Homeless DC Families Out in the Not-Quite-Cold-Enough

April 21, 2014

I never thought I’d welcome freezing-cold weather, especially in mid-April. But last week I did because I knew the District would have to shelter homeless families who have no safe place to stay.

I assumed that, as in the past, it would continue to shelter them until they could move into actual housing, with or without its assistance. I’ve learned I was wrong.

Since some time in January, the Department of Human Services has kicked newly-sheltered families back out onto the streets as soon as the forecasted temperature, including wind chill was above 32 degrees.

I wrote some time ago that DHS had reverted to the District’s minimum legal obligation under the Homeless Services Reform Act.

I was wrong about that too because I was referring to its decision to give homeless families access to shelter only in freezing-cold weather, rather than whenever they’d otherwise be at risk of immediate harm.

Now DHS truly has reverted to what the narrowest reading of the law requires — protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions” and, for families, a private room, if an apartment-style unit isn’t available.

The District is now contesting the privacy requirement, claiming that a partly partitioned-off space in a recreation center is a private room. The judge thus far is having none of it. So DHS has been putting newly-homeless families into motel rooms — something the city’s attorneys said it couldn’t possibly do.

But, as I said, they’re sheltered only very temporarily. As soon as the freezing-cold spate is over, they’re out and on their own.

And if hypothermic conditions are forecasted again, they have to return to the Virginia Williams intake center and apply for shelter all over again, as if they were in need for the first time.

They might have another opportunity, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper notes. But pretty soon we won’t have any more freezing-cold nights. The District apparently feels no responsibility for the families then.

What will they do? If they’re lucky, probably double up with one family and then another — or quadruple up for that matter.

If not so lucky, perhaps return to an abuser — a sadly common recourse, we’re told. Or they may spend nights in an emergency room or a bus station, as homeless D.C. families already have.

Or in a laundromat. “You sit in a chair and fake like you are washing clothes,” explained a grandmother who did — and may again if the only alternatives are returning her grandson to his unstable mother or giving him up to the child welfare agency.

An attorney who worked on the HSRA told me that everyone involved assumed that families would have continuous access to shelter, since that was already the operative policy. And it remained so until three years ago.

The DC Council will be considering an amendment to the HSRA that spells out what a private room is — pathetic that such legislation should be needed.

It could use the occasion to also explicitly require year round shelter for homeless families who’ve no other safe place to stay, thus making the law work as intended.

There are actually cost-saving arguments that can be made here, but I’ll refrain because the fundamental issues are human costs.

We need only imagine what it’s like for a parent who’s got to worry about where she and her kids will sleep, how to protect them, what to do with their belongings, what to do now that she’s lost her job because she had to spend so much time dealing with their here-and-there housing, the kids’ school arrangements, etc.

The multifarious damages to children are also easy to imagine — and supported by lots of research.

It tells us, among other things, that the traumas of instability put them at much higher risk of problems in school — something Mayor Gray seeks to compensate for with targeted boosts in public education funding, but not to prevent by minimizing the instability to begin with.

I started the internal rant that’s externalized here the day after the last hypothermia alert was called. It was Emancipation Day in the District.

Now, I like a parade as much as anyone. Balloons and free concerts too. But I couldn’t help thinking about better uses for $350,000 — and about how Mayor Gray covered an extra $116,000 when Councilmember Orange and his fellow organizers ran through their budget.

And I couldn’t help thinking that the Mayor’s proposed $10.8 billion budget apparently consigns homeless families to more of the same.

 

 


Survey Flags Unfair Treatment of Homeless Individuals in DC

April 17, 2014

Last fall, the National Coalition for the Homeless and a team of graduate students from George Washington University set out to learn “the extent to which homeless individuals in Washington, D.C. have experienced discrimination as a result of their housing status.”

They conducted a survey. And now we have a glimpse of the results. Within limits (of which more below), they indicate that many homeless people in the District have felt discriminated against — or at least, had experiences which persuaded them that others have.

The researchers wound up with usable surveys of 142 individuals — 110 men and 32 women. This is, of course, a very small fraction of the population of homeless adults in the District who have no family members with them, as last year’s one-night count indicates.

I don’t have the data to figure out whether the gender breakout — or the race/ethnicity breakouts — are reasonably representative. I rather doubt they exist. The gender breakout, however, does nearly mirror the shelter bed allocations in this year’s Winter Plan, and these are based on past demand.

The survey respondents were asked a number of questions about their experiences with private businesses, law enforcement, medical services and social services.

As the NCH website suggests, they were also asked questions about other groups, e.g., employers, landlords. But these didn’t yield statistically significant results. So they’re not in the report.

In fact, the report quantifies responses to only one question: “How often, in your experiences, did the following groups [private businesses, etc.] discriminate against people without housing?”

One could answer “often” to this on the basis of second-hand information, e.g., having been told that homeless people weren’t welcome in some McDonald’s restaurant.

Yet the survey itself included questions about direct personal experiences, especially with law enforcement. Unfortunately, as Michael Stoops at NCH confirmed, the sample was too small for statistically significant results on such important particulars.

That said, we seem to have considerable consensus that private businesses and law enforcement officers at least sometimes treat homeless people unfairly — 70.4% of affirmative responses for the former and 66.6% for the latter.*

Nearly 50% perceived discrimination by medical services and 43.7% by social services. For the former, the report includes two very disturbing anecdotal fragments.

