New Hope for Left Out Homeless Children and Youth

August 4, 2014

How many children and youth are homeless in our country? We still don’t know. What we do know is that many of them don’t qualify for programs and services funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bipartisan bills introduced in both the House and Senate aim to close this gap in the safety net. Whether they will fare better than earlier efforts to expand the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use remains to be seen.

What’s the Problem?

The U.S. Department of Education reports that well over 1.1 million homeless children and youth attended public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

But this is an under-count — in part because not all school districts reported data. Even those that did probably didn’t know how many homeless students they had because, for obvious reasons, homeless kids don’t always ask for help. Nor are they always easy for school personnel to identify.

And, of course, the reported number doesn’t include infants and toddlers — or all somewhat older preschoolers either, the National Associations for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports. Homeless youth who’ve dropped out of school or graduated aren’t in the tally either.

Only some fraction of homeless children and youth — counted and otherwise — can get into a shelter funded in whole or in part by HUD because they and their parents have some place else to stay and aren’t demonstrably at immediate risk of being out on the streets.

They’re surely at risk of having to find another accommodating friend or relative — in some reported cases, because the place they’re staying is unhealthful or unsafe. But even in the best of cases, they’ll be moving from one place to another. And we know that instability is bad for kids.

The families are also ineligible for the limited-term housing assistance that HUD’s grantees provide — and for the services that aim to improve their finances so they can afford market-rate rents.

The children and youth are, however, homeless under the part of the McKinney-Vento Act that applies to public education — hence the count cited above. They may also be homeless under other federal laws.

What the Bills Would Do

The bills address several major problems advocates have identified. The largest is the restrictive definition that bars so many homeless families from HUD-funded aid — unless and until they’re out on the streets or about to be.

First off, the bills would enable families to qualify if they stand to lose their housing within 30 days, instead of the current two weeks.

Second they would extend the definition of “homeless” to children and youth who are verified as such by administrators of seven federal programs, in addition to HUD’s.

So, for example, children and youth who are living doubled-up with friends or relatives or staying in a cheap motel would become eligible for HUD-funded services, as they already are for those public schools must provide.

A somewhat similar provision extends eligibility to families and unaccompanied youth who are certified by a public housing authority as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Communities wouldn’t have to make these newly-eligible homeless families and youth a priority. But they could do more for them than HUD rules now allow. The bills, in fact, prohibit the agency from giving priority to any homeless population in its decisions on grant awards.

HUD currently gives top priority to people who are chronically homeless, i.e., those who have a severe disability and have been spending their nights in a shelter or “a place not meant for human habitation” for at least a year or recurrently.

Obviously not conducive to extending services for families and unaccompanied youth who’ve been couch-surfing.

Lastly, the bills require HUD to make the results of the HMIS (homeless management information system) reports that grantees must submit available online to anyone who’s interested — and to Congress.

We wouldn’t, of course, see personally-identifiable information about clients. But we would have access to better data than the one-night counts provide because HUD would have to report cumulative HMIS figures.

So we’d have a better fix on the extent of the problem. Of course, we’d also need more funding to address it — and to do so without shorting the needs of homeless adults who don’t have children in their care.

First, however, we need more members of Congress signed on to the bills. Those of you who have voting representation in Congress have several opportunities to help, including a quick and easy e-mail. We who live in the District of Columbia can pass the word along.

 


DC Should Spend Some of BIG Surplus on Urgent Safety Net Needs

January 28, 2013

Tomorrow, the District’s Chief Financial Officer reportedly plans to release the results of the Fiscal Year 2012 audit. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, it will show a surplus of at least $140 million — maybe as much as $400 million.

Under current law, the entire surplus, no matter how large, must go into the fund balance — essentially, a savings account.

The DC Council passed the law in 2010, after several years of tapping reserves to make up for revenue drops during the recession.

The law might have made sense then, though I personally feel that such hand-tying measures are a poor substitute for responsible policymaking.

Sweeping the whole surplus into savings certainly doesn’t make sense now, when the Council has identified priorities to fund if the CFO projected higher revenues within the first three quarters of the year.

That he didn’t reflects his very conservative approach to ensuring budgets remain balanced — clearly seen in his accounts of potential impacts on the national economy.

He did nevertheless project a surplus close to $140 million at the end of the fiscal year.

As I said at the time, the Mayor could have asked the Council to pass a bill that would have freed up some of the surplus for items on the contingency revenue “wish list.”

The Fair Budget Coalition and grassroots supporters urged him to do this — and the Council to approve the request.

