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.


DC Family Homelessness Hits New High

May 10, 2012

Every year, as some of you know, the District of Columbia participates in a regional one-night count of homeless people within its boundaries.

Technically known as a point-in-time count, it doesn’t begin to tell us how many homeless people there are — only how many the counters find who meet the restrictive definition the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates.

Now we have the results of the January 2012 point-in-time counts. For the District, there should be no big surprises. Some shockers maybe, but not surprises.

The total number of homeless people counted increased again — 6,954, as compared to 6,546 in 2011.

The increase was driven entirely by a further rise in the number who were in families.

The count identified a total of 3,187 homeless family members — 499 more than in 2011. Of these 1,307 were adults and 1,880 were children.

The number of homeless adult family members is 239 higher than in 2011. The number of homeless children with them is 260 higher — an increase of 16% in just one year.

These numbers have increased steadily ever since the recession began. The latest total of literally homeless family members is 73.6% higher than in 2008.

Not surprisingly then, the number of homeless families increased as well — from 858 in 2011 to 1,014 this year. The count has increased by 72.7% since 2008.

Over the years, the number of homeless individual men and women, i.e., those not with family members, has fluctuated.

This year, 3,754 were counted — 104 fewer than in 2011. The latest number represents a 10.8% decrease since 2008. More evidence of how our homeless population is changing — and our policies lagging behind.

One would hope that the new PIT count would persuade the DC Council that $7 million less for homeless services will exacerbate the crisis already overwhelming the Department of Human Services’ capacities to protect homeless families.

It’s got about 200 of them parked in costly motel rooms because there’s no room for any more at DC General, the main publicly-funded shelter for families.

And there’s no clear exit for these families because the District hasn’t invested enough in housing vouchers or other affordable housing programs.

All DHS feels it can do is turn away all newly-homeless families until next winter begins — even those who’ve got no place to stay.

That, however, apparently won’t be enough to make up for the homeless services funding loss.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that DHS plans to stop serving lunches at DC General. But parents can’t cook there or keep perishables cold. Cost and health problems in the forecast.

Homeless parents not enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program wouldn’t get job training any more — this although only 17% of D.C. adults in families had a job of any sort in January.

Apparently there’d be a cutback in medical services as well.

It’s not only homeless families who’d be affected. For the first time, to my knowledge, DHS would regress toward its minimum legal obligations to protect individual homeless men and women, as it already has with homeless families.

Shelter capacity for individuals would be cut in half during the seven months outside the official winter season. This incidentally would also deprive them of the meals shelters serve.

They’d get no transportation to shelters that had space, though the largest for men are quite remote.

And maybe there’d be less demand — though not less need — since DHS would also eliminate outreach to homeless people sleeping on the streets and other “places not meant for human habitation,” as HUD terms them.

Barring unforeseeable good fortunes, some 1,870 homeless men and women could have no safe place to sleep come next April — and nothing to eat unless they could pay for it or find charitable folks who would.

The District counts homeless people every year. But do the homeless people count?

Apparently not enough to the Gray administration. But to the Council?

Maybe if those of you who live in the District put some pressure on. The Fair Budget Coalition has an editable e-mail message you can use.

UPDATE: I’ve just learned that families who’d been placed at the Comfort Inn have been moved. I’m told that 150 is a better estimate of homeless families in motel rooms now.


No Help for Homeless DC Family, But Mayor Shortchanges Shelter Funding

April 9, 2012

I met a homeless family the other day. The mother was, to all appearances, six months pregnant. The father was tending to their toddler.

They had no place to stay and no money for food. And the Family Resources Center — the District’s central intake for homeless families — couldn’t help them.

The mother told me that they’d been advised to find some place to stay — as if they’d have asked for shelter if they had one.

They’d returned to the Center in hopes of a gift card so they could buy some food, but it had run out of cards. I was told the cards were donated by corporations like Safeway and Giant, and the chains hadn’t come through of late.

The family could, however, get a Metro fare card. I asked the father what they’d do with it. He said he guessed they’d go back to their former neighborhood and see if someone would take them in. Not likely, he seemed to think.

So here’s a family that’s destitute. A little kid and an unborn child at high risk of long-term health and developmental damages due to hunger.

Perhaps for the toddler also psychological damage if he understands what it means that they’re spending nights in bus stations or hospital waiting rooms — even, as seems likely, if he picks up on the fear and stress his parents are feeling.

Who knows how many more stories like this there are — and how many more there’ll be in months to come?

All because the District government couldn’t find enough money to fund its homeless program in light of projected needs.

A 46% increase in family homelessness since 2008. A report indicating extraordinary vulnerability to increased homelessness.

And a budget for this fiscal year that provides not a penny more for homeless services — actually $3 million less than what the Department of Human Services was spending.

