DC Gets a Barely Passing Grade for Homeless Family Services

December 10, 2014

Last spring, a coalition of advocates and service providers developed a “roadmap” for preventing another wintertime homeless family crisis in the District of Columbia. Now, as a new winter season opens, it’s issued a report card, indicating how much progress the District has made toward the 10 goals the roadmap set.

Not the sort of report card you’d like to take home to your parents. Virtually all Cs, meaning the District has taken steps toward the goals, but too recently for the coalition to decide whether they’ll result in significant progress.

Two Ds, meaning no significant progress — or, one infers, much by way of promising steps. And a single B, for homelessness prevention. That seems pretty generous to me, since the progress described has thus far not resulted in an “up and running program.”

Like the original roadmap, the report card reflects a lot of effort to gather, assess and communicate information about the District’s homeless family services. Highly recommended reading for all concerned. I’ll confine myself here to the big picture, as I see it.

Not Enough Shelter Units (Again)

As you may recall, the Department of Human Services was overwhelmed last winter by homeless families it couldn’t legally turn away because they’d sought shelter during freezing-cold weather.

One, though not the only problem was that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, was nearly full when the winter season began. The roadmap recommended both a plan and additional staff to move at least 100 families a month from shelter into housing so as to open up space for more.

DHS has managed to increase the rate to 63 families a month — not enough to have significantly more vacant units at DC General when this year’s winter season began. To its credit, it has contracted for hotel rooms. But there was no money in the budget for them.

The agency plans to use funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — an estimated $8.5 million, I’m told. Hard to see how this won’t mean cutbacks in programs and/or services those TANF funds would otherwise support.

At the same time, as I’ve written before, the Gray administration has proposed a plan (of sorts) to replace DC General with smaller shelters. The total number of units would remain the same.

So there’d probably still be fewer units than homeless families entitled to shelter during the winter season — and surely too few for the District to once again keep the shelter doors open year round for families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

More Affordable Housing, But Mostly Temporary

On the upside, the District has invested funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing, including apartments big enough for larger families. And the DC Council has approved more funds for vouchers that enable homeless families to rent at market rates.

But the District’s strategy relies heavily on rapid re-housing, i.e., short-term housing subsidies, renewable for up to a year, provided that families measure up to expectations.

DHS has still not issued final rules for the program. And the theoretically temporary rules it issued in late June raise serious concerns — among them, the share of rent families have to pay, both initially and during renewal periods.

The rules are also highly ambiguous about whether families can get an extension of their subsidy if they can’t afford to pay full rent at the end of the year — a likely possibility for many, I’ve suggested.

DHS could, at the very least, enable nonprofit partners to provide some services and/or rental assistance to families that seem likely to become homeless again. But it hasn’t even explored the possibilities, the report card says.

One Small Step for Young Families

More than 40% of the families sheltered last winter were headed by parents who were, at most, 24 years old. Needless to say (I hope), they had very little, if any work experience. Many, the report card says, had neither a high school diploma or the equivalent — a high predictor of unemployment, even for older District residents.

Like as not, the young parents had never rented an apartment. Some probably had just aged out of foster care, since that’s a high risk for homelessness.

They often don’t have ongoing family support or other concerned adults to help with the challenges of housing, credit and the like. The same, of course, can be true for young mothers who were kicked out — or harassed out — of their homes when their parent(s) found out they were pregnant.

These are not the sort of families that rapid re-housing was designed for. Nor the sort of families that the needs assessment tool DHS relies on was designed for. The roadmap, therefore, called for reviews of the tool, the case management system and rapid re-housing itself to ensure they’re suitable for young families.

DHS has launched a small pilot program, which offers the fortunate participants more intensive services and potentially rental assistance for more than a year.

It’s not clear whether the agency can expand the program, the report card says. Nor is it clear whether DHS has reviewed — let alone modified — the tool or case management services.

Much Else Unclear

Families first encounter the District’s homeless system at the Virginia Williams intake center. Caseworkers there still have no written protocol to tell them how to decide whether to grant a family shelter. Nor, therefore, do we know how decisions are made — only that some indicate ignorance (or casual disregard) of the law.

