Aunt Suzy Is No Answer to DC Homeless Family Crisis

As expected, Mayor Gray has asked the DC Council to pass proposed changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act as emergency legislation, i.e., on a single vote instead of the usual two and without a public hearing.

There’s an emergency all right. Nearly 750 families are in the DC General shelter or in cheap motels because they had no safe place to stay when it was freezing cold outside — the only time the District will grant families shelter now.

Gray’s chief of staff nevertheless says that those of us talking of a homeless family crisis are wrong. The crisis is simply “too many families in shelters.”

So the administration plans to keep them out, “even if that means living with a grandmother, a sister, whatever.” Even if that means, as it frequently will, creating another crisis for the homeless family.

The 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 the Mayor’s plan means by taking “advantage of all opportunities to keep families in their communities.”

Now, doesn’t that sound better than giving families a choice of sleeping on Aunt Suzy’s floor for the weekend or in a Metro station?

I’d intended to run through all the things wrong with the provisional placement proposal, but lead advocates beat me to it. And did a better job than I would have.

So I suggest you read the assessment of the Mayor’s plan by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Policy Director Jenny Reed and Policy Analyst Kate Coventry and the Huffington Post column by Patty Mullahy Fugere, Executive Director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

These responses are all the more important because the Mayor misleadingly claims that his emergency legislation is “part of a comprehensive new strategy developed in partnership with many of the District’s homeless advocates and service providers.”

Two parts of the plan, which is far from comprehensive, do reflect recommendations in the advocate-service provider strategy I recently wrote about. I understand that some of the authors have been talking with the Department of Human Services about how to implement them.

But there’s nothing in the strategy that could be construed as recommending provisional placements aimed at coercing homeless families into doubled-up situations.

Fundamentally, that’s because they don’t, as the Mayor claims, increase families’ “chances for stability.” Quite the contrary. They’re inherently unstable — and thus a major risk factor for future homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

We don’t need data to know this, though we do have them. Consider Aunt Suzy, the mythical relative my husband Jesse and I refer to when we talk about provisional placements.

She’s used to living alone and somewhat set in her ways. So she and her homeless niece start bickering about one thing and another. She gets tired of having kids running around — or crying in the middle of the night. She misses her privacy — and use of her living room for something other than a makeshift sleeping space.

And this assumes she’d welcomed the family for an indefinite stay. The Mayor’s bill would authorize an “alternative housing arrangement” far more unstable than this.

An arrangement DHS would have the “flexibility” to impose could be no more than a weekend with Aunt Suzy — followed perhaps, the DCFPI analysts suggest, by a couple of days with someone else. Yet a family would have no choice but to accept the arrangement or fend for itself on the streets.

Families couldn’t return to shelter — even provisionally — unless it was freezing cold outside. And those placed with friends or relatives in public housing will probably be on the streets in April.

This is because the Mayor’s plan takes a stab at addressing advocates’ concerns that doubled-up arrangements could violate leases and thus put hosts at risk of eviction.

But all it does is relax the occupancy rules in public housing (not Aunt Suzy’s duplex because it couldn’t) until the winter season ends. At that point, shelter doors will again close to families and remain closed until November.

The bottom line here is that the Gray administration has a serious problem. And it’s trying to solve it in part by shirking responsibility for the well-being of vulnerable District residents.

Note, the homeless families are residents or they wouldn’t have passed the initial screening Fugere mentions. The Maryland and Virginia families who’re supposedly overwhelming our shelter system are as mythical as Aunt Suzy.

The D.C. families the Mayor wants to put in provisional placements have been evicted — even perhaps from a doubled-up situation. Or they’ve had to flee from an abuser or housing that was unsafe for some other reason.

So they’ve already experienced an upheaval. The end of a provisional placement — no more than two weeks from the time it began — creates another. The sort of alternative housing arrangement that Gray and his people have in mind sets them up for another.

And for the possibility of living in “places not meant for human habitation,” as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development puts it, until the next freezing-cold day, when the cycle will begin again.

Research tells us that emotional and behavioral problems resulting from the stress of constant change are among the many negative effects of homelessness on children. This is partly because constant upheaval and uncertainty cause stress for parents too.

Rolled together, they help explain why homeless children often fall behind in school. So does having no place to do homework except in Aunt Suzy’s crowded living room — or a train station.

You’d think the Mayor, who truly does want those standardized test scores to rise, would care about this. Not, however, apparently as much as diverting homeless families from shelter — and getting them out of the news.

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3 Responses to Aunt Suzy Is No Answer to DC Homeless Family Crisis

  1. […] Evaluating the Gray plan for solving the family homelessness crisis (DCFPI,┬áPoverty & Policy,┬áDCist) […]

  2. […] Edit – Aunt Suzy Is No Answer to DC Homeless Family Crisis […]

  3. […] I earlier wrote, the bill would authorize provisional placements, i.e., short-term shelter for homeless families […]

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