The nation’s capital is one of the few places in the country that guarantee homeless families a right to shelter. So when Chanda Davis faced eviction last winter from the apartment in Southeast Washington she shared with her four children, she thought she could count on D.C.’s Department of Human Services for help.
Davis got help she wasn’t expecting.
Instead of putting a roof over her family’s head, the city put bus tickets in their hands — and sent them on a one-way trip to North Carolina.
Davis, a 28-year-old Giant Food clerk, was one of 4,605 people — or 78 percent of applicants — rejected for family shelter last year in the District. Her case offers a front-line view of the hurdles homeless parents and children face in a system that promises shelter as a universal right but routinely turns away those who seek it.
The District’s shelter admission rate of 22 percent trailed those in comparable right-to-shelter jurisdictions, an analysis by The Washington Post found. New York City admitted 50 percent of family shelter applicants last year, and Massachusetts 44 percent.
D.C. officials say the number of rejections is largely attributable to a policy success: By weeding out families that aren’t eligible and finding alternative ways to help those that are — such as financial assistance or brokering ad hoc living arrangements with applicants’ relatives — they say they are preserving shelter as a true last resort.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is now pushing legislation that would further tighten shelter eligibility requirements, a move she says is necessary to ease the strain on a system coping with a population of homeless families that has nearly doubled over the past decade — and may be further swelled by people traveling from Maryland and Virginia to take advantage of the District’s right-to-shelter policy.
Already, the city is spending $80,000 a night on hotel rooms for families crowded out of the main shelter at D.C. General, officials say. They also assert that a quarter of the rooms rented by the city are not consistently used, suggesting that some people have other housing options despite claims of homelessness.