What DC Could Do About the Homeless Family Crisis

February 12, 2014

As I said a couple of days ago, the District’s homeless family crisis has reached an unprecedented — and unforeseen — level. At the end of last month, the Department of Human Services was already sheltering about 100 more newly homeless families than were projected for the entire winter season.

DHS Director David Berns seems resigned to some sort of cataclysm. “I don’t see how we can continue at this rate,” he said during the recent hearing on the crisis — but also that he didn’t have “any fresh ideas.”

Some movers and shakers on the Interagency Council on Homelessness do have fresh ideas — mainly for how DHS could do what it’s been trying to do better. They’ve produced a multi-part strategy to address the crisis. It also identifies issues that must be swiftly resolved to prevent a recurrence.

The first part consists of immediate measures to speed up the rapid re-housing placement rate, e.g., more staff and other resources to identify and inspect affordable units, perhaps some sort of incentive for landlords so they’ll rent to families with short-term, iffy housing subsidies.

A second part identifies existing homelessness prevention and subsidized housing programs that should receive more funding so as to open up space in the DC General shelter for homeless families and thus reduce — or altogether eliminate — the use of hotels as a fallback.

Roughly 80% of the families would receive rapid re-housing subsidies, plus “help in identifying a longer-term affordable unit” and services “related to housing stability” and employment.

Permanent supportive housing would be made available to about 10%. The remaining 10% or so would receive emergency rental assistance, i.e., one-time help with a security deposit and first month’s rent, plus again help finding an affordable unit.

The percent allocations are based on results of assessments that two of the service providers have been conducting, using a research-based tool designed to match homeless families to the most appropriate types of aid.

Only 15% of the families thus far assessed have sought homeless services in the District again after a term in rapid re-housing, according to testimony by the Community of Hope’s Executive Director Kelly Sweeney McShane.

The Transitional Housing Corporation, which is also using the tool for assessments, has posted similar results for its rapid re-housing program.

I still can’t help wondering how a much larger number of homeless families will manage to pick up the rent — and keep paying it — or find a longer-term affordable unit when their subsidies expire, even if someone’s scouting the market for them.

So it’s good to note that the strategy also calls for a “community conversation” about the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s own version of federally-funded housing vouchers.

As Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless observed in her testimony, the District has, for some years, ignored the recommendations of the original Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.

These included 14,600 locally-funded housing vouchers by the beginning of the next decade. The current budget will support about 2,730.

We know the Gray administration doesn’t like these vouchers — at least, not those that enable low-income residents to pay market-rate rents. And both Berns and at least some members of the strategy-development group worry that homeless families will hunker down in shelter if they think they’ll eventually get one.

But if we really want to solve the homeless family crisis, I think the so-called tenant-based vouchers have to be part of the toolbox too. The strategy drafters may agree, since they acknowledge the need for vouchers and other “affordable housing supports.”

We’re also to engage in conversation about other matters, including a return to year round services for homeless families. This is now being framed as a preventive strategy, though basic human decency alone could justify it.

One reason for the current crisis, Berensin testified, is the decision DHS made several years ago to “close the front door to shelter” during the seven months outside the official winter season.

This, she said, creates a “pent up demand” by the time the first freezing-cold day arrives. And some families may by then have more severe problems — thus be less likely to rapidly recover their ability to pay for housing, assuming they ever had it.

The strategy also calls for the creation of a new ICH committee to monitor and improve the rapid re-housing process. It’s to be a very hands-on group and to have direct access to Berns when progress hinges on decisions he must make or runs into “roadblocks” he can clear.

Ultimately, however, as the strategy says, the homeless family crisis reflects problems that DHS alone can’t solve, e.g., the acute shortage of housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents, the divers disadvantages that keep them near or below the poverty line.

In this respect, the more than 1,000 newly homeless families DHS now projects for this winter season are canaries in the coal mine. The Mayor and his lead officials would do well to recognize this, instead of effectively blaming them for leaving doubled-up situations that they — and/or their hosts — know are untenable.


What We Know (and Don’t) About the Drops in DC Homelessness Rates

May 9, 2013

In my last post, I summarized the major results of the latest point-in-time, i.e., one-night, count of homeless people in the District of Columbia.

We see one-year decreases for the homeless population as a whole and for all the subgroups the District reports to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Decreases are longer-term for two overlapping groups — homeless individual men and women, i.e., those not with family members, and individuals classified as chronically homeless.

