DC General Family Shelter in Councilmember’s Bull’s-Eye

May 5, 2014

One of those interminable hearings on the proposed budget for the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services. A list of 81 witnesses, not counting DHS Director David Berns, whose testimony was deferred.

Many issues teed up — most, though not all related to homeless services. No way to wrap them up in a blog post. One, however, raised a new red flag.

Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the Human Services Committee, insisted that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, be closed by year’s end.

He wants to force the District to “marshal the will … and the resources” by putting a mandate to this effect in the Budget Support Act, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper reports.

Graham returned to this notion over and over again — and attempted (unsuccessfully) to garner advocates’ support.

His lead-off witness put a plank in the platform with observations and some survey results — all confirming that DC General is an awful place. Hot water only some of the time, rats, roaches and, as one current resident testified, bedbugs that caused her daughter’s face to swell up with infection.

It’s “a dead building,” Graham said, quoting past testimony by Berns. No point then in putting any money into making it somewhat more habitable.

And even if it were, it would still be an out-sized facility — “a small city” of homeless families, each with only a single room to live in.

No one, so far as I know, believes that DC General is a perfectly okay place to shelter homeless families when they’d otherwise have no safe place to stay. Some doubts, in fact, as to whether it is safe — raised most recently by the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd.

The issue is rather whether the District should close DC General before it can open enough more suitable shelter units to meet the need. Graham clearly believes this is the only way to ensure it will ever open them.

He cites the Mayor’s initiative to rapidly re-house 500 homeless families by mid-July. That, he says, would leave only about 100 families in DC General.

So there’d be vacant units — assuming, as he apparently does, that the initiative succeeds and accepting, as he does, the Mayor’s intent to keep them vacant for as long as he can. They’d still eventually be filled, Graham foresees, unless the shelter is shut down.

What to do then with the 100 or more families — and the who knows how many who will seek shelter as soon as the weather turns cold enough to trigger their legal right to protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions?”

Graham would temporarily shelter them in hotels, using money saved by not operating DC General.

This is wholly contrary to the approach DHS plans to take. Berns, recall, believes that homeless families left doubled-up situations once they knew they’d be put up in a hotel, instead of DC General.

It’s also quite different from the approach envisioned in the “roadmap” that 20 leading advocacy and service provider organizations released the day of the hearing.

This is the second time this year that advocates and service providers have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands because the Gray administration either won’t or can’t develop and carry out a plan to ensure that all homeless D.C. families have a safe, decent place to stay — and sufficient help to make their time there brief.

Or both. On the won’t side, we can look at the Mayor’s proposed budget, which would effectively cut homeless family services by $11 million — 20% of what DHS has this year.

The first coalition effort was a multi-part strategy to address the immediate family shelter crisis. The “roadmap” is a more evolved version — goals, sub-goals and new cost estimates to move the District toward a significantly improved homeless family system.

That, of course, will include something other than DC General — apartment-style units in smaller buildings, scattered in different parts of the city. The coalition expects the overhaul to take several years, however, and so focuses on improved casework and other services for families who’ll be at DC General.

Not so many there perhaps — or any for so long, if other goals are met. But there will be “safe and adequate emergency shelter for families when they need it” — whatever the outdoor temperature.

Pressed to endorse immediate closure, Judith Sandalow, who heads the Children’s Law Project, demurred because “we haven’t seen a plan that will keep families safe.”

Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless was understandably unwilling to rely on “all the big ifs.” She envisions a process in which units at DC General will be closed as they’re replaced.

A crisis-creating measure like what Graham wants could set off a repeat of the “draconian measures” DHS resorted to this winter, she warned. These measures would mean shelter for families only on freezing-cold days and no shelter during the next severe cold snap unless they went through the whole application process all over again.

One can understand Graham’s impatience. DC General was initially supposed to be an interim solution. There’s been talk about closing it for some time. Yet the Mayor only very recently directed Berns and the Deputy Mayor for Human Services to develop a closure plan.

