Shelter Intake in District of Columbia

The Washington Post had a front page article on the number of "diversions" from shelter in the nation's capital.  The story focused on one family given a bus ticket back to North Carolina.  Only 21.9% of those who request shelter in DC are offered a bed which the Post compared to New York City at around 50% and Boston offering shelter to 44% of the homeless families.  It is really hard to get accurate data from Cleveland's Coordinated Intake, but it is around 72% to 83% of the families are offered shelter.  This means that we have the highest percentage of sheltered families among big cities in America.  Cleveland needs to be proud of this policy of working hard not to turn people away.   We should champion this and show how much compassion there is locally.

The previous Mayor of DC was only admitting 9% of the families who requested shelter.  Here is how the Washington Post quoted a critic of the policy in DC.

Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said social workers appear to lack clear guidelines on how to assess need and when to encourage other housing options, such as staying with relatives. She said clinic lawyers frequently persuade senior city officials to reverse decisions made at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the central intake point for homeless families.

“To me, it is a sign of a broken system that someone can go to the family resource center and be denied and I can tell their same story to the senior leadership . . . and they get admitted,” Harding said. “You shouldn’t need a lawyer to get into emergency shelter.”

The federal government gives $2 billion to tthe majority of families who request help.  Denying shelter to a family should never be the response.  It is costly, but providing assistance can help.  It can re-establish that government can solve problems.  It can pick up hidden issues such as depression, behaviorial health issues, addiction, or domestic violence that women are reluctant to disclose upon first encounter with an intake worker.  If a family makes the trek down to see a stranger who works on behalf of the City or County and asks for help, they should be given some assistance.

One of the problems is the various definitions of homelessness. Does sleeping on a strange couch count as homeless?  Does the family staying in a motel count as homeless?  Does the family who is spending every other night in their car and the other nights with their sister count as homeless?  DC spends $80,000 on hotel nights to accommodate the overflow.  Cleveland spends far more on transportation and monitoring of overflow.  There is nothing similar to the Washington Legal Clinic in Cleveland to complain about these decisions made by Coordinated Intake.  There is also no oversight of these arbitrary decisions made at Intake. 

These are life and death decisions that could result in the break up of a family, and should not be made after a half hour to one hour interview with a stranger.  In the richest country on earth, we should default to offering the bed to everyone coming in the door and sorting their housing situation out when they are safe.  They keep saying that intake is like the triage done at a hospital.  Hospitals do not discharge people to the streets until the individual sees a trained professional and until they are stabilized.  Coordinated intake has no oversight.  Government does not provide a check on the system, and there is no way to protect against mistakes until there is a tragedy. 

Brian Davis

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