Nada. So as things stand now:

  • Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of more than 60 months will lose a portion of their meager cash benefits. For about 6,100, this will be a second cut.
  • At the same time, the TANF program won’t have as much as it needs for job training, counseling and other services that could help some of these families “graduate” from welfare to work.
  • The Department of Human Services could face a shortfall of at least $7 million for homeless services. And even if it got that, it will again start denying shelter to homeless families when the winter season officially ends — unless it gets more than is needed to plug the identified budget gap.
  • Meanwhile, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the main source of local budget support for affordable housing construction and preservation — will remain shy $20 million. So there’ll be minimal new funding for long-term housing solutions to homelessness.
  • And as if this weren’t enough, I’m told that homeless youth could have an even harder time getting shelter and services when they need them, due to recent agency contract changes.

The Mayor and Council could meet all these needs and still have a stash to add to the burgeoning fund balance — already $1.1 billion by the end of 2011.

All that’s needed is a reset of what seem to be some skewed priorities — or perhaps a thoughtless adherence to a commitment made when the District’s financial affairs were quite different.

Or perhaps only a preoccupation with other things, e.g., how Councilmembers would be accommodated during the inauguration.

Whatever explains the inaction thus far, another surge of grassroots pressure could persuade our decision-makers to do the right thing.

The Fair Budget Coalition has an editable letter we can send them.

UPDATE: The CFO reported a surplus of $417 million. The Mayor intends to bank it all, increasing reserves to $1.5 billion. He’s indicated that he might see his way clear to making some investments in social programs (unnamed) if revenue projections for the current fiscal year are revised upward.


Food Stamp Benefits Will Drop 10 Percent If Congress Doesn’t Undo Cuts

January 23, 2012

As many of you probably know, the Recovery Act increased the maximum food stamp benefit by 13.6%. For a family of four, this has meant as much as $80 a month more for groceries.

The boost was originally supposed to last until the increase was no greater than the cumulative annual increases in food price inflation. That was expected to happen no sooner than some time late in 2018.

Then came the need to extend two expiring parts of the Recovery Act that provided states with some urgently-needed fiscal relief. The bill couldn’t get through the Senate without a pay-for, i.e., some budget changes that would fully offset the costs.

The Democratic leadership ultimately decided to offset nearly half the costs by moving the end date for the food stamp boost back to April 2014.

Next things you know, there was a need to pay for the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act. And the Senate decided again to tap food stamp benefits. This time it lopped five months off the already-foreshortened boost.

The President’s proposed budget for this fiscal year would have put the five months back. But his budget was effectively dead on arrival in Congress.

So as things stand now, food stamp benefits will revert to what they’d have been if adjusted only for inflation in November 2013.

The Congressional Research Service estimates the initial per person loss at somewhere between $10 and $15 a month — an average of about 10%.

This might not seem like a lot. But as I’ve written before, food stamp benefits are egregiously low, even with the boost.

We’ve got new evidence from the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself.

In 2010, it reports, 41.5% of households that got food stamp benefits had “very low food security.” This means that at least one member of the household sometimes had to skimp on meals or skip them altogether because there wasn’t enough money for food.

Now low-income families may have to get along on considerably less. And our anemic economy may lose the biggest bang-for-the-buck stimulus we’ve got.

The Food Research and Action Center has launched a grassroots campaign to get the cut-off months restored, along with a now-expired suspension of a targeted time limit on food stamp benefits.

It has an online letter we can send to the President asking him to restore the two Recovery Act measures as part of his proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

It also encourages us to weigh in with our Members of Congress.

Not much use if we live in the District of Columbia. But we disenfranchised souls can still do our bit by passing the word along to friends and relatives who live anywhere else in the U.S.


Home Care Workers Denied Basic Wage Rights

July 24, 2011

My sister died just the way she wanted to. At home, with her bed near the window so that she could look out and watch her cats playing.

This was possible only because she had 24/7 home health care, provided by a quiet, caring, capable aide.

Most people who receive home care aren’t in the last stages of a fatal disease. Some are like my guest blogger Laura and her brother, whose disabilities would make it unsafe for them to be home alone.

Most, however, are elderly people who need some variable mix of services to continue living independently. My mother-in-law, for example, is able to contentedly “age in place” because a home health aide comes in to help with housekeeping, grocery shopping and the like.

All told, more than 10.3 million Americans need some form of long-term care. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services expects the number to rise to 27 million by 2050.

Will enough qualified care workers be available to serve the many millions who’ll be best off at home? Doubtful unless some major policy changes are made.

Here’s the first — and to me a shocker. Home care workers* are, at this point, exempt from federal minimum wage and overtime requirements.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia provide some coverage under their own wage laws. Here in the District, as in five of these states, only the minimum wage is required — not the overtime rate.

As the National Employment Law Project explains, the federal exemptions reflect an over-broad interpretation of a carve-out Congress made when it extended coverage under the Fair Labor Standards Act to domestic workers.

NELP recommends two related regulatory fixes. No Congressional action required — thank heavens! There is, however, a bill pending in Congress that would force the Labor Department to act.

