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D.C. Council considers bill to improve homeless shelters across city

Kiana Robertson | Hatchet Photographer
Kiana Robertson | Hatchet Photographer

The D.C. Council’s human services committee approved a bill last week that would make winter shelters more comfortable for the homeless.

Mary Cheh, a GW law professor who represents Ward 3 on the Council, helped introduce the legislation that would require rooms to have windows with shades, lights that can turn on and off and other amenities. The bill is now on its way to the full Council after securing approval from the committee that oversees welfare and social services.

The bill, called the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act, comes as the number of homeless families is expected to increase 16 percent this winter, the Washington Post reported.

Drafted by Council member Jim Graham, the legislation would require all shelter rooms to have the same basic features like a ceiling, four walls and a door that locks. Families who receive temporary housing during freezing weather would live in shelter conditions that are insulated to block out sound and allow more privacy.

Last year, many D.C. shelters were at maximum capacity after a historically cold winter. The local government moved more than 800 children to hotels in February after a storm left the city covered in almost 10 inches of snow.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced a plan last week to close the homeless shelter in the former D.C. General Hospital within a year, the Washington Post reported, though advocates and lawyers have already cast doubt on his multi-million dollar idea. After 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, a resident of the shelter, disappeared in the spring, the government has looked to shut down the building troubled by alleged staff misconduct, sickness and violence, according to the Post’s investigation.

A preliminary report from the Capital Weather Gang found that D.C. could potentially be in for another cold and snowy winter.

Nearby shelters like Miriam’s Kitchen will be open to members of the homeless population this winter, but the West End Library, which acted as a warming shelter during last winter, is now closed for construction.

Robert Marbut, a consultant who assists cities in making plans to combat homelessness, said he has noticed a steady increase in homelessness in D.C. in the past few years, which he believes stems from “dysfunction” in the city government.

He said he thinks legislation like Cheh’s fails to focus on the three major causes of homelessness: mental health problems, substance abuse and lack of job readiness. He said just providing shelter to the homeless during freezing temperatures doesn’t go far enough.

“I don’t want to make light of the problem, but what we want to do is reduce homeless 365 days out of the year, not just the cold weather nights,” Marbut said.

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