PEP-V hovers around full capacity without enough housing options for vulnerable people
Althea Thompson is a woman experiencing homelessness who transferred from the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter to the Holiday Inn on Rhode Island Ave. NW, which the D.C. Department of Human Services has used as a Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals (PEP-V) center since March. Usually, residents are assigned case managers within three weeks of admittance, according to DHS. But after eight weeks, Thompson had still not been matched with a case manager.
Case managers are essential in helping connect shelter residents to housing, a process that can take years for many people experiencing homelessness in D.C. Without one, Thompson is completely unable to progress her case. She keeps asking DHS staff at the hotel why she hasn’t been connected to a case manager yet, and says the department’s personnel keep telling her she will eventually be given one.
“I’m sitting here and nothing is being moved!” Thompson said. “I’ve been homeless for four years, I’m trying to get a place and get out of here. But if I can’t get a case manager, how am I going to leave?”
This is not an isolated incident — Thompson said her roommate does not have a case manager either, and has heard the same complaints from several other residents. Thompson believes there is a significant chunk of the center’s residents that do not have case managers, as staff members have told her they need to “process those who came in earlier first.”
Thompson finally received a case manager on Jan. 14, the day after this article was published.
Thompson also had to wait three weeks until she was put on a cleaning roster, where a contracted service would clean rooms every Thursday. She said she repeatedly called the hotel’s DHS hotline and asked staff at the front desk to have her room cleaned, but was not put on the roster. She and her roommate resorted to buying supplies to clean the room themselves.
When a Street Sense Media reporter called the Holiday Inn PEP-V hotline to ask if Thompson was put on the cleaning roster, a DHS representative claimed Thompson never asked to be put on it. Thompson was finally put on the cleaning roster on Dec. 7. Now, her room is being cleaned every other day.
“Look at how it is,” Thompson said. “It took me calling and calling to finally get my room cleaned.”
Sarah Parker has been facing slow responses to complaints at another PEP-V center, the Fairfield Inn of New York Ave. NE. She was also transferred to PEP-V from the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter at the end of October, then transferred to another room on Dec. 13. For two weeks, she was stuck in a room with bed bugs.
She woke up on Dec. 15 to find four bed bugs visible on her bed, and bite marks on her arm. She immediately dialed the PEP-V site’s DHS extension to report the problem, which a representative agreed to resolve. Parker expected a staff member to come up to her room, but when that did not happen, she went downstairs to follow up with staff. They told her they called an exterminator, who would come the next day.
All PEP-V rooms now have two beds to potentially accommodate two residents, but as Parker had yet to get a roommate, she was able to sleep on the other bed instead for the night. But she again woke up to see a few smaller bed bugs, which Parker suspected were “babies.”
“This room is just infested,” Parker said on Dec. 24. “I have said to [DHS staff,] ‘Could you just take me out of here and put me in another room?’ They said, ‘No, you ain’t gonna get another room.’”
No exterminator came throughout her stay in the room. She found bed bugs in her hat, which she stored in her closet. She said she never laid her hat on or near her bed.
Fearing getting bitten again, and knowing both beds had bed bugs, she slept on a chair and propped her legs up on trash cans. She put all of her clothes in plastic bags, fearing that bed bugs had nested into them like they did in her hat. She said she slept in fear for two weeks waiting for DHS to resolve her issue.
“It’s ridiculous. They can’t tell me they didn’t know there were bed bugs in this room before I was in here,” Parker said. “Now I gotta stay in here, and now I gotta suffer.”
She said she is emotionally exhausted with dealing with DHS staff members’ lack of empathy for her situation. “It’s not in their house, so they can’t be bothered.”
Parker was finally reassigned to another room on Dec. 26.
Charner Snow was transferred from the Harriet Tubman shelter to DHS’ third PEP-V hotel, The Hotel Arboretum, which shares a parking lot with Fairfield Inn. She’s facing a pest issue like Parker. Snow’s roommate had lice and they were separated into different rooms on Jan. 1. DHS on-site staff told Snow that they conducted a treatment and cleaning of the room on Jan. 8. But Snow has not yet been allowed to return to her room, where all of her money, clothing and other belongings are. She has had to wear the same clothes she had on Jan. 1 and wash them consistently.
Snow said she has asked staff repeatedly if she could retrieve her belongings, but has been denied and told to wait. As a diabetic, she keeps some small snacks near her for sugar, but all of her food is still in her room. She is also unable to access her savings and her jar of change.
“I fear my stuff is going to be taken,” Snow said. She notes that for the duration of their stay, PEP-V residents must be let into their rooms by a staff member. “They got the key, we don’t.”
To add to Thompson’s, Parker’s and Snow’s frustrations, PEP-V only allows residents to leave the center for three days a week, and they must return by 7 p.m. The hours were extended to 10 p.m. on Christmas Day. Thompson was able to spend a short amount of time with her family on Christmas but wasn’t able to go on any other day during the holiday season due to the 7 p.m. curfew, including New Year’s Day.