In 2009, the average home care worker wage was $9.34 an hour. The average annual wage would thus have been $20,283, assuming full-time, year-round work and no overtime. Barely enough to lift a family of three above the federal poverty line.

But PHI, which advocates for long-term care workers, tells us that a large percentage work only part-time or for part of the year. Average annual earnings were thus $16,800.

As a result, 46% are poor enough to qualify for benefits like food stamps and Medicaid. Sadly ironic when so many of them indirectly get their wages from Medicaid.

Needless to say, morale is low and turnover high — an estimated 50%-80% a year.

Clients who need stability have to continually adjust to new caregivers — and new caregivers to them.

Employers incur ongoing recruitment and training costs. A vicious cycle here since the more they spend due to turnover, the less they’re ready to invest in turnover-reducing wages.

And, of course, some of the best potential candidates look elsewhere from the get-go.

Still, that average hourly wage is more than the minimum the FLSA requires. And the fixes NELP recommends wouldn’t compel states with higher minimums to cover home care workers.

So what would a more appropriate federal rule achieve? Some important things, I think.

First and foremost, it would entitle all home care workers to the same base-level hourly rates as the vast majority of other workers in the country. This would mean, among other things, that they’d be paid for time spent traveling from one client to the next — and, of course, time-and-a-half for extra long hours.

It would also formally recognize home care work as a genuine paraprofessional occupation — one that entails far more than providing some “companionship” to elderly and disabled people.

These two changes would help ensure a sufficient supply of well-trained, experienced home care workers — the sort we’d want for ourselves and our family members.

Emphasis here on “help” because the FLSA rule change is, as logicians say, necessary but not sufficient. It would, however, rectify what seems a clear case of economic injustice.

There are currently about 1.7 million home care workers in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects 2.5 million by 2018. That’s an awful lot of hard-working people to leave at risk of poverty.

If you agree, you’ve got a chance to weigh in right now.

The Department of Labor is holding two call-in “listening sessions” on the home care exemption. They’re scheduled for Monday, July 25 and Wednesday, July 27, both 4:00-5:00 EST. Call-in number and passcode here.

* Home care workers belong to one of two occupational categories in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ classification system — home health aides and personal care aides. This issue brief from PHI details duties and distinctions.


Why Medicaid Matters, By A Young Blogger Who Knows

July 5, 2011

I found this posting on Laura’s Life and asked to cross-post it because it truly does tell us, as its title says, why Medicaid matters.

Laura is a fifth grader at a middle school in Zionsville, Indiana — “the middle of nowhere,” as she says. She’s been blogging since October 2009 about the many, many books she reads. You can learn more about this extraordinary guest blogger here.

I usually blog about books and things related to books. But because some of you have sort of gotten to know me and care about what happens in my life, I decided to interrupt my blog and write about something really important going on in my life right now.

Next Thursday, July 7th, I am going to the White House. My mom is meeting with administration officials to talk about Medicaid and why it matters to us and our family.

You might be surprised how much it matters to me. My parents have health insurance for our family from their jobs, but it is not enough to cover the costs and needs that come with Mitochondrial Disease.

Without Medicaid, I wouldn’t have this blog because I wouldn’t have a computer or books of my own. My family would have declared bankruptcy years ago. I wouldn’t have my scooter to get around. I would have a cheap manual wheelchair, so I wouldn’t be independent.

My parents wouldn’t be able to work as much or volunteer because we would lose access to the health aide that takes care of Matthew and me when my parents can’t because we can’t stay home alone with our medical issues like our peers do.

My dad would have never gotten his government positions because we would need him to push wheelchairs so Matthew and I could do something.

My life would be completely different.

I can’t believe some policymakers thought they could do away with Medicaid waivers and it would all be okay. All the different kinds of Medicaid that exist exist for a reason. Doing away with any of them would significantly impact lives.

And it is better for everyone that Medicaid exists because without my Medicaid waiver, my parents wouldn’t be able to do as much as they do for the community.

So I am going with my mom because this matters to me and kids like me.

You can help too! Please call and email both of your Senators and your Representative. Let them know how important Medicaid is. You can tell them how it matters to your friend Laura!


Speak Out For The True Conservative Position On Deficit Reduction

June 29, 2011

It’s time for those of us who care about the needs of low-income people to advocate a conservative position.

As you probably know, programs that serve these needs are at high risk as the President seeks to forge a compromise that will avert a default on the federal debt.

The Republicans are demanding at least $2 trillion in spending cuts, along with “reforms” in Medicare — maybe other so-called entitlements too.

They’ve said they won’t accept tax increases of any sort, betting that the President and other Democrats at the table will cave to avert an unprecedented economic crisis — even if it means throwing poor people under the bus.

It’s hard to imagine a spending-cut-only plan in the trillions that wouldn’t.

There’s nothing conservative about this. It’s a radical departure from a long-standing consensus that deficit reduction plans should, at the very least, protect programs for low-income people.

