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.

More About Changes In DC Homeless Services

December 19, 2010

As I recently wrote, Councilmember Tommy Wells made changes in his proposed amendment to the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act before the Committee on Human Services and then the full DC Council approved it.

I’ve already tried to account for changes related to eligibility for shelter. Here are the other big changes I see.

Families can’t be sheltered in barracks-style facilities. Like the original version of the bill, the final allows the District to place families in non-apartment style shelter units during severe weather conditions if no apartment-style units are available.

However, the final version says that families must be given private rooms. This seems to address some of the most urgent health and safety concerns about eliminating the apartment-style housing requirement.

Or maybe not. Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis acutely notes that it doesn’t say that each family must have its own room. On the other hand, the Homeless Services Reform Act doesn’t say that each family must have its own apartment-style unit either. I doubt we’d have the outcry now if it weren’t understood that way.

However interpreted, the provision clearly relieves the District from any obligation to move toward more suitable shelters for families. Professor Matt Fraidin’s testimony about conditions at DC General should give one pause.

I’m thinking here particularly about conditions that can’t be remedied by improving maintenance and investing in some modest remodeling, e.g., refrigerators that all parents can use 24/7.

Such upgrades would still leave children with no quiet place to do homework, no safe place to play, limited opportunity to socialize and exposure to a host of rules that undermine a healthy relationship with their parents.

As Fraidin recently told Cherkis, even a good communal shelter, which DC General isn’t, “is a bad place for kids” and will probably cost the District more in the long run than moving away from institutions like DC General.

Homeless people may, in some circumstances, receive other services without proving residency. The original version of the bill would have required proof of residency for all homeless services — even a blanket, a warm drink or a lift to a shelter to ward off hypothermia.

The final version of the bill allows the mayor to exclude certain homeless services, provided he publishes a notice identifying them. This could ultimately take care of the ban on crisis services.

Till then, it seems that, as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has said, the proof of residency requirement is “akin to requiring an ID before administering life-saving medical emergency services.”

Methods of proving residency have been expanded. In the original version of the bill, only someone who lived in the District — and could present the requisite proof — could verify the residency of a homeless person who couldn’t present other acceptable evidence.

The final version includes someone who is not a District resident, but works for a service provider in the District. But only if he/she produces evidence of such employment.

No indication of what evidence would qualify. So we don’t know whether an employee could satisfy the requirement without setting aside services to other clients to take an ID or whatever to a shelter or the Virginia Williams intake center for families.

The final version of the bill also either expands or clarifies another proof of residency option. Now someone may “demonstrate” residency by “reporting a mailing address in the District, valid within the last two years.”

That could certainly take care of documentation problems that service providers and advocates have raised. But are we to understand that this will be a trust, don’t verify situation? If it is, then what’s the point of the other residency proof provisions? If it isn’t, then the problems seem as great as ever.

Bottom line. Councilmember Wells seems to have made an effort to address some of the concerns that services providers and advocates raised. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t make a silk’s purse out of a sow’s ear.

The law is going to be a deuce to administer — mainly because Wells would only tinker at the margins. And it’s still going to put our most vulnerable residents at even greater risk of harm.

All because of some fragmentary evidence that some non-resident families might have been given shelter in one of the soon-to-be-legal single rooms at the warehouse the District now has less incentive to remodel or replace.

NOTE: The Legal Clinic reminds us that the final vote on the amendment is this Tuesday, December 21. It urges us to e-mail or call our Councilmembers and ask them to vote “no.” E-mail addresses and phone numbers are at the end of its action alert.


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