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.

How The DC Winter Plan For Families Really Evolved

October 8, 2010

After I posted my account of how the District’s winter plan for homeless families evolved, I got an e-mail from Chapman Todd, who chairs the Operations & Logistics Committee. Chapman is a consultant on housing development and one of the advocate members of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Chapman informed me that I had misunderstood both the role of the Committee in the now-superseded proposal to add overflow spaces at DC General and what the Committee told the Department of Human Services about estimated need.

So to set the record straight …

#1. DHS did add the 100 overflow units at DC General in response to Committee concerns about potentially inadequate capacity for families. But it did so without consulting the Committee. Committee members in fact had previously recommended against any further expansion at DC General.

At an early point, DHS indicated that it had identified a smaller building elsewhere in the city that could be used to temporarily house families if DC General had no available units. This alternative subsequently dropped out of the evolving plan. Another member of the Committee has reported rumors that it fell victim to political pressures — a Councilmember representing her ”not in my backyard” constituents.

#2. The Committee estimated only additional spaces needed. It did not assume that DHS would be able to move 100 families out of DC General by November 1. Nor did it assume this would mean that 100 units would be available then. So the accurate estimate is 215 units, plus however many are occupied when the hypothermia season begins.

This clearly is an unknown. Hence concerns — mine among them — about whether DHS will in fact be able to accommodate all homeless families by adding to its stock of subsidized housing, while retaining only existing emergency shelter space.

I should add that my concerns are greater now because I’ve learned that DHS has distributed all the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing funds it received under the economic recovery act.

Some providers that received the funds have not yet exhausted their allocations. But the remaining funds will probably be needed to provide further assistance to families who are already depending on HPRRP for housing.

Funds could be totally exhausted before the end of the winter season. Which, of course, would mean more families in need of emergency shelter or other subsidized housing.

The DC Council Committee on Human Services held a hearing on the winter plan on Wednesday. Several witnesses, including members of the Interagency Council, said that DHS needed a back-up plan. Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the committee, seemed to think so as well.

All that DHS Director Clarence Carter could say was that his agency would continue monitoring needs and “sound the alarm” if additional resources are needed.

Whether they’ll be forthcoming and, if so, how soon is an open question. But we’re likely to have the answer in the months ahead.

District Aims For A Better Winter Season For Homeless Families, But …

October 6, 2010

Here in D.C., another fall means it’s time for another winter plan, the document that spells out how the District intends to ensure that all residents have shelter during severe weather.

Once again, I’m chewing over the provisions for homeless families. And I’m not the only one.

The Operations & Logistics Committee, which develops the nuts and bolts of the plan for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, met again late last month to hash over a couple of last-minute changes advanced by the Department of Human Services. One of these was a major shift in the plan for homeless families.

Here’s how things seem to stand now.

The Operations & Logistics Committee figured that the District would need 31% more units for families than were available at the start of last winter’s season. That meant 215 additional units.

But according to a presentation at the last ICH meeting, the Committee assumed that 100 “beds” (the math indicates that means units) would be available at DC General on November 1.

The assumption reflected a goal put forward by DHS — 100 families moved out of DC General to more permanent housing by the end of October.

Why DHS and/or the Committee assumed that the units vacated would remain empty until the winter season begins isn’t clear to me. It’s not as if there aren’t families waiting to move in right now.

In any event, I gather the Committee didn’t feel altogether comfortable with the projection. So DHS agreed to add 100 overflow units at DC General, to be ready for occupancy on December 1. Then it changed its position.

What it plans to do instead is fast-track funding to place more families in permanent supportive housing, transitional housing and temporary housing units scattered around the city. Units identified in the plan total 180, bringing total capacity to what it would have been with the additional overflow units at DC General.

DHS told the Committee it had already moved 45 families out of DC General — 15 into PSH and the rest into housing temporarily subsidized with federal Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing funds.

If I’ve got the numbers right, this means it will have to find housing for an additional 55 families in the next couple of weeks. The DHS representatives at the meeting seemed confident they could do this.

DHS plans to line up an additional 80 units and have them ready for occupancy so that it can swiftly move some families out of DC General — or perhaps divert them from the shelter altogether — as the winter season progresses.

DHS argues that the funds required to renovate units at DC General would be better spent on more suitable, stable housing situations. Also more consistent with the five-year strategic plan ICH adopted in April.

No one, I think, would raise principled objections to this. Surely housing is a better option than emergency shelter units like those at DC General. The big question is whether the DHS housing initiative can keep pace with what’s likely to be a continuing high level of need.

I’m not thinking here only about families who will lose their housing — and others who will run out of money for motel rooms or wear out their welcome with friends and relatives.

What about the families whose housing is only temporarily subsidized? Will they be able to pick up the full cost of rent some months from now? Or will they be back where they started, in urgent need of shelter?

Well, that won’t happen till this winter’s over. Hard to tell whether DHS has thought so far ahead.

Members of the Operations & Logistics Committee voiced some reservations along these lines. Clarence Carter, head of DHS, responded, “When we have to do something else, we will do something else.”

But that was before Mayor Fenty directed the agency to cut its budget by about $11 million. And didn’t we hear reassuring words like these last year?

UPDATE: I’ve just learned that the Mayor’s order doesn’t actually cut agencies’ budgets. It puts certain categories of spending on hold and prevents spending commitments in other categories that could complicate upcoming decisions on budget cuts.

UPDATE II. This posting reflects some misunderstandings about the role of the Operations & Logistics Committee and its estimate of family shelter needs. A followup posting provides clarifications and some additional information based on the DC Council Committee on Human Services’ hearing on the plan.


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