All the deficit reduction plans passed in the last 25 years did. Several of them actually strengthened anti-poverty measures, e.g., by expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit. The Children’s Health Insurance Program came into being as part of the Clinton era Balanced Budget Act.

Even President Obama’s deficit hawkish fiscal commission adopted, as a guiding principle, “protect the truly disadvantaged.”

The true conservative position is thus to conserve programs that mitigate poverty and offer low-income people opportunities for a better life.

The programs need to be protected from specific near-term budget cuts and also from any automatic cuts that would be triggered if Congress fails to achieve some as-yet undetermined deficit or debt reduction targets in the future.

Leaders of major national faith-based, civil rights, charitable, economic research and advocacy organizations have written the President, the Vice President and the Congressional leaders of both parties urging them to “honor the precedent set by previous deficit reduction negotiations.”

The Coalition on Human Needs tells us that we need to join our voices to theirs. The stakes are alarmingly high and the clock is ticking.

Here are two quick, easy ways to let the President know that we want him to stand firm for the conservative principles of past deficit reduction plans — protection for programs that serve low-income people and revenue raisers that will help make the total package balanced and fair.

We can leave a message on the White House comment line. The toll-free number is 888-245-0215.

We can also use this editable e-mail provided by the Half in Ten campaign.


Proposed DC Budget Would Gut Affordable Housing Programs

May 2, 2011

Seems that Mayor Gray has decided that the District of Columbia should get out of the affordable housing business.

Hard to see how else one can interpret the end results of the proposed cuts and related policy changes the DC Fiscal Policy Institute details in its brief on the proposed Fiscal Year 2012 affordable housing budget.

The affordable housing budget, if one can call it that, is hard to get one’s mind around — three different housing agencies, a number of programs designed for different purposes and, to some extent, different segments of the population.

And there’s housing in the homeless services and mental health budgets too.

Brief overview of the biggest issues, as I understand them.

Housing Production Trust Fund

The mayor’s proposed budget would siphon $18 million out of the Housing Production Trust Fund as a substitute for the customary separate appropriation for the Local Rent Supplement Program.

The $18 million cut wouldn’t be a one-time thing. The same amount would be transferred — though not necessarily to LRSP — every year until at least 2015.

The Trust Fund is a major source of local funding for affordable housing construction and preservation. It’s the most flexible tool we’ve got.

Developers can use Trust Fund commitments together with other public sources, including certain types of LRSP vouchers, to show private lenders that their projects are credit-worthy. The Trust Fund can also provide critical time-sensitive grants and loans that enable tenants to purchase the buildings they live in.

The Trust Fund gets a percentage of revenues from the deed transfer and recordation taxes that buyers and sellers pay when properties in the District change hands. So it’s been cash-short ever since the local housing market cooled a couple of years ago. As a result, lots of approved projects in the pipeline have stalled.

But the market’s on an upswing again. So some of these projects could move forward if the revenues earmarked for the Trust Fund were left where they belong. With the proposed transfer, the Fund would instead have $1 million less next year.

Only $8.9 million would be available for the Fund’s core purposes. It will have to use increasing amounts of its total revenues for debt service on bonds. So what’s left for core purposes will shrink over time. Only $4.8 million will remain in 2015.

Local Rent Supplement Program

The transferred funds would not sustain LRSP. Far from it.

The mayor’s proposal would phase out the tenant-based vouchers that are part of the program. These are the vouchers that recipients (all very low-income) can use to help pay market-based rents on any approved unit in the District.

The District would continue to subsidize rents for current voucher holders. But as households left the program, their vouchers would effectively disappear. So another major affordable housing tool would continuously shrink.

LRSP also provides vouchers that are attached to units in affordable housing developments. Like the tenant-based vouchers, they’re supposed to make rental housing affordable for a range of very-low income residents. And indeed, they do.

But the mayor wants to use all vacant LRSP units for the District’s permanent supportive housing program — a key part of the Department of Human Services’ homelessness strategy.

Though PSH is affordable housing, it’s only for individuals and families who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently due, at least in part, to severe challenges like mental illness and/or substance abuse.

So another fund shift — or the equivalent. And another case where a tool that was serving a particular purpose gets used for another.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, the shifts would drastically curtail the District’s efforts to ensure that low-income individuals and families can afford to be part of this “one city” the major has promised.

And dollars to doughnuts, they’d put more pressures on the under-funded homeless services budget too.

What Now?

It’s up to the DC Council now to restore the funds the mayor’s budget cuts.

The Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development and allies in its Continuum of Housing Campaign have organized a rally to urge this. We’re asked to show up at the John A. Wilson building tomorrow, May 3 at 6:00 p.m., just before the last of three back-to-back hearings on Fiscal Year 2012 budgets for D.C. Housing Agencies.


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