DC Budget Should Fund Help With Disability Benefits Applications

March 31, 2014

The Fair Budget Coalition recommends, among many things, a $3.9 million increase for the District of Columbia’s Interim Disability Assistance program — a temporary income supplement for low-income residents with severe disabilities.

The increase would bring local funding for IDA to somewhat over $5.9 million — a significant increase, but still less in real dollars than the program had in Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010.

It would be enough, Fair Budget says, to provide benefits — a modest $270 a month — to 1,200 more disabled residents while they wait … and wait for the Social Security Administration to render decisions on their applications for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

If they’re successful, SSA pays their benefits retroactive to the day they applied, less what they received from the IDA program. That goes to the District, making the program partly self-sustaining.

The program could probably serve more residents with less local money if a larger number could obtain SSI benefits swiftly and/or the SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits some are entitled to.

As it is, the process is complex and, more often than not, successful only after appeals — sometimes several stages thereof. This is when applicants have attorneys or other experts who know how to write, document and argue a claim.

Ms. I, for example, worked for many years cleaning offices, hospitals and nursing homes. She eventually suffered from a variety of serious ailments, plus side effects from the medications she had to take. She applied for SSI and SSDI in February 2009. Nearly two years passed before her application was approved.

But at least she got those benefits. Less than a third of SSI applications are initially approved. All but 10% ultimately are when applicants have attorneys to represent them in the appeals process, according to a pro bono attorney who spoke at an IDA briefing last fall.

But, of course, not all applicants do have attorneys. They’re hard put to gather the required proof that they’re not only income-eligible, but too disabled “to do any substantial gainful activity” for some considerable period of time.

They can easily miss one of the deadlines in the appeals process — especially, Fair Budget notes, if they’re homeless and so don’t have a mailbox to check every day.

Other applicants may also find the demands especially formidable, e.g., people unable to work because they’re developmentally disabled or suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder.

Special barriers aside, many prospectively eligible applicants decide at some point that they’ve just had enough of the time-consuming process — and the frustration.

As one who didn’t remarked at the briefing, “Either SSI is fickle or it’s set up to make people give up.” Perhaps both. Judges apply the complex regulations arbitrarily, said another of the pro bono attorneys.

A splendid example from Bread for the City, whose attorneys persuaded a judge to overturn a ruling which held that a father was demonstrably able to work because he could care for his son, with help from his family and the community.

Well, there’s nothing the District can do about the way the Social Security Administration conducts its business or the unpredictable proclivities of judges.

But they help explain why the District recovers, on average, only about 40% of the money it spends on IDA benefits — a reason Mayor Gray has taken a dim view of the program.

And they suggest that one of the items on his last wish list, i.e., funding priorities if revenues were higher than projected, should be put into the budget itself, as Fair Budget recommends.

I’m referring to funding for services to help residents apply for SSI. They’d then know, insofar as anyone can, what records they need to collect. Also, one hopes, how to describe their disabling condition(s) so as to ping the SSA checklist. They’d get help with appointments, Fair Budget suggests — and those who need it, a mailing address.

The investment should lead to more and quicker approvals, thus moving beneficiaries out of the IDA program to make way for others.

At the same time, more approvals would boost the reimbursement rate. So the District could tide over more SSI applicants without commensurate budget increases. It might, in fact, no longer have a waiting list, which undermines the whole point of interim assistance.

As things stand now, the Department of Human Services has capped IDA “customers” at 1,000 for this fiscal year. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that it will actually serve 825 — about 30% as many as it served in Fiscal Year 2009.

I need hardly add, I hope, that it would be a whole lot better for low-income residents with severe disabilities to receive SSI benefits, low as they are, than the $270 a month IDA provides. SSA might find some eligible for SSDI, which could be even better for them.

Fair Budget recommends $580,000 for SSI application assistance — about 60% of what the Mayor put on his wish list. The ask seems to me very small. But at least it would get the program started — without, one hopes, compromises in quality.

If it proves effective, as a particular model for homeless people has, then the District will have home-grown results justifying an increase.


