Overflow shelter guests feel unwelcomed by hotel staff and city services
Days after her daughter was born, Candy, her newborn daughter and her daughter’s father found themselves facing homelessness and moved into one of the D.C. hotels that operate as an overflow shelter.
The Virginia Williams Family Resource Center is the D.C. Department of Human Services’ entry point for all families experiencing homelessness. During the family’s first visit to Virginia Williams, they were told they did not qualify for assistance because they were not evicted or technically homeless.
Candy, who requested that we not publish her last name, said her family became homeless after arguments with her roommates of 14 years escalated to the point that she and her family were forced to leave. It was not until a contact at child protective services verified Candy’s information that the family was placed in shelter.
According to the Department of Human Services, the agency may have even provided more information than Candy was willing to discuss in person. The family has been living out of a hotel room since February 2016.
Candy’s is not the only family to be denied services at Virginia Williams. Caitlin Cocilova, a staff attorney from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, first started working with families in shelters when they would call from Virginia Williams after being denied during the intake process. According to Cocilova, if there is an unlawful denial, lawyers from the Legal Clinic advocate to DHS on behalf of the family and explain why they should be placed in temporary shelter so they do not experience homelessness while their application is reassessed, even if it is a questionable case.
Over the past two years, in cases where the department is unsure whether an applicant is eligible for services, DHS Director Laura Zeilinger has expanded the practice of providing a temporary shelter placement for up to three days so that the agency regularly errs on the side of caution, according to Dora Taylor-Lowe, public information officer for DHS. This is called an interim emergency placement, or IEP.
Both Cocilova and Candy described the intake process as extensive and intrusive.
“A lot of times, the people that go in to seek shelter are not fully listened to or believed,” Cocilova said. “And that causes people to get denied for things.”
Clients must provide references to verify their homelessness and the Legal Clinic noted that the current intake process can result in clients feeling judged for seeking shelter.
“What families perceive as resistance or a difficult intake process is because the process is designed to exhaust every resource before a family is placed in shelter,” Taylor-Lowe said.
The city’s homeless services system is overwhelmed. The government will provide shelter to families year-round but wants to make sure limited resources are meeting the needs of District residents with no other options.
D.C. is one of only three jurisdictions in the United States that guarantees shelter when temperatures dip dangerously low. Zeilinger expanded DHS policy to provide year-round access to shelter for families, regardless of the weather.
The District government estimates that approximately 900 families will need shelter throughout the winter months, according to the city’s winter plan. The capacity at D.C. General family shelter is 258. Families are placed in hotels when there is no room at a shelter. The District pays roughly $60,000 per night for all the hotel rooms used as overflow family shelter and for the security, meals and case managers that go with them, according to Taylor-Lowe.
In October, 469 families applied for emergency shelter, according to a D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness committee report.
Once admitted, life in the hotel comes with its own set of problems. Candy and other guests are expected to comply with rules such as an early curfew. If shelter residents violate a rule, they receive warning letters, then a notice of transfer, suspension, and eventually, termination from the program.
“We are constantly telling people how they should live and that as an adult you should be home by 9 o’clock. Why?” Cocilova said. “I wasn’t home by 9 o’clock last night because I was working. A lot of people in the hotels are working. Are you going to put a curfew on your other hotel guests? No.”
During her time in shelter, Candy has encountered substantial challenges with her case managers, who are supposed to assist her with finding housing and employment. According to Candy, they have been rude and are not helpful.
“[The system] is helping them rip off homeless families … they are collecting our money and getting rich off of the poor,” Candy said.
“I’m continuously being disrespected by case managers talking to me any way they want to. Case managers have said to me, ‘I don’t care about what you’re saying to me, you do what I tell you to do, the way I tell you to do it’,” Candy said. “I am just supposed to go anywhere, whether it’s safe for my daughter or safe for me, it doesn’t matter because I’m homeless and basically beggars shouldn’t be choosy.”
Taylor-Lowe told a different side of the story. “It’s the job of the case manager when a family gets into rapid rehousing or even when a family gets into shelter, to instill a sense of urgency into the families. It’s been my observation that a family becomes frustrated and can complain during the process. But when they move out they become grateful for that push that the case manager gives,” she said. “Now, I’m not in any way excusing rude behavior, but I’m saying that’s the struggle between a family and a case manager.”
Candy has been accused of being confrontational and insubordinate with her case managers, but she says they make her feel like a lower-class citizen and she is afraid to speak up to defend herself because she will have the consequences of being terminated and having her child taken away once she is homeless.