The District’s report attempts to account for the decreases. It attributes them to an expansion in permanent supportive housing capacity and its investments in homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

We’ve got sound evidence for the impact of PSH. The evidence for HPRP — the rapid re-housing component, in particular — is squishy.

It may help explain the one-year declines, but they’re no proof that rapid re-housing will end homelessness for the families that the Mayor — and his Director of Human Services — want to force into the program.

Permanent Supportive Housing

As I previously remarked, the steady drop in the number of chronically homeless individuals counted probably reflects the high priority that both federal and local policies have placed on moving these individuals into PSH.

The report itself provides additional evidence for this. At the time of the latest count, it says, 3,690 individuals and 983 families were in PSH units, thus not homeless for the purposes of the count.

Both these figures are higher than those reported in 2012 — by 18% and 8% respectively.

But this doesn’t mean that the District can take credit for providing housing with supportive services for all these formerly homeless people.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that the Department of Human Services expects to have 1,350 households in the PSH units it’s funding this fiscal year.

Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing

The PIT count report offers no basis for assessing the impacts of homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

A brief by the Community Partnership to End Homelessness says that 762 individuals and 643 families are “stably housed” because of HPRP.

But we have no timeframe for these figures. So we don’t know how long ago the beneficiaries received the one-shot or limited-time assistance — let alone anything about them, e.g., how much steady income they had.

We do, however, have data indicating that a goodly number of individuals and/or families didn’t stay stably housed after their rapid re-housing subsidies expired, presumably because they couldn’t afford to pay the full rent.

A presentation, also by the Community Partnership, says that two-thirds of rapid re-housing participants “exited” the program to “permanent destinations” (HUD-speak for permanent housing) and that 91% of them remain stably housed.

So about 39 out of every 100 households that had the limited-term rent subsidies are in some sort of unstable situation — either at-risk or literally homeless.

We don’t know how long the rest have been stably housed, though a recent statement by David Berns, the director of Human Services, suggests perhaps only one year.*

We do know, however, that some homeless families declined rapid re-housing because they were pretty sure they couldn’t pick up the full rent. So even if the stably-housed figure is fairly long-term, it would reflect some self-selection.

Why Fuss About the Rapid Re-Housing Data?

I’m nattering about the under-supported claims for the success of rapid re-housing because they have immediate policy implications.

As I recently wrote, the Mayor’s proposed amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act would, among other things, give homeless families a choice between rapid re-housing and life on the streets.

At the time of the PIT count, 18% of homeless D.C. adults with children had no source of income whatever. Twenty-five percent were employed, but obviously not earning enough to pay market-rate rents here.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was the most commonly reported source of income. TheĀ maximum TANF benefit for a family of three is less than a third of the monthly rent on a modest two-bedroom apartment.

How many families who’ve remained stably housed entered the rapid re-housing program with comparable incomes — and comparably doubtful near-term prospects for such significant improvement that they could afford full rent?

For the two-bedroom apartment, that would require a monthly income of nearly $4,707 — more than three times the District’s minimum wage.

Seems to me the DC Council should have a much better grasp on the putative — and prospective — success rates of rapid re-housing before it votes on the HRSA amendments.

A better grasp and a lot more input on other issues too.

* Berns says that “91 percent of those who have been re-housed … remained in stable housing after one year.” He’s apparently using the Community Partnership’s figure as if it were a percent of the whole, rather than of two-thirds.


DC Homelessness Rates Trend Downward, But Still Very High

May 8, 2013

The upsurge in homelessness in the District of Columbia seems to have abated — at least for the time being. The actual numbers, however, remain very high.

And while homelessness among individual adults is now lower than in 2008, when the recession had just set in, family homelessness is still exponentially higher.

This is the top line news for the District in the just-issued report on the results of the one-night homelessness counts by communities that belong to the Metropolitan Council of Governments.

As I always say, these point-in-time counts don’t tell us how many homeless people there are — only how many meet the restrictive definition the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates.

Nevertheless, they’re all we’ve got for the District’s homeless population and the subgroups reported to HUD.

So here are the figures, with some additional calculations I’ve made to indicate change over time. I’ll deal with how the report explains the recent decreases in a followup post.

The total number of homeless people counted dropped a bit — from 6,954 last year to 6,865. This represents a decrease of 1.3%, but it’s still 16% higher than in 2008.

The number of homeless families also decreased — from 1,014 to 983 or by 3%. Even with the drop, however, the number has increased by nearly 67.5% since 2008.

The count identified 3,169 homeless family members — just 18 fewer than in 2012. Of these, 1,301 were adults and 1,868 were children with them.