We’ve no reason to believe that the District can establish alternative shelters for hundreds of homeless families by year’s end — or that it will pick up the costs of hotel rooms for them whenever they’ve no safe place to stay.

We do have reasons to believe that some of those families will be boomeranging back because they can’t pay rent when their rapid re-housing subsidies expire.

So I can’t help wondering if Graham, who’ll be leaving the Council shortly, wants to make a bit of history, knowing he won’t have to deal with the fallout — or perhaps just go out swinging.

UPDATE: The DC Fiscal Policy Institute now has a petition asking Councilmembers to fund the reforms recommended in the roadmap. It’s a quick and easy way for those of you who live in the District to support sorely needed improvements in the homeless family system.

 

 


Dreaming of a Freezing Cold Christmas

December 22, 2012

Jesse, my husband, hopes for a white Christmas, as he always does. I, a California child, like the Christmas card prettiness of a fresh snowfall. But I hate cold weather. Always have.

I find myself hoping for another cold snap nonetheless — preferably with snow, for my husband’s sake, but without if that’s the best the weather gods can do.

Because unless the forecast calls for freezing temperatures — 32 degrees or less, including wind chill factor — some homeless families in the District of Columbia may have no safe place to bed down tomorrow night.

Nor any night thereafter until we get that arctic blast.

Time was not so long ago when the District’s shelter doors were always open to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay, i.e., those the intake system ranked as Priority One.

Then came a significant increase in family homelessness — an acute symptom of recession-related job losses, stagnant (or reduced) wages for those still working and rising rental costs.

What didn’t come were increases in funding for housing vouchers beyond what was needed to pay for those already in use.

So once homeless families were admitted to DC General — the main shelter for them — they tended to stay there longer than they had in the past.

A whole series of failures to fully come to grips with this problem.

Insufficient funding — both local and federal — to support services for the growing number of homeless families.

Formal plans for sheltering homeless families during the winter season that attempted to make everything look okay, funding constraints notwithstanding.

Large costs incurred for motel rooms and related needs because the plans really weren’t okay.

A sharp drop in funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing. First, because the designated revenue stream shrank when the real estate market went south.

Then because the Mayor, with the Council’s consent, tapped the recovering revenue stream to cover the costs of locally-funded housing vouchers. But only those already issued.

For homeless families, the District had some Recovery Act funds for short-term housing vouchers. But for a variety of reasons, including the terms, they proved only a limited substitute.

So, at some point, the Family Services Administration, which administers the District’s homeless services program, changed the policy for Priority One families.

Henceforward, they’d gain shelter only when they were legally entitled to it, i.e., when the effective temperature was expected to drop to 32 degrees before the following morning.

Now, I’m told, it will also shelter them in less frigid weather if there’s room for them at DC General. Midweek, units were filling up fast. So I don’t know whether any will be vacant by the time you read this.

Jesse and I don’t see homeless families when we take our pre-dinner strolls around the neighborhood. I doubt residents in most other parts of the District do either.

The families are scattered in the safest, warmest places they can find — in their cars, if they’re fortunate enough to have them, in hospital waiting rooms, bus stations, stairwells, etc.

So they probably don’t weigh heavy on our consciences as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of someone whose mother was given shelter when there was no room at the inn.

But I think of them now and hope the forecast for the upcoming week is wrong.


DC Bars Shelter Doors to Families With No Safe Place to Stay

September 10, 2012

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless shares another outrageous story — a classic example of the needless hardships homeless families endure because the Gray administration has decided to retreat to what it views as its minimum legal obligations.

Hence we’ve got a mother and five children spending their nights in a bus station, though there’s plenty of room for them at DC General — the main local shelter for homeless families.

They wash up in the morning at a nearby McDonald’s. Heaven knows how the children do their homework.

You’d think the Gray administration would worry about this. The Mayor, after all, has made a big deal of his plans to ensure “high-quality educational outcomes for [the] District’s children.”

But the Department of Human Services is shy $7 million. And it’s bound and determined to make the Winter Plan work — within or under budget if it can.