That’s far from all we don’t know. For example, the District doesn’t release information on services families receive while they’re at DC General. More generally, it either doesn’t have or won’t release data that would enable us to determine how key elements of its homeless system are working — apparently more the former than the latter.

Part of the problem, the report card says, is that DHS contracts out much of homeless services to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. And the Partnership doesn’t deign — and isn’t required — to publicly report how it spends the funds it gets or what they achieve.

Thus, as the report card says, “it is impossible to determine if the District has allocated sufficient funding to meet the need and if programs are performing as well as they should be.”

Impossible for the roadmap coalition, which so clearly wants to help create a humane, effective system that prevents homelessness, when possible, affords shelter when that isn’t and then helps families move quickly to a safe, stable home.

Impossible for our policymakers as well. But they can make the egregiously opaque system more transparent. This ought to be a first order of business for the new administration and the new chair of the Council’s Human Services Committee.


How Should We Make Sure That Homeless People Don’t Go Hungry?

November 17, 2014

This is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, an annual event scheduled to take advantage of the fact that we’re thinking about what we’re thankful for — and about food.

I’m going to take advantage of it here by pondering an issue that the National Coalition for the Homeless, which cosponsors the week, raises in its latest report on the “criminalization of food sharing.”

“Food sharing” refers to distributing food to homeless people, usually outdoors. A growing number of local laws “criminalize” it, NCH says, by imposing restrictions of several major sorts. They’re based on “unjust stereotypes and biases that victimize people experiencing homelessness,” it contends.

Perhaps or perhaps not, as I’ll attempt to show further on. But first a look at the number and types of restrictions NCH finds so objectionable.

Cities That Restrict Food Sharing

NCH doesn’t actually tell us how many cities restrict food sharing. It instead identifies 17 that adopted such restrictions in the last year and a half and lists 12 more that it found too late to fold into the report. Fort Lauderdale recently joined them — and promptly became notorious for acting against the 90-year-old head of a street ministry.

Community pressures “have pushed food-sharing out of populated areas,” e.g., public spaces, in at least four other cities, NCH says. So that makes a minimum of 34 cities that, in its view, have recently engaged in new hostile acts against food sharing.

Types of Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH identifies two major types of food-sharing restrictions, not counting community pressures that programs have felt constrained to respond to.

The first type limits uses of public property, mostly by requiring permits. Some of them are dauntingly costly for individuals and groups who want to share food on a regular basis. Lots of red tape too.

The second type requires food sharers to comply with food safety regulations, e.g., to get a food handler’s certification or to prepare hot meals only in approved locations (presumably those that have passed some sort of inspection).

Arguments Against Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH and the volunteers it quotes clearly believe that anyone should be able to feed homeless people pretty much wherever and whenever they choose. After all, homeless people need to eat. And a free meal served where they tend to congregate is a whole lot safer and healthier than dumpster diving.

Some faith-based organizations view food-sharing restrictions as a violation of their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious duty to feed the hungry. Two courts have agreed.

Professor Baylen Linnekin, who’s also executive director of the libertarian Keep Food Legal Foundation, argues that food-sharing restrictions are discriminatory, as well as unconstitutional on other grounds because they apply only to sharing food with people who don’t sleep with a roof over their heads.

Arguments for (Some) Food-Sharing Restrictions

Cities regulate uses of public spaces for all sorts of reasons — safety, equal access, sanitation, etc. It’s not clear why food-sharing programs should get a free pass when the result can be blocked sidewalks or a park that’s littered with garbage, which serves as a feeding program of sorts for rats.

Property use rules can, of course, be targeted specifically to deter food sharing. The new Fort Lauderdale ordinance, for example, requires outdoor feeding programs to provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations. But it seems a stretch to label every new rule that affects a food-sharing program as an effort to criminalize its activities.