“Christmas, New Year’s, you spent time with your family,” Thompson said. “I couldn’t even spend time with my family.”
PEP-V at capacity
All three of D.C.’s PEP-V sites have been at or near capacity since the start of December. As of Jan. 8, PEP-V is only at 4% availability, according to DHS. This means the Fairfield Inn, which just opened as a PEP-V site in October to expand capacity for the program, was likely at or near full capacity when Parker requested another room. Still, residents were unaware of PEP-V being full and Parker was never given an answer for why she could not be transferred to another room, beyond being told “no.”
Vacancies only open at the sites when a resident moves into housing, predominantly Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). But those units are quickly getting full: According to a Dec. 17 occupancy report of available shelter beds and subsidized housing units in D.C. — PSH is over 90% full. There are 625 residents in PEP-V waiting for housing as of Jan. 8.
The three PEP-V sites — opened in March, May, and October — are in hotels where a maximum of two residents stay in each room. Unlike most of D.C.’s temporary shelters, PEP-V is a “non-congregate” site that does not pack multiple people in a single room or facility.
“DHS has done a good job in rolling out the three sites that they have, and they’ve been incredibly effective in limiting infections in those PEP-V sites, and protecting those people from really severe outcomes from catching the virus,” said Wes Heppler, a board member of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who regularly attends D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness meetings.
Due to the sites’ effectiveness, Heppler advocated during the last ICH Shelter Capacity working group meeting in December for DHS to set up another PEP-V site to meet the demand. He noted that all 639 beds are either full or nearly full, and 600 more eligible people are waiting to enter PEP-V. According to DHS, out of more than 800 residents served since the first PEP-V center opened in March 2020, a total of 89 residents have leased up and moved into PSH and TAH.
A significant portion of the city’s homeless population would qualify for PEP-V as well. According to data from the 2020 Point-in-Time Count of people experiencing homelessness in D.C., 15% of the homeless population is over 62 years-old. 20% have chronic health conditions, and 18% have disabilities. And while the overall count of people experiencing homelessness has decreased over time, the rate of homelessness in D.C. has been consistently the highest by state in America.
PEP-V had been 75% funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency through a program dedicated to opening non-congregate shelters across the U.S., with local governments responsible for the remainder. When the program began, a room was provided for each person. After capacity became a concern, DHS changed its practices to implement rigorous testing to facilitate doubling people up with roommates except for cases of special needs.
Once awarded the FEMA funds, state governments had been required to apply for time extensions every 30-days. However, as of Dec. 16, FEMA extended the time limit on funding from one month to the duration of the pandemic and advised that governments could also request to use FEMA funding until 30 days after the end of the pandemic.
On Jan. 21, the day after his inauguration, President Biden ordered that FEMA would instead reimburse 100% of the costs of state non-congregate housing until Sept. 30. The next day, DHS Director Laura Zeilinger said during a regular briefing on the department’s COVID response that there would be a concrete plan in place by Feb. 5 for what the FEMA development means for PEP-V. The program was 91% full as of Jan. 22.
“That is why we believe that another PEP-V site (paid for primarily by FEMA) would both increase non-congregate shelter and help allow continued COVID spacing in the congregate shelters as we head into the two months that traditionally have the highest use of shelters (January and February),” Heppler wrote in an email to Street Sense Media.
He expressed urgency during the ICH meeting, as in his experience, it takes weeks to set up a single PEP-V site.
“That is unfortunate as this is the time they should be acquiring a site and beginning the process of staffing and setting it up,” Heppler said.
On a Jan. 8 DHS call to update its partners and stakeholders, Director Laura Zeilinger stated that as the shelter system contains a large category of people who qualify for PEP-V based on age and medical conditions, the demand for PEP-V is “always going to be larger” than there are available rooms.
“We have not ruled out the possibility of opening a new PEP-V center,” Zeilinger said. But for the moment, she said DHS is focusing on getting PEP-V and other shelter residents housed, and “allow[ing] people as soon as possible to access a vaccine.”
People experiencing homelessness are included in Phase 1B of the District’s vaccine rollout, which will begin the week starting Jan. 25.
As of Jan. 25, DHS has not started to set up any additional PEP-V sites. Heppler believes that most of DHS’s staff agree with the idea of having another site, but says pushback from the Mayor’s office over funding and staffing may be a factor in the lack of action.
This story has been updated to include both President Biden’s expansion of FEMA funding for non-congregate shelter during the pandemic and that Althea Thompson was assigned a case manager.
This story has been updated to include Charner Snow’s experience, who contacted Street Sense Media about her issues in PEP-V after the article was published. Snow’s story was included due to its similarity with other cases described in the article.
The article initially said Wes Heppler, a board member of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, was a member of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness. He is not a voting member of the council but regularly sits in on ICH working group meetings.