Kia Williams, an interim entry coordinator at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, said that they hold ongoing trainings with case management staff on skill building, how to interact with clients, and harm reduction at D.C. General, as well as the hotels.
“The main thing is to focus on the families, showing empathy, letting them know that you are here to assist,” Williams said. “But we have to work together as a team.”
In her experience in the shelter system, Candy said that she felt as though none of the service providers were adequately addressing the barriers she encounters when seeking housing and employment. She said the system of constantly applying to apartments locks her and others into a cycle of poverty. Each apartment she applies for requires a $50 to $100 application fee that the clients must pay themselves. According to Candy, the financial burden is debilitating, because landlords are willing to take their applications to collect the fees, but rarely approve them. “[The system] is helping them rip off homeless families … they are collecting our money and getting rich off of the poor,” Candy said.
“We do require them to submit as many applications as they can,” said Minerva Labrador, a program manager for the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center. But only for placements that seem like a good fit and there is no quota or specifically required amount.
“The case managers and the housing navigators are there to assist them with those applications. We do ask them to be ready to lease up, assist them with photo ID or social security,” Labrador said.
Taylor-Lowe added that the housing applications process is the same at D.C. General, and that families with severe hardship are eligible for help with application costs.
“All my fears are coming to fruition. They don’t want to help us. They don’t care about us. They don’t care about the fact that all of D.C. is expensive to live in. Most of us in the shelter don’t have high school diplomas. Some of us barely know how to read or write. We don’t have degrees, so what job we do get is minimum wage. Minimum wage does not pay for rent in D.C.,” Candy said.
The hotel is also not conducive to raising children. Monitors do nightly curfew checks to make sure everyone is in the room. Candy said that at her hotel they bang on doors and wake the children with noise and flashlights.
The curfew is continuous across the board and is in place to keep families safe and ensure children are where they are supposed to be, according to Williams. “If you maintain where you are supposed to be we don’t have to worry about crime.”
The shelter guests do not have access to kitchens. At Candy’s hotel, hot breakfast used to be provided daily, but she said that program was taken away due to bad behavior by some adults. Now they only receive hot breakfast on Sunday and continental breakfast the rest of the week, with no other meals. Because they rely on microwavable and non-perishable food, Candy said their diets are not healthy or nutritious.
Since there is no recreation place, the children often resort to playing in hallways and parking lots. Although shelter guests were provided with D.C. One cards to access public recreation spaces in the city, many parents find it difficult to make use of them.
The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which has had a presence at D.C. General for many years, is now visiting some hotels to provide recreation for children. “If they have it at D.C. General, we try to make sure that’s across the board at the hotels also,” Williams said.
Candy said that she has witnessed domestic violence among shelter guests and heard that prostitution is also taking place. Cocilova was unaware of these crimes but said that the Legal Clinic has represented residents who have been violent toward neighboring residents, but that these incidents only give ammunition to DHS for claims that people aren’t properly using their services.
“I’m not going to deny that there are bad things happening in the hotels or maybe some people are doing things that they shouldn’t,” Cocilova said. “We have to figure out why that’s happening, we can’t just demonize that. That goes to people being put in close quarters, people not being served with dignity, people trying to get out but they can’t because they aren’t given any options that are realistic for them.”
Cocilova said that the root problem that needs to be addressed is the housing crisis. If there were affordable housing, these issues would not surface, according to her.
“As rooms open in D.C. General we move families there, not getting closer to housing necessarily, [but] in order to reduce costs,” Taylor-Lowe said.”[It’s] important to move families out of hotels as we move towards tourist season.”
After facing a multitude of constant problems for the first ten months of her daughter’s life, Candy has felt immensely discouraged. But her daughter is what keeps her going.
“Me being a mother now, I didn’t want to bring my daughter into this, and that’s what is more heartbreaking for me than anything, that my daughter has to experience this. I wanted better for her than what she’s going through,” Candy said.
Bethany Tuel contributed reporting.
This article has been updated to reflect that for the past several months, DHS has been spending just over $60,000 per night to shelter families in overflow hotel placements and to clarify that year-round access to shelter for families and interim eligibility shelter placements are both DHS policy. The initial article framed year-round family shelter access as an extension of the city’s right to shelter, provided by the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005. And the spending amount for overflow shelter placements previously provided by DHS, $80,000, reflected expenses during Spring 2017.