A woman said she was refused care by local health care providers because “the staff thought she was faking it to get inside.” Another respondent said, “When I got stabbed, the paramedic said there was nothing wrong with me …. [H]e said I just wanted to get out of the rain.”

I’m frankly disappointed in this report because I’m sure as can be that people who are identifiably homeless are treated differently from thee and me — and in ways that are consequentially harmful.

The fact, sad as it is, that passersby make them feel “disconnected from the world,” as one respondent said, isn’t as harmful as getting rousted by the cops — or worse. And it’s far less harmful than being denied medical care.

These aren’t just perceptions of differential treatment. And I wish the report had provided more of them, even anecdotally, because, to me, they’re compelling evidence of a serious social problem — and one that’s reflected in a host of policy choices.

The report is nevertheless one of the first of its kind. And it’s only one portion of a campaign that NCH is waging — a complement of sorts to its annual reports on hate crimes against homeless people.

Here in the District, as elsewhere, NCH seeks to have a bill of rights for homeless people enacted. Three states and Puerto Rico already have such bills.

Alternatively, Stoops suggested, the District could amend its Human Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on housing status.

Either action would provide a basis for legal claims against public or private entities that deny people medical care, social services and/or opportunities to work, rent, sit in a fast food restaurant, a library or a public park because they have no home of their own.

Needless to say, we wouldn’t see a flood of legal claims, though you can bet the Chamber of Commerce will claim otherwise, as it has in California.

The potential for legal action might make some difference, however. In the best of cases, it would prompt some apparently needed education in our public agencies and private-sector enterprises.

And we, as a community, would have officially recognized “the humanity of people who are homeless,” as the latest NCH hate crimes report says we must. That would prompt us to act when we perceive inhumane treatment — as it should, even without new legislation.

Surely we’d respond if our grandmother was told she was “just faking it” when she went to a healthcare clinic.

* The report collapses responses ranging from “rarely” to “very often” into a single “yes”.

 


DC Budget Should Fund Help With Disability Benefits Applications

March 31, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rent’s Way Too High for Low-Income DC Residents

March 27, 2014

The National Low Income Housing Coalition celebrates the 25th anniversary of Out of Reach — its annual report on rental housing (un)affordability for low-income households.

As in the past, it provides figures for the U.S. as a whole, each state and the District of Columbia, along with rankings of highest and lowest-cost jurisdictions.

The Big Picture

The big-picture story is well-known, though the figures give it new punch.

There’s a growing shortage of units that are both affordable and available to extremely low-income renter households, i.e. those whose gross incomes are at or below 30% of the median for the area they live in.

There are 10.2 million of them — about one in four of all renter households. Three-quarters of them spend at least half their income on housing, leaving them little for other expenses — and at high risk of homelessness.

Their so-called severe housing burdens are partly the result of the growing shortage — a 7 million unit deficit in 2012. They also reflect inadequate funding for housing assistance programs, which now help only about a quarter of eligible households.

Rental housing in the District is more expensive than in all but one state — Hawaii — according to NLIHC’s measures (of which more below).

A modest two-bedroom apartment, plus basic utilities would be out of reach even for workers who earn the local average for renters — and way out of reach for minimum wage workers.

How NLIHC Measures Housing Affordability

As I’ve written before, NLIHC uses several major measures:

  • The fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment, as set for the jurisdiction by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • The housing wage, i.e., how much a full-time worker would have to earn per hour for the apartment to be affordable at the customary 30% of gross income.
  • The estimated average wage for renters, based on several federal sources.

We’re cautioned against comparing this year’s figures to those NLIHC has previously reported because, it says, the FMR methodology HUD now uses introduces more year-to-year variability. Frustrating for those of us who want to track trends. And who doesn’t?

Be that as it may, here’s what we learn about how affordable rents are out of reach for several, mostly overlapping groups of low-income households in the District.

Perspectives on Rental Housing Costs in DC

The FMR for a two-bedroom apartment in the District is $1,469 a month. It would thus be affordable for a household earning $58,760 a year. This translates into a housing wage of $28.25 an hour — $20 more than the current minimum wage.

A minimum wage worker would have to put in 137 hours a week, every week to afford the apartment. Looked at another way, a household would have to include 3.4 full-time, year round minimum wage workers.

And in another way, the gap between the full-time minimum wage and earnings that would make the apartment affordable is nearly as large as the FMR — $1,049 a month.

The apartment is unaffordable, though far less so for District residents earning the local average for renters — $1,327. The gap in this case is $142. The renter would have to work 44 hours a week, year round to close it.

The gap reported for ELI households is $667 a month, but it’s surely larger for many. For one thing, the gap is based on the maximum 30% of AMI, though many households have to get along on less. For another, the AMI itself is misleadingly high because it’s inflated by incomes in nearby suburbs.

Last and worst off are households that rely solely on one member’s SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits. For them, the gap is a jaw-dropping $1,253.

Notwithstanding the caution, I’ll note that the gaps are all bigger than those NLIHC reported last year. This is not only because rental costs are rising — and low-cost rental units vanishing. It’s also because incomes aren’t keeping up — at least, for households in the bottom 40%.

The average hourly wage for renters is only 32 cents higher than what NLIHC estimated for 2013, while the housing wage is $1.10 higher. And though the District’s minimum wage will rise to $11.50 in 2016, it will still be less than half this year’s housing wage.

Do we need more local funding for affordable rental housing programs? Oh yes, we do.

 


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