As I earlier wrote, the plan calls for leaving 118 units at DC General vacant unless and until DHS would otherwise have to place families in costly motel rooms, as it did last winter. So families can’t get in now, even though there are reportedly about 100 units vacant.

This is not, I think, what the DC Council intended.

The Budget Support Act — the package of legislation that’s paired with the actual appropriations bill — includes specific instructions for what DHS is to do before the winter season officially begins.

It says that DHS “shall ensure” that at least 100 families in hotels, motels, shelters and/or transitional housing are in “apartment-style housing units” by September 30.

But that’s not all the BSA tells DHS to do. “Once there are vacancies in temporary shelters, severe-weather shelters, or transitional housing,” it says, “the Department [DHS] shall use all available resources currently budgeted for homeless families to place new family-shelter applicants who cannot access other housing arrangements … into shelters or housing.”

DHS reportedly contends that it’s currently budgeted for only 153 units at DC General — those that it designates for regular use in the Winter Plan. How it could have been funding 271 units at the time the BSA passed is a mystery, at least to me.

But this is all legalistic niggling. DHS wants those 118 units vacant. They won’t be if it allows homeless families like the Legal Clinic’s client to move from the bus station to DC General now.

So, as things stand now, families who’ve got no safe place to stay have to wait for shelter till the first freezing cold day.

As if hypothermia is the only thing that can harm them. As if the top priority for homeless services is avoiding a lawsuit — or a funding shortfall that the Mayor and Council could remedy, if they chose to.

The Legal Clinic urges us to tell that Mayor that homeless families need shelter — or even better, stable housing — now.

His e-mail address is mayor@dc.gov. And his Twitter handle @mayorvincegray.

UPDATE: The Fair Budget Coalition now has an editable letter we can useĀ  to send to the Mayor and key decision-makers in his administration. As it says, there are not only vacant units at DC General, but about 65 unused, fully-funded housing vouchers that could go to homeless families.


Right To Shelter In DC Dies On Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day

December 22, 2010

Yesterday, the shortest day of the year, marked the 20th annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

Around the country and here in Washington, D.C., public officials, advocates, service providers, homeless people and other community members gathered to commemorate men and women who died while homeless during this hard year.

Let’s also pause to mourn the death of major protections formerly provided by the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act. Because, in an unwitting irony, the DC Council yesterday passed Councilmember Tommy Wells’s amendment to the act for the second time.

This virtually ensures that restrictions which expose homeless people in the District to greater — even life-threatening — risks will become law. And Councilmembers were well aware of the impacts.

Opponents warned that the amendment will be “cruel” to District residents, that we’ll be putting homeless people “who arrive at our doorsteps” out into the cold, that we’ll be “dumbing down” standards for family shelter accommodations.

Reminded their colleagues of someone homeless whose birthday we’re about to celebrate.

All over-ridden by self-congratulatory explanations that homeless people have been flocking here because we’re such a “liberal” jurisdiction.

By recurrent references to the prospective funding shortfall and a potential “over-concentration of facilities” in Ward 4 — a fine justification for letting families freeze if there ever was one.

Plus an assurance that the bill won’t take effect until mid-March, so there’s no danger of “immediate harm” — as if that’s the only kind we should worry about.

“These are difficult times we find ourselves in,” says Council Chairman Vincent Gray as a wrap-up. More difficult than someone comfortably housed can imagine, I think.

Debate notwithstanding, positions were already set in stone. The amendment was a done deal before the vote was taken.

So now what?

Councilmember Wells informs his colleagues that DC General is full, that there’s a long line of families awaiting shelter and that the District “can’t even guarantee a private room” — the new minimum standard for family shelter units.

In other words, the District can’t comply with the weakened law. And there’s not a shred of evidence that the problematic proof-of-residency requirements (see here and here) will make much difference.

No difference at all to the homeless families that can’t get into DC General because the Council failed to ensure that the Department of Human Services could in fact cope with needs for shelter beyond the dubious projections in this year’s winter plan.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 158 other followers