Ditto for requiring programs that feed homeless people to observe basic food safety precautions. Mark Horvath, the genius behind Invisible People and a formerly homeless person, argues that homeless people should have the same assurance of food that’s “healthy and inspected” as the rest of us do.

Beyond this, Horvath believes that feeding homeless people on the streets or in a park can discourage them from going to a nonprofit that will not only feed them, but provide or connect them to other services — and thus end their homelessness. He’s not the only one.

NCH calls the notion that food sharing enables homeless people to remain homeless a myth. They’re homeless, it says, for reasons that have nothing to do with choice, e.g., mental health problems, physical disabilities, lack of affordable housing and/or job opportunities.

But they’re not going to get help with any of these from an outdoor food-sharing program that’s not coordinated with anything else.

Beyond Food Sharing

Horvath suggests that those of us who want homeless people to have enough to eat should donate our time and/or money to a local service provider, though he’s willing to allow that we can feed people in a park so long as we’re also doing something to get them out of it — not, of course, by advocating for local laws that “criminalize” their being there.

NCH itself recognizes that the sort of food-sharing programs it believes local authorities are unjustly targeting don’t solve the problems of hunger and homelessness — or even hunger among homeless people.

It recommends outreach and caseworker support to help homeless people enroll in federal nutrition programs like SNAP (the food stamp program). It recommends more federal funding for them, as well as for food sharing and for organizations that provide food for homeless people in other ways (lots of luck!).

It also recommends changes in federal law to eliminate barriers to SNAP participation, i.e., work requirements, the lifetime bans some states still impose on people who’ve been convicted of drug-related felonies (lots of luck, again).

Setting aside the high improbability of friendlier federal nutrition policies, an approach that coordinates feeding with other forms of help does seem preferable to free-standing, outdoor food-sharing programs.

Yet not all homeless people want to go someplace where they can eat indoors, as NCH Director of Community Organizing Michael Stoops says. Nor apparently do they all respond to caseworkers who go to where they are.

DC Central Kitchen, whose mobile breakfast program NCH approvingly cited in its previous food-sharing report, says it’s piloting something different because “the vast majority of our clients were content to receive a free daily meal without engaging in any meaningful way with our outreach workers.”

But it hopes some other nonprofit will fill the gap. Better fed than dead of malnutrition, one might say — or than driven to desperate acts.

Hard, I think, to decide where we who worry about both hunger and homelessness should net out.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I discovered another significant voice in the food-sharing debate. It’s a fierce response by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to an NPR interview with a prominent consultant who opposes outdoor feeding programs. The coalition focuses specifically on church groups, but most of the issues it raises are more generally applicable.

 

 


DC General Closing Plan Won’t Shelter All Homeless Families at Risk of Harm

November 13, 2014

I’ve been feeling I should say something about the Gray administration’s plan for closing the DC family shelter ever since it saw the light of day a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t because I’ve had trouble getting my mind around it.

Not altogether my fault. The plan, you see, isn’t really a plan. It’s more like a working paper — or a statement of preferences perhaps. These are certainly clear enough. But whether the next administration can translate them into a reality is at the very least questionable.

And in a couple of respects, I hope it doesn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the major issues, as I see them.

Should DC General Be Closed?

A rhetorical question. No one, I venture to say, thinks that DC General is an okay place for children and their parents to live, even temporarily. It’s too big — a “small city” Councilmember Graham called it.

It was never fully converted from the hospital it used to be — apparently because no one wanted to acknowledge that it was the replacement for the then-notorious shelter the former mayor felt pressed to close in 2007.

Its basic systems are seemingly beyond redemption — frequent heat and air conditioning outages, no hot water for long periods of time, elevators that break down — or in one recent case, get flooded. And the place is persistently infested by mice, roaches, bed bugs and the like. Moldy too.

In short, it’s shameful that a child would have to go missing to get District officials serious about closing DC General.

Where Would the District Shelter Homeless Families?

The Gray administration envisions smaller shelters scattered across the city. They would have to include play spaces for children and be near to public transportation and “community amenities [undefined].”

