How Can the Homeless Prove Residency?

Shelter proposal creates paradox

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Tuesday, Nov 9, 2010  |  Updated 1:53 PM EDT
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How Can the Homeless Prove Residency?

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It’s hard to present proof of residence when you’re homeless.

The D.C. government is facing a tough choice as it gets colder. The city’s high unemployment rate has driven more people into homelessness, but the city is also facing a major budget crunch. The District simply does not have the resources to provide shelter to all comers.

This led Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells to make the reasonable proposal that only Washingtonians be permitted to use D.C. shelters -- creating the paradox of a proof of residency requirement for people without a residence.

It’s not quite as illogical as it sounds. Officials are suggesting that on the coldest nights, shelter should be prioritized, with space going first to families that can prove legal residence inside the District within the past two years, or documentation of some history of public assistance from the city.

Currently, D.C. law requires the city to find a bed for any homeless person seeking one on nights when the temperature drops below freezing. But Wells told the Washington Post, “We cannot be the housing alternative of last resort for the entire East Coast.”

Wells, who has one of the biggest hearts on the D.C. Council -- his critics might say it’s a bleeding one -- is not trying to be cruel. Rather, he’s trying to find a way to get needed assistance to those whom the District is responsible for, while coping with the realities of a nine-figure deficit. If his plan is adopted, the District would find a way to transport Maryland or Virginia homeless families to shelters in their states of origin.

It would be hard to enforce, given how close together the three jurisdictions are, and how often even those with residences move back and forth. And advocates for the homeless say many legitimate D.C. residents could be turned away if they do not have proper documentation.

According to Wells’s office, one in 10 families being sheltered in D.C. are not D.C. residents, and the D.C. General shelter is already stuffed beyond capacity. Even homeless advocates opposed a plan earlier this year to add up to 100 more rooms to the shelter, saying it would make conditions even worse at an already troubled facility. Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser helped quash a proposal to convert the former Hebrew Home for the Aged building in Petworth into a shelter, noting that there are already two shelters on the same street.

At a hearing yesterday, D.C. Department of Human Services Director Clarence Carter said, “The intent of the framers of this was not to keep someone from being able to get a blanket in the cold -- the intent of this legislation was to do what we could to reserve these resources for District residents.”

Wells originally wanted to jam through the proposal as emergency legislation, but retreated from that stance in order to allow a full discussion of the idea. That was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, no amount of talk will provide a better option.

Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC

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