Gray Administration Finds More Effective Way to Divert Homeless Families From Shelter

March 3, 2014

Turns out the emergency isn’t such an emergency after all, so far as Mayor Gray is concerned. Two weeks ago, he wanted a quick vote on his emergency legislation to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act. Now he’s asked the DC Council to postpone it.

As I earlier wrote, the bill would authorize provisional placements, i.e., short-term shelter for homeless families while caseworkers try to find a friend or relative to foist them off on.

I’d like to say the Mayor’s request is altogether good news, but it isn’t because it means the administration has found another way to keep homeless families out of the shelter system — or get them out swiftly, perhaps at risk to their safety.

It is good news insofar as it eliminates the remote chance that the Council would hastily approve a proposal aimed at coercing homeless families into doubled-up situations — a high risk for becoming literally homeless again.

But the Mayor hasn’t withdrawn his bill — merely asked that the Council defer consideration. “We’re pressing the pause button,” the Mayor’s spokesperson says.

More disturbing is the reason the Mayor cited for the pause. Pressure on the shelter system is easing. The Department of Human Services needs more time to determine whether the emergency measure is “as urgently needed as previously believed.”

Hardly so urgent if the current trend continues. The number of newly homeless families seeking shelter has recently dropped by about 90%.

Ordinarily one would think that fewer families seeking shelter — and gaining it because they have no safe place to stay — is good news.

But these aren’t ordinary times. DHS is now sheltering newly-homeless families in recreation centers — on cots in big open spaces that were initially divided only by the sort of flimsy partitions the Red Cross throws up during a natural disaster.

An administrative law judge ruled that this violated the HSRA — as it surely does, since the law, honored more in the breach than the observance, requires “apartment-style” shelter units for families.

But the ruling applies only to the families for whom the complaint was filed. DHS is reportedly putting in sturdier partitions. The families, however, are still all in one big room. No real privacy, of course. Nor safety, since any adult in the center can just walk into their space.

And the families can stay in their space only at night. They have to pack up and leave first thing in the morning and can’t get back in until 9:00 at night — not even then unless they return to the intake center, as Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless recently testified.

And, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute adds, not unless it’s again freezing-cold outside. Otherwise, they may have no place that’s even marginally safe to spend the night.

Needless to say, I hope, working parents can’t return to the intake center over and over again without putting their jobs at risk. Parents who do return have to hang out someplace, with all their belongings and their kids, well into the evening.

So it should hardly surprise us that the number of new shelter placements has dropped precipitously — or that families in the rec centers are “finding other options on their own,” as DHS Director David Berns told the Interagency Council on Homelessness last week.

I’d guess these are mostly doubled-up arrangements like those the Mayor’s bill would constrain homeless families to agree to. As I said before, they’re inherently unstable — even if not a sequential couple of days here, couple of weeks there.

Others may be egregiously unsafe. We know that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women with children. We know that they often return to their abusers because they’ve nowhere else to go when the time they can spend in a shelter runs out.

Might some make the same choice if the only shelter for them and their kids is a partitioned-off nighttime space in a rec center?

In short, the rec center placements are a pernicious form of diversion. Berns seemingly felt he had no other option.

Spaces at the DC General family shelter weren’t opening up fast enough — in part because DHS couldn’t rapidly re-house as many families as it needed to.

All the low-cost motel rooms it had contracted for were full. It couldn’t find any more, Berns told his ICH colleagues. So he concluded, “We’re stuck.”

Maybe. But I can’t persuade myself that the Mayor couldn’t have unstuck the agency if he didn’t view diversion, by any means possible, as an appealing solution to what his chief of staff referred to as “a crisis of too many families in shelter.”

As Berensin pointed out, the Mayor found $9 million to gift housed District residents with new Supercans. For that, he could have provided hundreds of homeless families with locally-funded vouchers to subsidize market-based rents.

He could create vouchers for about 140 families* right now, using only the additional revenues the Chief Financial Officer recently projected for the current fiscal year.

Subsidizing housing would be a whole lot cheaper than sheltering the homeless families — and altogether better for them too, especially those the administration is warehousing in rec centers.

* This estimate is based on the average 2012 cost of a tenant-based voucher for a three-person family — the average size of families in shelter now. It may, therefore, be somewhat too high, though Berensin’s testimony suggests otherwise.


