The Honorable Adrian M. Fenty
Mayor of the District of Columbia
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004
Dear Mayor Fenty:
We the undersigned are writing to urge you to take action on the shelter capacity crisis facing the city. We represent a diverse coalition of service providers, consumers, religious groups, advocacy organizations, and other community groups, which formed in response to alarming reports of emergency shelter bed shortages by both consumers and service providers. We know that ending homelessness is one of your top priorities and we thank you for your commitment to this goal. We have held several community sessions to gather information on this current crisis and develop some suggested solutions that we hope to work closely with your Administration to implement. We write to ask you to meet with us to develop an immediate response to the current crisis.
We have learned that homelessness among singles and families is on the rise and that our shelters are not able to accommodate the increased numbers. Well after hypothermia season has ended, there are few if any vacancies in the emergency shelter system for singles or for families. People are being denied shelter and being forced to stay in unsafe places.
One elderly woman reported at a community meeting that she was turned away from shelter on a rainy evening and consequently spent the remainder of the night huddling in fear of any man who approached her. Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Another woman expressed guilt about being the last admitted into a shelter when there was a line of at least a dozen women trailing behind her. Two shelters reported that they are seeing more people than ever before and that they have nowhere else to refer them because the entire system is at capacity. Both shelter and day service providers have expressed that this is one of the worst years they have experienced in terms of increased need for services. Unlike in past years, the demand for shelter has not decreased this year with the warmer weather.
Family homelessness in the District has risen 25% since last year, and over 200 families remain on the waitlist for emergency shelter. Meanwhile, capacity at D.C. General has been reduced from 75 beds to 35 beds even as families report that they are being turned away due to a lack of capacity in the system. In mid-June, a mother stood at the Family Resource Center front desk in tears, afraid she would have to place her children in foster care when the U.S. Marshals came because an intake worker told her the family shelters were full and D.C. General was closed.
You must act now to solve this problem. Emergency shelter is vital to the District%u2019s safety net and is currently underfunded, leaving many singles and families in unsafe situations during this economic downturn. We applaud the District for developing more affordable housing resources and we support the continuation of expanded funding for the Housing First program. However, Housing First cannot provide housing to a family the day the U.S. Marshals evict them or to a single person the day his apartment building is condemned. Only shelters can provide immediate safety from the elements and from crime on the street. Shelters can mean the difference between life and death for people living with chronic health conditions such as HIV/AIDS, and they allow victims of domestic violence to leave their abusers. Until there is enough affordable housing for all, shelters must be funded at a level to ensure adequate capacity for every single person and family that has no safe place to live.
In light of the urgent nature of this issue, we ask the Mayor%u2019s office to implement the following recommendations:
I. Increase the number of shelter beds in order to meet the increased demand.
A. Individual Emergency Shelter
This year, District funding for increased numbers of shelter beds ended on April 1st, leaving hundreds of individuals with no safe place to stay. Until the District can implement a long-term plan to prevent these women and men from being forced to stay on dangerous streets, it should open short-term emergency shelter beds immediately at locations that are accessible to those who are homeless. We urge that additional sites be identified so as not to overcrowd existing shelters.
B. Family Emergency Shelter
While communal shelters are not ideal for families, they are better than sleeping on the streets or being doubled up in unsafe situations. The District should work toward creating more apartment-style shelters for families, and until this happens, the District must ensure that every family that is in need of shelter is allowed into the system. One short-term solution is to operate D.C. General at its hypothermia capacity (75 family units) until the city can accurately determine the extent of the need and the right number and size of replacement capacity.
II. Track the unmet demand and determine the right size of replacement shelter.
The balance between housing and shelter is not an %u201Ceither...or%u201D proposition; rather it is a question of %u201Chow much.%u201D The District must assess how much shelter space will be needed if affordable housing and homelessness prevention resources are regularly and annually increased, while taking into account fluctuations in the economy that may increase or decrease homelessness. The Homeless Services Reform Act charges the Mayor with the task of collecting and distributing up-to-date information on the %u201Cunmet demand%u201D for shelter beds, units, and support services. We ask that the District begin collecting this information immediately and for the sake of transparency, make the information available to the public.
Once this data is collected and released, decisions about the appropriate amount and location of replacement shelter should take place through an open, public process. Without this process in place, the District runs the risk of repeating our current situation and having insufficient emergency shelter capacity to meet the need of a growing population of citizens who are homeless.
III. Improve and monitor shelter conditions more closely.
We must invest in the improvement of conditions at our shelters. In addition to ensuring that there are sufficient beds to meet the demand for shelter, the District must also ensure that the shelters are humane places for our fellow citizens. An independent survey of consumers conducted by seven homeless services agencies reveals that 40% of those surveyed view overcrowding as a major barrier to accessing shelter, 20% responded that they refuse to go into shelters due to unsanitary conditions, and 16% stated that they refuse to go into shelters because of the violence and crime that take place in such facilities. We cannot help people move to housing if our shelters are large, overcrowded, unsanitary and unsafe, and if the residents do not have access to readily available services. We ask that the Mayor commit both in budgetary investment and in monitoring resources to transform the homeless services system into one that is more humane.
ConclusionIf D.C. truly wants to be a Human Rights City that provides leadership in securing, protecting, and promoting human rights for all people, then the District must acknowledge that housing is a basic human right. An important step towards acknowledging this right is to ensure that appropriate funds are designated for all three prongs of housing preservation: adequate prevention, safe and sanitary emergency shelters, and affordable housing.
 In May of 2009, shelters in the individuals emergency system were in overflow on 18 of 31 nights and were filled to capacity on 16 of 31 compared to zero nights in May of 2008. Nightly Census Data, The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
 Of 16 families surveyed by six homeless services agencies on April 23, 2009, 3 (or 19%) had slept on the street the night before because they could not get into family shelter. %u201CUnmet Shelter Need Assessment,%u201D an independent report compiled by the Homelessness Emergency Response Workgroup.
 H.S.R.A. § 4-753.02 (d) : %u201CThe Mayor shall operate a computerized information system to collect, maintain, and distribute up-to date information regarding the number of beds or units available in shelter and supportive housing in the District, the availability of supportive services, and the current usage and unmet demand for such beds, units, and services.%u201D
 %u201CUnmet Shelter Need Assessment,%u201D a report compiled by The Homelessness Emergency Response Workgroup.
 In December 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the City Council proclaimed D.C. the first Human Rights City in the United States.