As of yesterday, it is illegal to house homeless families on cots on the floor in a room with lots of other people in the District of Columbia. Housing a family in these conditions, according to child advocates, is "callous" and traumatizing to children.
So how should I feel about the fact that our congregation did exactly that for the past week when we hosted Howard County's Cold Weather Shelter?
There's been a great deal of coverage in the Washington Post over the past month about homeless families in Washington, D.C. There has been an astonishing 135% increase in the number of homeless families seeking emergency shelter in the District this winter. Why? News stories have suggested a number of factors including an unusually cold winter and a law that requires the District to provide shelter to anyone in need of it during "hypothermia alerts" when the temperature falls below freezing. Despite Mayor Grey's best efforts, that law still allows families to stay sheltered until they can locate permanent housing. Add to these factors the loss of thousands of affordable housing units over the past several years due to gentrification and the result is a real crisis.
Where to put everyone? The DC General family shelter was filled at the beginning of the season with over 300 families and over 470 families are staying in hotel rooms, some in Maryland. In January, the District began housing families in recreation centers. Now, 79 families living in the rec centers have joined a class-action lawsuit against the district, charging that these facilities are traumatizing to children.
On Monday, D.C. Superior Court judge Robert Okun issued a temporary injunction ordering the District to immediately stop housing families in the rec centers as their class-action suit progresses. The Post story reporting on the decision quoted a number of complaints from homeless families: "The lawsuit alleged that children, parents and sometimes grandparents had been unable to shower for days and got only cots in big, noisy rooms that were illuminated all night."
We try to do better than that a KC, but the truth of the matter is we aren't that far off from what this complaint described. We only have one shower for all the guests and you have to walk through the men's sleeping area to get to it. Everyone sleeps on a foam mattress on the floor, and the size of our building means that all the men sleep in a common room and all the women and children sleep together in another area.
"How's it going in the men's area?" I asked a guest after the first night. "A whole lotta snoring," he responded, laughing. I can just imagine.
We hosted the second-to-last week of the Cold Weather Shelter and by then the population is down from the coldest months. Most of the residents were single men, and there were a handful of single women. There was also a family with three kids. The night I stayed overnight at the shelter, I watched as one of the little girls got up in the middle of the night and wandered over to the bathroom, alone. She looked sleepy, not scared. But if she did feel scared, who could blame her? She sleeps in a different church each week in a room with a group of strangers.
The Cold Weather Shelter is a big effort for every church that hosts it. Not only does the congregation need to staff the shelter from 6:00 pm until 7:00 am, it provides rides for the guests, three meals each day and does the laundry for all of the guests. Many congregations including ours offer little extra activities in the evening like live music or bingo or baking nights. Lots and lots of volunteer time goes into this shelter every year. For a congregation the size of KC, it is pretty much "all hands on deck".
I am so proud of our congregation for the work we did with the Cold Weather Shelter last week. All jobs were filled, all the meals were amazing and lots and lots of love went into everything we did.
But I can't feel proud of the fact that Howard County has a Cold Weather Shelter. It is definitely a better alternative than sleeping outside in the winter, but it isn't much better. It is especially tough for kids. In fact, it really is unacceptably bad for children.
Washington, D.C. is overwhelmed with the increase in homeless families there. Howard County is not. In fact, on January 22nd of this year, when the County did its point-in-time survey of homeless residents, it found only 25 households with children under 18 who were homeless in this county (although there are reasons to believe that number is actually somewhat higher). This is a solvable problem for a county like ours.
Other areas of the country have begun to solve homelessness--not just manage it. For example, there are no longer any homeless veterans in Phoenix. It seems entirely possible to me that Howard County could resolve to no longer have any homeless families. At the very least, we need to stop housing families in the Cold Weather Shelter. Then, we should stop housing anyone in this way.
Before the next season of the Cold Weather Shelter begins, I resolve to convene a conversation among all the congregations that hosted the shelter this year about how we can stop congratulating ourselves for our generosity and start working towards making this kind of inadequate housing unnecessary.