Three Years of Progress in Reforming DC’s Family Homeless Services System

In 2016, Mayor Bowser launched an eight-ward strategy to close DC General as soon as possible and open smaller, service-enriched, community-based, Short-term Family Housing programs throughout the District in its place. This strategy is a critical piece of Homeward DC, the District’s strategic plan to end homelessness, and is also a promise to end a troubling chapter in the history of homeless services in the District and reaffirm our commitment to families.

As a community, I know we all share in the vision and responsibility to finally serve families experiencing homelessness in an environment designed to support them and help them thrive.

From day one, we have approached closing DC General with urgency because our conscience and values compel us to. Today, we are just months away from closing DC General forever.

This is not the first time we have been confronted with this type of challenge. The District closed DC General once before and in 2007 we closed DC Village, which had become an unmanageable symbol of dysfunction in the homeless services system.

Where we stand today is different. We’ve taken lessons painfully learned and are doing it right. We are reforming the entire system of care for families by preventing homelessness more frequently, investing in the housing programs families need to exit shelter, and changing the way we deliver emergency shelter. Our efforts so far have yielded a 40 percent decrease in homelessness among families over the past two years while maintaining year-round access to shelter.

Short-term Family Housing will allow us to provide shelter specifically designed for the needs of families. We know from research and experience that families do better when they can navigate the crisis of homelessness in places that are purposefully designed to feel dignified, predictable, and safe. Instead of being isolated, programs should be incorporated into the surrounding community and reinforce the hope and aspirations parents have for themselves and their children. These programs will become the centerpiece of a more effective crisis response system and placing them across all eight wards demonstrates a citywide sense of solidarity with our families and provides opportunities for inclusion in community life.

Short-term Family Housing is designed to provide enough shelter capacity to meet our needs for the foreseeable future. But this doesn’t mean that we have to wait until all the new buildings are open to close DC General. We should close DC General as soon as we safely can.

That’s why, beginning in May, DHS stopped making new placements at DC General Family Shelter. DHS and The Community Partnership have been focused on supporting families to exit DC General to permanent housing. And many families have made this transition. At capacity, DC General provided shelter to 260 families. Currently, 145 families remain at the shelter.

For years, the District has relied on hotels, even with DC General at full capacity, in order to meet the full need for emergency shelter. Today, with far fewer families in shelter, not only will we close DC General, but we are also within reach of decreasing and ultimately ending our reliance on motels. We are not replacing DC General with more hotels, as some have claimed. But because we are fully committed to meeting the emergency housing needs of District families, the use of hotels remains necessary. What is no longer necessary — or appropriate — is the use of DC General past this fall.

Our top priority is supporting our families in shelter. We have shared information through town hall-style meetings, resource fairs, dinner discussions, hand-delivered letters, and a housing stabilization guide. If families residing in DC General do not exit before the facility closes, they will still have access to safe shelter where we will continue to support them.

Thanks to a myriad of reforms, today’s homeless service system is significantly better equipped to support families compared to three and a half years ago. Together, these reforms position us to close DC General now. I’m honored and excited to be a part of the progress.

About the author:
Laura Green Zeilinger is the Director of the DC Department of Human Services (DHS). The Department’s mission is to empower every District resident to reach their full potential by providing meaningful connections to work opportunities, economic assistance and supportive services.

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