My, how time flies. Here we are once again less than two weeks from the official beginning of hypothermia season in the District of Columbia. And once again, we’ve got a Winter Plan that’s, at the very least, problematic.
A big issue, once again, is whether the plan provides for enough units to ensure that homeless families have shelter during the cold-weather months.
Last year’s plan made some assumptions that didn’t pan out — as I, among others, thought they wouldn’t.
The Department of Human Services ultimately had to open more units at DC General, the main emergency shelter for families. Still not enough room at some points, however.
According to planning documents I’ve seen, emergency family shelter needs peaked during the first two weeks in March. “Emergency” here means the families had no place to stay unless the District provided it.
During the peak period, a total of 224 emergency units were provided, including 31 community-based units, i.e., units temporarily rented in apartment buildings, and 40 rooms or suites in hotels.
Unclear, however, whether all homeless families were accommodated during the peak. They certainly weren’t a short time later. And maybe not now, since the Winter Plan assumes that 57 units at DC General will be vacant on November 1.
All told, 264 families spent time at DC General last winter, not counting families who were there when the hypothermia season opened. This served as the baseline for work on this year’s Winter Plan.
The Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the Winter Plan for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, projected a 7% increase in emergency shelter needs for the upcoming hypothermia season.
This seems a reasonable, conservative figure since it reflects the percent increase in emergency shelter requests received at the Virginia Williams family intake center during the 2010-11 season.
Nevertheless, the new Winter Plan provides for fewer family units than last year’s plan.
For seasonal emergency shelter alone, the plan provides for only 159 units — 65 fewer than were needed during the peak.
The plan, however, also again identifies housing units — 150 of them. These, I’m told, are short-term vouchers that homeless families can use to rent apartments in the private market.
That will certainly take them off the homeless rolls for awhile. But they’ll be back unless they manage to increase their incomes enough to pay full market rent, plus utilities within a pretty short period of time.
Possible for some perhaps. Unlikely for many, I think, especially when jobs are so much scarcer than job seekers and rental rates in the District so high.
But the Winter Plan looks ahead only as far as next March. From that perspective, the 150 family housing units belong — assuming, of course, that DHS has funds for the vouchers.
Count them all and the Winter Plan still provides for six fewer family units than last year. Factor in the projected 7% increase in need and the plan is shy 57 units — unless certain conditions are met.
The first, as indicated, is vacancies at DC General. This condition has already been met — by denying families shelter. The others are, to my mind, iffy.
Specifically, the average stay at DC General can be no longer than it was last winter season. And DHS has to get families into non-shelter housing at the same rate it did last winter season, if not quicker.
A hitch — or an anticipated number of homeless families — and the scheme falls apart.
Last year, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who then chaired the Human Services Committee, thought there ought to be a backup plan, as did some witnesses who testified at the Winter Plan hearing.
Seems to me that would be a good idea now.