The number of homeless individual men and women, i.e., those not with family members, declined for the third year in a row. The latest count identified 3,696 — 22% fewer than in 2008.

These are adults only. The count identified six homeless unaccompanied youth, i.e., kids under 18 who weren’t with a family member.

This presumably reflects major flaws in the count, since a limited survey by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates found about six times as many who’d fit the definition the count used.

Both local and federal policies have put a high priority on moving chronically homeless individuals into permanent supportive housing.

We see the results in the number counted — 1,764, as compared to 1,870 in 2012. This is the fourth year in a row that the number has dropped.

PSH probably also helps explain the relatively small number of unsheltered homeless individuals counted — 512. This is 25% fewer than in 2012.

The count isn’t complete, of course, but the percent drop is probably fairly accurate. Figures for earlier years may not be comparable because recent PIT reports suggest greater efforts to identify the unsheltered population.

All these numbers speak to choices local policymakers have made — and some facing them right now. More on this tomorrow.


DC Child Welfare Agency Will Treat “Traumas” of Child Poverty

November 19, 2012

Policy consultant and blogger Susie Cambria calls our attention to a grant the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency recently received.

The grant, says CFSA, will help it “make trauma-informed treatment the foundation of serving children and youth in the District [sic] child welfare system.”

The approach sounds like a good thing, but it’s far beyond my capacity to assess.

The reason I write about it is rather what Mindy Good, CFSA’s public information officer, told Cambria about the traumatic events children have experienced by the time they become part of the agency’s caseload.

Some are cases we could confidently classify as abuse, e.g., severe physical punishment, molesting.

Others bespeak neglect that could call for at least a temporary rescue, e.g., having to rely on a parent or other caretaker whose behavior is “erratic” due to substance abuse or untreated mental illness.

But many are simply consequences of living in a family that’s desperately poor, e.g., “not knowing where the next meal is coming from,” “being homeless or moving a great deal.”

Good alludes to getting the child to safety as a first step. This seems to mean, in most cases, removing children from their parents or other caretakers — itself a traumatic experience, as she notes.

Perhaps even the first traumatic experience they have. It’s by no means clear, for example, that the mere fact of living doubled up with first one family and then another induces emotional and/or behavioral problems.

Last year, CFSA confirmed about 873 cases of child neglect — 58% of all the incidents it substantiated. In 2010, neglect (unspecified) was the primary reason it put 395 children into foster care.

One can’t help wondering how many of them weren’t really neglected at all — children in food insecure families, for example, or in homeless families the District wouldn’t shelter.

Or children being cared for by strangers or tasked with caring for younger sibs — two other “traumatic events” Good cites.

There’s a ready remedy for these “traumas.” And it’s not being put into foster care.

If children justifiably fear hunger, their parents or guardians obviously need food stamps — or if they’re not eligible, assurance that their children often are.

Perhaps they also need cash assistance, since we know that food stamps often don’t cover the costs of even the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest meal plan.

If children are homeless, their families need affordable housing. Same if the family moves frequently because it has to rely on the hospitality of friends and relatives.

If children get parked with strangers or have to shoulder inappropriate child care responsibilities, perhaps the family needs a voucher to pay for daycare — and access to a provider who’ll care for kids early, late and on unpredicable schedules.

CFSA can advise families how to seek these kinds of help. And it may now be doing so, since it reports a new response model, which, in some cases, “leads to service options the family can choose to accept.”

But, of course, seeking isn’t receiving.

As recently as 2010, CFSA cited “inadequate housing” as the primary reason it put some children into foster care. Telling their parents they could apply for housing assistance would be futile, since they’d merely join the many thousands of households on the waiting list.

Though parents might enroll in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family’s program, the cash benefits would leave them in dire poverty — perhaps still unable to stretch their food budgets till the end of the month.

They’d be eligible for child care assistance, but they might not be able to find it because the District’s provider reimbursement rates have led to a severe shortage of available slots, especially for very young children and those with disabilities.

CFSA’s new treatment approach may help children overcome whatever traumas they’ve experienced because their parents can’t afford to provide them with safe, stable housing, regular meals and the like. But it’s a second-best solution.

Perhaps the best CFSA can do, however, because our system defines “child welfare” as protection from abuse and neglect.

It’s up to other agencies — and ultimately to our elected officials — to ensure that the poor children in our community have what they need to fare well.

Or rather, it’s ultimately up to us since we’re the ones who elected them. Don’t think as many of us as could are doing as much as we might, though some are giving their all and more.


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