

"Budgets are a statement of political priorities. The city finds money all the time to give to the Washington Wizards, Nationals Stadium, or even an Olympic Park," Harding said, referring to Washington's bid to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. "If we were willing to build expensive temporary housing for athletes from around the world," Harding asked, "why not for local families in crisis who need our help?"

Robbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Reach him by email at