The administration would prefer buildings leased from private landlords because, it says, this option would be quicker and cheaper than renovating publicly-owned buildings or constructing shelters on publicly-owned land.

The latter would also require the District to pay for ongoing operating costs, e.g., utilities, maintenance. The preferred option would make private landlords responsible for these, as well as security systems, furniture and whatever renovations their buildings require.

Ideally, each building would have 40-50 units, though the plan allows as how some larger shelters might be okay. For the smaller shelters, it projects a $2,000 per month cost.

Now, why would an owner of a potentially suitable building in any of our high-rent, high-demand neighborhoods agree to lease it for a minimum of 10 years at a rate this low — or anything close?

And if one did, wouldn’t the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces “come out of the woodwork,” as the Director of the General Services Department has predicted? One recalls what happened when the District considered putting a smaller shelter in soon-to-be Mayor Bowser’s ward.

So, says Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper, the “available candidates” will instead probably be “boarded-up properties” in low-income neighborhoods on “the city’s margins” — far less convenient to public transportation and “amenities” than DC General.

What Would a Unit Be?

Well, I’ll tell you what it wouldn’t necessarily be — an “apartment-style” unit, which the District’s homeless services law requires for families, except when no such unit is available.

The Gray administration interprets this limited exemption to mean that shelter units the District has yet to lease or build don’t have to include a bathroom for each family or any place to prepare a meal. They apparently may be just a single room, where parents and children must sleep together — just as they must at DC General.

How Many Homeless Families Would Have Shelter?

The Gray administration wants the replacement shelters to have, in total, the number of units currently provided at DC General — and to close the shelter in one fell swoop “so as to avoid an unplanned shelter expansion.”

It’s not altogether clear how many replacement units there’d be, since the Department of Human Services has concluded that 40 or so units at DC General don’t meet the (minimal) criteria the court established when it ordered the agency to stop “sheltering” families in recreation centers.

What is clear is that there won’t be nearly enough replacement units unless the number of families needing shelter miraculously plummets — or the homeless prevention and rapid exit strategies the Winter Plan promises miraculously work much better than they’ve done to date.

The plan isn’t short on units because providing enough to meet the need would cost more than the District could afford. It’s “a clear philosophical stance,” says the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.

And it’s based on a truly appalling ignorance — or worse — of what happens to homeless families when the District won’t provide them a safe place to stay. Senior policy advisor Sakina Thompson, who wanted even fewer units, says, “During the summertime, when shelter is not available, families find other means.”

Indeed, they do. They walk the streets looking for someone to take them in for awhile. They sleep in cars, if they have them, or at bus stops or on a church floor. They take refuge in a laundromat. Some presumably return to the abusers they’ve fled.

Whatever “other means” they find, they’re likely to have more and/or worse problems when the District must finally shelter them than they had when they become homeless.

Not so long ago, the District provided shelter year round to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will have to decide whether to move forward with a plan that would intentionally replicate the crises that Gray and his people have used to justify barring the shelter doors, except when it’s freezing outside.

I’m hoping for a more compassionate — and policy-smart — philosophical stance.

 


Nearly a Third Fewer Veterans Homeless: Smart Spending Works

November 10, 2014

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reported a slight decline in the number of homeless people nationwide — 2.3% fewer than in 2013.

One can quarrel with the figure. And four major advocacy organizations have, arguing, among other things, that the definition of “homeless” that communities must use for their counts excludes a very large number of people, including youth and families with children.

More reliable, I think, are figures showing a marked drop in the number of homeless veterans — 10.5% fewer than in 2013 and 32.6% than in 2009. No other group the one-night counts break out experienced anything close.

Even in the District of Columbia, where the total number of homeless people increased by nearly 13% — and the number of homeless families by more than 25% — the number of homeless veterans ticked down. And it had plummeted by 42% since 2009.

Two cities claim they’ve ended chronic homelessness for veterans. And recent figures reportedly indicate that the District is about a third of the way toward ending it for all veterans by the end of 2015 — the goal Mayor Gray and at least 224 of his counterparts adopted from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.