Aunt Suzy Is No Answer to DC Homeless Family Crisis

February 24, 2014

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.


What DC Could Do About the Homeless Family Crisis

February 12, 2014

As I said a couple of days ago, the District’s homeless family crisis has reached an unprecedented — and unforeseen — level. At the end of last month, the Department of Human Services was already sheltering about 100 more newly homeless families than were projected for the entire winter season.

DHS Director David Berns seems resigned to some sort of cataclysm. “I don’t see how we can continue at this rate,” he said during the recent hearing on the crisis — but also that he didn’t have “any fresh ideas.”

Some movers and shakers on the Interagency Council on Homelessness do have fresh ideas — mainly for how DHS could do what it’s been trying to do better. They’ve produced a multi-part strategy to address the crisis. It also identifies issues that must be swiftly resolved to prevent a recurrence.

The first part consists of immediate measures to speed up the rapid re-housing placement rate, e.g., more staff and other resources to identify and inspect affordable units, perhaps some sort of incentive for landlords so they’ll rent to families with short-term, iffy housing subsidies.

A second part identifies existing homelessness prevention and subsidized housing programs that should receive more funding so as to open up space in the DC General shelter for homeless families and thus reduce — or altogether eliminate — the use of hotels as a fallback.

Roughly 80% of the families would receive rapid re-housing subsidies, plus “help in identifying a longer-term affordable unit” and services “related to housing stability” and employment.

Permanent supportive housing would be made available to about 10%. The remaining 10% or so would receive emergency rental assistance, i.e., one-time help with a security deposit and first month’s rent, plus again help finding an affordable unit.

The percent allocations are based on results of assessments that two of the service providers have been conducting, using a research-based tool designed to match homeless families to the most appropriate types of aid.

Only 15% of the families thus far assessed have sought homeless services in the District again after a term in rapid re-housing, according to testimony by the Community of Hope’s Executive Director Kelly Sweeney McShane.

The Transitional Housing Corporation, which is also using the tool for assessments, has posted similar results for its rapid re-housing program.

I still can’t help wondering how a much larger number of homeless families will manage to pick up the rent — and keep paying it — or find a longer-term affordable unit when their subsidies expire, even if someone’s scouting the market for them.

So it’s good to note that the strategy also calls for a “community conversation” about the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s own version of federally-funded housing vouchers.

As Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless observed in her testimony, the District has, for some years, ignored the recommendations of the original Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.

These included 14,600 locally-funded housing vouchers by the beginning of the next decade. The current budget will support about 2,730.

We know the Gray administration doesn’t like these vouchers — at least, not those that enable low-income residents to pay market-rate rents. And both Berns and at least some members of the strategy-development group worry that homeless families will hunker down in shelter if they think they’ll eventually get one.

But if we really want to solve the homeless family crisis, I think the so-called tenant-based vouchers have to be part of the toolbox too. The strategy drafters may agree, since they acknowledge the need for vouchers and other “affordable housing supports.”

We’re also to engage in conversation about other matters, including a return to year round services for homeless families. This is now being framed as a preventive strategy, though basic human decency alone could justify it.

One reason for the current crisis, Berensin testified, is the decision DHS made several years ago to “close the front door to shelter” during the seven months outside the official winter season.

This, she said, creates a “pent up demand” by the time the first freezing-cold day arrives. And some families may by then have more severe problems — thus be less likely to rapidly recover their ability to pay for housing, assuming they ever had it.

The strategy also calls for the creation of a new ICH committee to monitor and improve the rapid re-housing process. It’s to be a very hands-on group and to have direct access to Berns when progress hinges on decisions he must make or runs into “roadblocks” he can clear.

Ultimately, however, as the strategy says, the homeless family crisis reflects problems that DHS alone can’t solve, e.g., the acute shortage of housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents, the divers disadvantages that keep them near or below the poverty line.

In this respect, the more than 1,000 newly homeless families DHS now projects for this winter season are canaries in the coal mine. The Mayor and his lead officials would do well to recognize this, instead of effectively blaming them for leaving doubled-up situations that they — and/or their hosts — know are untenable.


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