So DHS has again stopped providing shelter for newly homeless families. Official end of the winter season means they’ll be on their own — perhaps till the next freezing-cold day.

And now Mayor Gray has proposed a budget that would effectively cut homeless services by $7 million. These are “lost,” i.e., spent, federal funds that he could have replaced with local dollars.

No doubt the budget must address many priorities. But I fail to see how letting homeless families fend for themselves squares with budget development principles that include “protect the District’s most vulnerable residents.”

Also fail to see why all tax and fee increases must be off the table if the alternative is cuts that undermine other principles.

The Mayor tells us that to “seize our future,” we must “improve the quality of life for all.”

My quality of life wouldn’t be impaired by paying, say, a sales tax on services that aren’t covered now — or for that matter, income taxes at a higher rate.

It is impaired by helpless worrying about the literally help-less family I met. Their quality of life goes without saying.


Progress Toward Ending Homelessness Not In Sight, New HUD Report Shows

July 10, 2011

Just finished plowing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homelessness assessment report for 2010. Many, many figures. Many perspectives on the issues.

At the end of it all, I said to myself, Well, it could have been worse. Then, And it probably was — and very well may be even worse in the upcoming fiscal year.

The homeless situation was probably worse because the most comprehensive figures the report provides come from the point-in-time counts that Continuum of Care agencies must conduct to receive HUD grants for their homelessness programs.

As I’ve said before, the COC counts must use HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless”. And we can hardly expect volunteers who fan out at night in the depth of winter to find all the homeless people who’ve take refuge in abandoned buildings, stairwells and other out-of-the-way places.

These, however, are consistent defects. So it seems reasonable to assume that changes in the reported PIT figures reflect actual trends.

The one-year changes HUD reports are what could have been a good deal worse.

The total number of homeless people recorded during the January 2010 PIT counts was 649,917 — a very large number, but only 6,850 more than in January 2009. This represents an increase of 1.1%.

The counts also produced only small increases in family homelessness. Just 928 — 1.2% — more homeless families than the 75,518 counted in January 2009. About 3,840 more homeless family members — an increase of 1.6%.

No one, I trust, would view any increase as a cause for celebration. Such small upticks, however, are rather surprising in light of the continuing impacts of the recession — foreclosures, job losses, related increases in severe housing cost burdens, etc.

More troubling, I think, are where the homeless people were counted. Only 52% of single homeless individuals were in emergency shelters or transitional housing. The remaining 48% were on the streets or in some other place “not meant for human habitation.”

More than 21% of homeless families were also unsheltered — 2.8% more than in 2009.

We don’t know how many of these unsheltered families had children — or how many children had no roof over their heads. We do know, however, that the majority of homeless families consist of a mother and two young children.

Also that the face of homelessness is changing. Since 2007, the number of homeless people in families has increased by 20%, while the number of “chronically homeless” individuals has decreased by 11%.

The latter are the people whom policymakers have focused on — individuals with disabilities, including mental illness and/or substance abuse problems, who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently.

Permanent supportive housing was initially designed for them. It’s now, HUD says, the single largest part of the homeless housing inventory, providing beds not only for chronically homeless individuals but others, including homeless people in families.

HUD is undoubtedly right in saying that PSH growth probably accounts, at least in part, for the drop in the number of chronically homeless individuals. Without it, the homeless family numbers would probably have been larger too.

But PSH programs cost money to develop and money to sustain. And Congress seems hardly in the mood to provide more for local communities that are struggling with their own revenue constraints.

One reason things could get worse by the time the next homeless count rolls round.

The other reason is that COCs will have exhausted their share of the $1.5 billion in temporary funding for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing that was part of the economic recovery act.

These funds, HUD says, also help account for last year’s relatively small increases in homelessness.

In 2010, 690,264 people, including children, got some form of assistance under HPRP. HUD reports that at least 87.8% of them found a “permanent housing destination.”* For most, this was a rental unit.

But more than 67% of the adult program leavers had monthly cash incomes of $1,000 or less. And whatever housing subsidy they got is necessarily temporary. What will keep them from joining — or rejoining — the homeless population?

For some, accommodations in PSH. For the greater number, housing vouchers and/or other affordable housing arrangements.

Which brings us back to the funding issue.

The House Appropriations Transportation/HUD Subcommittee is still working on program funding levels for Fiscal Year 2012. It’s been told to produce a bill costing $7.7 billion less than this fiscal year’s total.

This hardly augurs well for local homelessness prevention programs or the diverse programs that will probably face the need to shelter and house some 1.9 million homeless adults and children, as they did in 2010.

* Some HPRP grantees failed to report outcomes for everyone who’d received assistance. Of those whose “exits” were reported, 94% had a “permanent housing destination.” As I indicate, how permanent is an open question.


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