USICH made ending veteran homelessness a first order of business for the federal agencies it includes — and by extension, state and local governments, nonprofits and others in the private sector.

And what the results tell us, I think, is that sometimes throwing money at a problem goes a long way toward solving it.

HUD has used dedicated funding to provide about 68,000* housing vouchers to local public housing agencies since 2008. Congress has appropriated $75 million for these vouchers every year, but one since Fiscal Year 2009 — and apparently is set to do so again.

The PHAs must have a local healthcare center nearby to provide case management and other services. These are funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

No separate line item in the budget for these, but the account VA draws on is said to be “generally robustly funded.” And indeed, the Secretary recently invited nonprofits to apply for a total of $93 million in grants.

So the jointly-funded program represents a quite large federal investment in permanent housing, with supportive services for homeless veterans — mostly those qualifying as chronically homeless.

HUD attributes the marked decline in veteran homelessness mainly to this program. And it seems reasonable to believe that the long-term decline in chronic homelessness is related — 30% fewer individuals since 2007.

Yet USICH had to push back its goal for ending chronic homelessness because, says its executive director, “[W]e haven’t been willing to invest $300 million to create the affordable housing that’s needed.” She’s apparently referring to Congress — certainly not to USICH.

She’s hopeful that progress on veteran homelessness will show that “when we put appropriations behind … [the right solution] we can drive change.”

“We do think we can get to the point of saying there are no more homeless veterans in the country,” she tells a real estate news reporter. And that will show we can achieve the same for other populations as well, “if we set our mind to it.”

Kurt Runge, Director of Advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, says something similar about the campaign to move veterans in the District off the streets and into permanent supportive housing. “Not only can we end chronic veteran homelessness, but we can end all homelessness.”

That doesn’t mean we will, however — or even seriously try to. Veterans have a privileged place in our policymaking and budget choices.

So, as Bryce Covert at Think Progress, astutely says, “[T]he danger is that while some groups have bipartisan support and will meet their goals, progress will end there.” The head of the National Coalition for the Homeless, whom she quotes, thinks “some folks” will consider the job done when the veterans goal is met.

All of which makes the cheering figures on homeless veterans — and the well-financed, energetic support for housing the rest — somewhat bittersweet news.

* This is the figure on the HUD-VASH page of HUD’s website. The agency’s press release for its homelessness report says “more than 59,000.”

 

 

 


We Don’t Know How Many DC Youth Are Homeless, But We Do Know Too Many

October 9, 2014

My last post focused on poverty among older teens and young adults, both in the District of Columbia and nationwide. Some, though far from all are homeless. Here’s what we know — and don’t — about the scope of the problem.

As you’ll see, we still don’t have a good fix on how many homeless young people are out in the world alone — those formally known as “unaccompanied.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that, on a single night sometime during January 2013, there were 40,727 homeless, unaccompanied youth in the U.S. These are all 18-24 year olds. Teenagers on the cusp of adulthood are lumped together with younger children. Far fewer were unaccompanied, according to the counts HUD tabulated.

Nearly half (48%) of the unaccompanied youth counted were unsheltered, i.e., spending the night in a car, public transit station or, in HUD-speak, elsewhere “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping place for human beings.”

The District reported only six homeless, unaccompanied minors and said that all were sheltered. As some of you may recall, I questioned this figure when the results of the Washington metro area counts were first reported.

To HUD itself, the District also reported 158 homeless 18-24 year olds “in households without children.” Eighteen, it said, were unsheltered.

An additional 446 in the same age bracket and counted were in households with at least one children — presumably, in most cases, their own. Somewhat over half were in an emergency shelter — and none unsheltered, the report says.

If accurate, this is probably because the count was made on a freezing-cold night, when the District is legally obliged to shelter anyone who would otherwise have no safe place to stay.

What we know for sure is that more parents at the now-notorious DC General shelter are still in their teens or not much older. Last winter, nearly half there were between 18 and 24, according to the coalition that developed the roadmap for a better homeless family system.

