Reuters

With shelter space scarce, this winter has seen U.S. cities shelling out big bucks to house families in motels.

On Valentine’s Day, Washington City Paper reported that the District of Columbia’s emergency family shelters — which provide homeless families a guaranteed place to stay during the coldest months of the year, from November through March — are overflowing. As a result, over 200 D.C. families are currently being housed in hotels instead of shelters. That’s at least a 185 percent increase from a similar report last March.

Not only does this indicate the city has more homeless families than it can handle; it also means the city is spending a lot of money it would assuredly rather not squander. CP estimates the nightly cost is about $100 per room, per family:

So renting rooms costs about $20,000 per night, and there's about half again on top of that for food, transportation, and other associated costs. That adds up really fast: at least a million bucks since the beginning of the year out of the city's homelessness budget. Which, needless to say, could be much better spent somewhere else.

That’s scary enough. What’s scarier still is that D.C.’s experience is likely part of a much bigger national problem.

While this June 2011 press release from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) begins cheerily enough with a claim from HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan about the Department’s successes – “had it not been for President Obama’s Recovery Act, many hundreds of thousands of persons may have fallen into homelessness or remained there” – the news isn’t as good as it sounds, especially for families. According to the HUD report:

The number of homeless persons in families has increased by 20 percent from 2007 to 2010, and families currently represent a much larger share of the total sheltered population than ever before.

And in these winter months, when many state and local laws require that shelter be provided to all comers, that means a sudden surge in the demand for space. Groups in Los Angeles, for example, have begun to convert motels into emergency family housing centers, just like in D.C.

The issue is receiving attention. The New York Times profiled homeless families in a multimedia report earlier this month. 60 Minutes focused on central Florida when it addressed the issue in November. Alexandra Pelosi touched on it in her 2010 HBO special, Homeless: The Motel Kids of Orange County. Even the television show Glee devoted valuable airtime to the issue of family homelessness last year.

But as Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, points out, all that attention can only go so far. “There are not enough permanent housing resources for homeless families,” he wrote in an email last week.

John Lozier, executive director of the Nashville-based National Health Care for the Homeless Council, suggests that broader plans such as one proposed in Massachusetts to “get all families out of motels by July 2012 while saving significantly on emergency shelter services in the process” need to be given more consideration by state and city legislators. Otherwise hotels will continue to serve as expensive, temporary shelters for an increasing number of homeless families.

The irony, Lozier writes via email, “is that the cost of just a few nights in a hotel can pay a full month's cost of standard housing.”

Top image: In this 2009 file photo, Tarya Seagraves-Quee makes the bed in her room at a motel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they were placed instead of a homeless shelter. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

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