Homeless DC Families Face Loss of Vital Legal Protections

In one of its smarter moves, the DC Council unanimously decided to pull the proposed amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act out of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget legislation.

But only because Councilmember Jim Graham, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, introduced them as a free-standing bill — and promised to move on it quickly.

So today the committee will hold a hearing on the bill. And it will certainly get an earful.

The more I’ve heard from people who will testify — advocates, service providers and homeless people themselves — the more I’ve understood how problematic the amendments are.

Here’s an example — a pair of proposals seemingly designed to place homeless families in a better situation than DC General, the District’s main shelter for them.

No one, I think, would object to this in principle — least of all the parents there. They want out, for a host of reasons.

And most do get out, one way or the other, in a fairly short period of time. The average stay, I’m told, is about three months.

The DC Department of Human Services has nevertheless had serious problems sheltering all homeless families who have no safe place to stay — those the system designates as Priority One.

Though it now admits them to DC General only when the weather is freezing cold, it seemingly can’t move enough out fast enough to make room for all newly-eligible families.

The main reason is that its plans for rapid re-housing have run afoul of realities, including reluctance to accept a time-limited subsidy.

Rapid re-housing, as the amendments define it, provides homeless individuals and families with some limited financial assistance intended to get them stably housed — a security deposit, first month’s rent and, in some cases, a short-term rental subsidy.

It’s surely better for them than trying to cope with shelter living — or rather, would be if shelter doors were open year round for those who couldn’t later come up with full rent.

And such research as we have suggests that rapid re-housing is all some people need to get through a financial crisis.

But “short term” in the District means four months — potentially, but not necessarily renewable up to a year. Homeless parents perceive a risk, as well they might.

Landlords also. Needless to say, many don’t want tenants who can’t show they’ll be able to pay rent for the full lease term.

This may be another reason that DHS hasn’t achieved the turnover it wants at DC General — let alone been able to house anything close to a majority of homeless families so rapidly that they don’t spend time there.

Last winter, the Virginia Williams intake center tried what I guess we could view as ramped up diversion, i.e., keeping families out of the formal homeless system.

It decided to hold off placing Priority One families at DC General. Instead, it put them some place for a couple of nights. After that, shelter hinged on their proving they’d done whatever the caseworker told them to.

Constant anxiety for the families, of course — and utter disruption of normal necessary routines, as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has reported.

And at least one family was diverted — into one of those doubled-up arrangements that often lead to (or back to) a local homeless system.

The Legal Clinic stepped in, warning that the system violated District law. Now DHS has resurrected something similar in the HRSA amendments.

And unless they’re amended, as I surely hope they will be, DHS will have a coercive solution to what the director refers to as a “terrible time getting people to accept” rapid re-housing.

Henceforward, Priority One families — and perhaps homeless individuals living on the streets — would be provisionally placed in a shelter or supportive housing unit during a two-week or less assessment period.

During this period, the caseworker would determine their eligibility for assistance, assess their needs and “identify an appropriate referral, including an alternative housing arrangement.”

This, of course, is much better than a one-night-at-a-time deal.

But families could be summarily kicked out of their provisional placement if they failed to cooperate with the assessment and referral process — or rather, if DHS decided they had, based presumably on whatever the caseworker said.

Or they could be transferred — again, with virtually no warning — to other housing or an “appropriate referral,” whatever that means.

Families would thus lose the due process rights that shelter residents generally have.

For them, the law requires a 15-day advance notice, which gives them time to file a formal appeal while they’re still in shelter, and the right to remain in place until a final decision on their appeal is issued.

Families could still appeal, but they’d be out on the streets unless and until they won — or as too often happens, back in a house where they and/or their children have been beaten (or worse).

Failure to cooperate with the referral process might include refusing to go live with a friend or relative, no matter how unsuitable that arrangement might be.

It would definitely include refusing two units offered as rapid re-housing. These, under the amendments, would be, by definition, “appropriate permanent housing.”

But the units might not be appropriate at all. They might be too small for the family, for example, or not accessible for a family member who’s disabled or unsafe, as we gather a fair number of low-cost D.C. apartment units are.

Or the units simply might be too pricey for the family to afford when the temporary rent subsidy expires.

More likely perhaps, one unit would be unsuitable for one reason and the other for another. But, as the amendments are written now, there could be no appeal because they’d all be ipso facto, appropriate.

I’ve picked out only one subset of the potential harms the amendments would permit — or in some cases, impose.

So there will be a lot of work to do in a hurry to protect some of the most disadvantaged — and too often disparaged — members of our community.

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4 Responses to Homeless DC Families Face Loss of Vital Legal Protections

  1. […] Proposed changes to city homeless policy will get D.C. Council hearing today (Poverty & Policy) […]

  2. […] now we’re seeing a more perplexing sluggishness in issuing vouchers that don’t have the drawbacks of the rapid re-housing […]

  3. […] also, he hinted, by resurrecting a coercive provisional shelter arrangement the Council rejected last year. Mayor Gray seems ready to give it another […]

  4. […] Mayor has, for all intents and purposes, resurrected a proposal the Council wisely rejected last year. He wants to institute provisional placements. This is what […]

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