Yet we also know for sure that both the national and the District’s figures are undercounts. This is partly because homeless youth — the unaccompanied, at least — are singularly hard to count.

But even the best count wouldn’t give us an accurate read because the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use — and therefore, the definition its grantees must use for their counts — excludes many youth, as well as older people whom most of us, I think, would consider homeless.

HUD has only recently begun requiring breakouts for homeless youth. And the latest posted reports are more detailed than those for the previous year. So we can’t trace trends. But we do have some evidence that the number of homeless, unaccompanied children and youth is rising.

The Department of Education, whose definition of “homeless” is broader than HUD’s, reports that the public school systems to which it had awarded grants for support to homeless students had 62,890 who were enrolled during the 2012-13 school year and with no parent or guardian looking out for them. This represents a 14% increase over the 2010-11 school year.

We don’t get a breakout for the District, alas. But we do find total homeless student enrollment figures in prior Education Department reports.

So we learn that the D.C. public schools reported 2,499 homeless students during the 2009-10 school year and 2,947 during the 2011-12 school year. This represents an increase of nearly 18%.

Though the upward trends indicated are probably accurate, the hard numbers are again almost surely undercounts.

For one thing, the homeless, unaccompanied students are only those who received services from grant-funded staff or activities. For another, the totals, including the District’s, tell us only how many homeless students school authorities could identify.

Homeless students, we’re told, are often reluctant to seek aid and hard for school authorities to identify when they don’t. They’re fearful of peer reactions, being put into foster care, etc. We can assume this is especially the case for those who are on their own.

And, of course, the Education Department’s figures don’t include youth who’ve dropped out of school — or those who’ve graduated and been unable to find jobs that would give them the wherewithal for rent.

In sum we seem to have better data on homeless children and youth than we used to — the unaccompanied cohort in particular. But we know they’re imperfect.

Here in the District, we may have better numbers fairly soon. The budget for this fiscal year includes $1.3 million for the End Homeless Youth Act — an optimistically titled bill based on recommendations by another coalition.

The bill requires the Department of Human Services to conduct “an extended youth count,” which, I take it, means something considerably more comprehensive than the one-night counts that have yielded such dubious figures.

But the bill itself called for $10 million in annual funding, reflecting what the coalition estimated the first year of its plan would cost. A million was for evaluation, including, but not limited to the youth count.

So it’s not altogether clear what we’ll have and when. Meanwhile, however, even the figures we have are plenty good enough to tell us that we’ve got a larger, more complex problem than our public agencies and the nonprofits they help support have the resources or the inter-connections to cope with effectively — let alone solve.

The Winter Plan for the upcoming season identifies 117 shelter beds specifically for young adults and 10 beds (no, this is not a typo) for unaccompanied minors.

And, as I earlier wrote, there’s no genuine plan for homeless families — thus none for the large number headed by parents in their late teens and early twenties. Setting aside the urgent shelter capacity issue, solutions designed for older people, e.g., rapid re-housing, may not be suitable for them.

Many challenges for the new administration. One can only hope it will be more concerned with meeting the diverse needs of its homeless constituents — even if that means spending more, as it probably will.

 

 


And We Thought DC Had a Homeless Family Crisis Last Winter

September 4, 2014

Last year, I remarked that the draft Winter Plan was notably sketchy on how the District would fulfill its legal obligation to protect families from exposure to “severe weather conditions.”

The Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the annual plans for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, decided against specifics that would minimize the foreseeable challenges.

And challenges there surely were — even greater than most think could have been foreseen. The Department of Human Services was caught off guard. Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper recaps the results, as of mid-March.

Now we have another Winter Plan. And my heart sinks. Because it’s as clear as day — acknowledged, in fact — that we’ve got another crisis looming.

Like as not, a bigger crisis than last year’s and one that DHS is by no means prepared to cope with — at least, not in a way that would ensure homeless families a modicum of safety and stability. Here are the lowlights.

