Everyone agrees that Washington, D.C., needs a law reforming homeless services, but what form this law will take still remains very much up for debate.

The first hearing on the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2003 (Bill 15-241) took place late last month, and more than 50 people, including advocates, government officials, and homeless and formerly homeless residents, spoke up with their support of and concerns about this homeless services overhaul.

“I think this is a good piece of legislation,” said Councilmember Sandy Allen, head of the Human Services Committee and sponsor of the bill. “It brings focus to the needs of the homeless and tries to put in place a way to better deliver services.”

The proposed law would give homeless people more rights, set standards for service providers, clarify the city’s legal authority in the shelter system, and improve coordination among District agencies. Though it has support from Allen and from the majority of the council, advocates are wary about the bill’s future. The District’s Department of Human Services has already expressed serious reservations about several points, including the cost of its implementation and certain requirements for service providers.

One part of bill on which everyone did agree was the creation of a local Interagency Council on Homelessness. The council would be made up of about 18 government officials, a half-dozen service providers and four to 10 homeless and formerly homeless residents. They would, among other things, develop a five-year strategic plan and a yearly hypothermia plan, and regularly review services in the system.

“I cannot overemphasize the contributions an Interagency Council will make by bringing the right people to the table to truly focus on the needs of homeless residents,” said T.J. Sutcliffe, director of advocacy and social justice for So Others Might Eat.

The Interagency Council closely reflects the group that helped to draft the reform bill. In October 2000, government officials, advocates, attorneys, homeless and formerly homeless individuals came together to find a way to improve the current homeless services system. And after many studies, focus groups and meetings, the current bill took form and was presented to the council in April 2003.

Though a few sections of the bill remain contentious, particularly the one that that gives rights to homeless people in government-funded shelters, homeless and formerly homeless unanimously supported rights to respectful treatment, an official complaint process, and protection of their privacy.

William H. Wright, who, along with his 13-year-old daughters, is a resident of the Spring Road Shelter, said that during his time in the shelter, caseworkers have been uncooperative and the shelter staff demeaning. He said that he hopes that the proposed act will change all of that.

“We need people to work with us and do not just make up rules as they go along,” Wright said. “We are already traumatized and feeling bad about ourselves, and we do not need to be treated disrespectfully.”

However, the acting director of the Department of Human Services, Yvonne Gilchrist, did not support the guaranteed rights of the homeless or the required standards for service providers.

In fact, she went so far to suggest that all of the “shall”s be changed to “may”s, making these standards and rights no more than suggestions. (This issue is, in fact, what prompted the city about a year ago to end its involvement in the bill’s creation.)

“I support its intent but have some concerns and issues about the potential of creating an entitlement structure,” Gilchrist said. “This does not address preventing homelessness but creates an industry to support it.”

Gilchrist was also concerned about the fiscal impact of providing more shelter space and upholding certain standards, and insisted that a fiscal impact study be included with the proposal. However, as some of the attorneys involved in writing the act noted, DHS is making such a study impossible. It has yet to provide the city’s chief financial officer with the appropriate numbers.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the supervisor of the District’s shelter system, supported the bill but also had a long list of concerns similar to those of the DHS. Sue Marshall, the Partnership’s executive director, had serious issues with the unlimited length of stay and also with the absence of

the 365-day rule, which would allow someone to reenter the shelter system – no matter how long he or she was in it initially – only after one year.

However, Sczrina Perot, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that the current law already puts limits on both length of stay and repeated use of the shelter system in one year, but that neither of these limits are enforced, simply because the need for shelter is too high. She also said that if the government did enforce these rules, it would be detrimental to the homeless.

“Pushing someone out of shelter before they are ready is just setting them up for failure and for a return to homelessness,” Perot said. Others, though less dramatic, suggested changes to the bill included establishing more programs to help the homeless manage and save their money and programs to help them raise their self-esteem. Also, supporters wanted the bill to create more “low barrier” shelter space and hypothermia beds.

The bill is now being reviewed and amended by the council’s Human Services Committee and will likely be presented to the entire council for its first reading in the next few months. In an interview in early December, Allen said that she was confident about the bill, adding that it was a priority of the council, but would not make a guess as to when and in what form it would pass.