Finding shelter this winter within the District’s dozen or so homeless shelters might not be as simple as it has been in the past if the City Council gives its nod to a bill that would require proof of residency for indigent people looking for a warm place to stay overnight.

Currently, the city allows homeless people to stay in its shelters up three consecutive nights. However, according to Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who is sponsoring the proposal that was subjected to a test vote on Dec. 7, a growing influx of homeless families and individuals from the nearby suburbs of Virginia and Maryland is overwhelming the District’s resources. Wells was not immediately available for comment but explained earlier that his proposal largely ensures that the District continues to provide shelter as a right to residents who have fallen on hard times. Wells also contends that no one will be left to brave the elements in the event the measure fails passage on Dec. 21 when the Council takes its final vote.

But more than 6,000 people in the District have been deemed homeless and Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, who was one of three Council members to vote against the residency requirement last week, said people who show up at the shelters without documents to establish where they live will be out on the streets after the third night.

“The proposal just feels very uncomfortable and I worry about that because on the coldest nights people will be out in the cold,” Graham said.” I know we have economic problems, but some things you just and homelessness is one of them.”

Ron Moten, founder of the nonprofit Peaceaholics – which is committed to helping to preserve families and communities in the District – reasoned that the city cannot be in the business of waging war on the disadvantaged. “First and foremost, we need to look at how many of those people were pushed out of Washington,” said Moten, “as a lot of them who are homeless and no longer live in the city are people who were forced out of D.C. because of gentrification.”

Moten added that in those cases the Council should be more sensitive and think twice about not allowing them into shelters. “We just can’t have a war on the poor and the impoverished,” Moten said. “We’v e got to think carefully because you pay now or pay later.”

Washington ACLU spokesman Johnny Barnes said the proposal does not sit well with him personally and that his organization’s hands are tied.

“This is terrible public policy but the ACLU has looked at it and probably no constitutional issue here,” Barnes said. “I know that such as this when we have bitter cold weather it underscores how callous such a policy is.”

Barnes referred to a Supreme Court case (Goldberg v. Kelly) in 1970 which established that residency could not be used as a condition for public benefits. To that end, he said the ACLU looked at the Council’s proposal in the same context and was unable to find leverage for a constitutional argument.

According to Barnes, a solution to dealing with homelessness in the tri-state area might be to treat it as a regional matter.

“It seems to me the solution lies in regional cooperation and regional coordination,” Barnes said. “We do this on planning and transportation issues, so there’s no reason why DMV can’t get together to come to more reasonable solutions rather than push the homeless off to other jurisdictions.”

 

DorothyRowley

AFROStaffWriter