More homeless families expected. DHS will need to make an estimated 840 shelter and/or housing placements during the upcoming winter season. This represents a 16% increase over the number of placements made during the 2013-14 season.

Yet it’s 10% lower than the increase in the number of homeless families who sought help at the intake center between May and August. They couldn’t get into shelter then, but at least some will return as soon as the weather turns freezing-cold.

Not enough shelter units. The Operations and Logistics Committee again foresees that all — or nearly all — units at the DC General family shelter and those in smaller shelters around the city will be occupied when the winter season opens.

DHS will need “overflow capacity” by December, the plan says. This would probably be true in any case. But about 40 units at DC General may have to remain vacant because they fail to comply with the criteria the court established when it ordered DHS to stop warehousing families in recreation centers.

No plan for the overflow. The ICH has, for good and proper reasons, decided against any semblance of a shelter plan for families.

It instead recommends, among other things, that the Department of General Services prepare “an options analysis that considers different solutions,” e.g., use of District-owned buildings, short-term leases from private landlords, motels.

Not much time for General Services to do this — let alone for DHS to choose solutions and make the necessary arrangements, even if one of them isn’t re-purposing buildings.

Not enough money. The plan calls on the District government to acknowledge that “meeting the anticipated need for shelter will exceed currently available resources.”

The District should further acknowledge, it says, that additional resources will be needed to prevent adverse effects on other homeless services programs, especially those “designed to move families out of shelter.”

This was altogether foreseeable — and in fact, was foreseen by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Mayor Gray’s proposed budget included funds for only 150 units at DC General, rather than the 280 or so then available — and no funds at all for motel rooms. The DC Council went along.

Trust in performance improvements. “A major emphasis,” the plan says, “will be on enhancing system performance to both decrease the number of entries into the system … and accelerate exits out of shelter.”

As I (and others) have said before, DHS has had a hard time moving enough families out of shelter fast enough to free up anything close to the number of units needed. Various reasons for this — some of the agency’s own making, some not.

Resources committed to the Mayor’s 500 in 100 initiative may have speeded up the rate somewhat. But we’ve no assurance families will leave shelter even sooner this winter. “It is expected,” the plan says, “that placements from shelter will continue or exceed” the current monthly average.

Perhaps we should be at least as concerned about the other half of the emphasis — decreasing entries, i.e., keeping families out of the shelters.

The plan specifies two approaches. One is “strategic targeting of resources to prevent housing loss.” This presumably is a reference to the one-time funds some District residents may receive as emergency rental assistance. No problem here, except limited funds.

The other approach is casework and “housing stabilization support” for families who’ve been “diverted” from shelter. Translated into everyday English, the latter refers to resources that may enable families to stay where they are for awhile — mainly, if not exclusively in doubled-up arrangements.

The resources include cash or cash equivalents to give friends and relatives incentives for hosting homeless families, e.g., help with utility bills and/or food costs. DHS already provides such incentives and will have funds for more.

But the cost burdens of having extra people in the home are hardly the only reason doubled-up situations tend to be temporary. So diversion of this sort may, in many cases, merely delay “entries into the system.”

Looking beyond the the no-plan plan. The Homeless Services Reform Act charges the ICH to develop an annual plan “consistent with the right of clients to shelter in severe weather conditions, describing how member agencies will coordinate to provide hypothermia shelter and identifying the specific sites that will be used.”

The ICH has, in effect, said, “We can’t do that for homeless families. The money is not there.” This, to my mind, is altogether better than putting forth a plan that glosses over the acute problems the District’s homeless services programs will face.

“We face an enormous challenge,” said Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney and long-time ICH member Scott McNeilly. “If we don’t rise to the occasion, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

But ultimately “we” isn’t the ICH. It has no control over the budget or how available funds are used. It’s the Mayor and the DC Council who must “rise to the occasion.” And they’d better do it PDQ.

 


Another Round in the Debate Over Who Is Truly Homeless

August 25, 2014

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has again raised objections to the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act — the formal title of a pair of bills now pending in Congress.

As I earlier wrote, they would expand the definition of “homeless” that controls uses communities may make of their federal homeless assistance grants.

They would, among other things, extend eligibility to homeless children and youth if they’re living doubled up with friends or relatives or in a cheap motel, just as they’re already eligible for services from public schools that receive funds under another part of the same law.

Families and children could become eligible in other ways as well, as could youth who are out in the world by themselves, without a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

NAEH argues that federal funds for homeless people can’t even meet the needs of those already eligible. “Tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied youth go unsheltered every night,” it says, “because there is not enough money to serve them all.”

No one, I think, would say otherwise. Funding for homeless assistance grants has remained virtually flat since Fiscal Year 2010. And they will get either no increase or a very small one when Congress gets around to agreeing on funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

NAEH also notes egregious under-funding for programs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services administers for unaccompanied youth who’ve run away from home or are homeless for other reasons.

These programs, plus HUD’s serve barely 14% of these youth now, according to the Alliance’s estimates.

But NAEH goes further. “[M]ost people in doubled up households are not homeless,” it says. And the HEARTH Act, which governs HUD’s homeless assistance program, already covers those who are.

Some of them are people who’ll have no place to stay at the end of two weeks. Others are those who’ve fled — or urgently need to flee — the place they’ve been living because of domestic violence or some other dangerous situation, if they don’t have the resources or networks to move into other housing.

For the rest, NAEH says, the answer is HUD-funded rental assistance. But, it continues, there’s not enough money for that either. Indeed.

Only about one in four very low-income households receives rental assistance, according to HUD’s latest (somewhat outdated) assessment. And the prospects for the remainder are dismal.

In fact, we may be looking at a loss of even more than the 72,000 or so housing vouchers local agencies retired to deal with the across-the-board cuts in 2013, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Like as not, the agencies will also have to keep more public housing units vacant because they won’t have the funds to make essential repairs.

So NAEH is right in saying that we need a significant increase in funding for affordable housing.

What divides the Alliance from the large coalition that supports the bills is its view that we need to preserve the current restrictive definition of “homeless” so that “the very limited resources” available remain “dedicated to children, youth, and families who are without any housing at all.”

It essentially pits their needs against those of families and youth who are living doubled up. The proposed legislation, it says, “asks people living on the street and in shelter to compete with them.”

Not really. The bills would merely allow communities to include services for the newly-eligible families and unaccompanied youth in the plans they must submit to receive homeless assistance grants — and prohibit HUD from denying them grants merely because it has other priorities.

The larger issue, I suppose, is whether we should draw a bright, white line between families who are living with Aunt Suzy one month and a charitable friend the next and those who’ve exhausted such options.

Should we put families living in motels through two extra weeks of acute anxiety and stress before we offer them HUD-funded rapid re-housing, knowing they won’t have enough money to stay where they are?

And do we really want young people who’ve left their families, been kicked out or aged out of foster care to bounce from one couch to another when we know this puts them at risk of abuse, problems (or worse problems) in school and more?

NAEH apparently feels we must because the Homeless Children and Youth Act doesn’t increase funding.

The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth vehemently disagrees. It’s “nonsensical,” the Association says, to define a problem by the funding currently available to address it.

That just gives policymakers “an unrealistic view of the scope of the problem.” Congress “needs to know who and how many people are without housing in order to define effective solutions,” NAEHCY contends.

This seems to me as incontrovertible as what NAEH says about insufficient federal funding for both homeless and affordable housing programs. Yet Congress already knows more than enough to know it’s short-changing them.

Amending the HEARTH Act to include doubled-up families, motel-dwellers who can’t afford their rooms, couch-surfers and others precariously and perhaps unsafely housed would give communities more flexibility to develop plans based on their own assessments of local needs.

But until we have a Congress that’s prepared to spend more on our safety net, every dollar spent on the newly-eligible will be a dollar less for other homeless people — at least so far as federal dollars are concerned.

That much, I think, NAEH is right about. Whether dollars spent to keep doubled-up families and the rest from joining the already-eligible on the streets or in shelters is another matter.


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