DC Fails Homelessness Test

May 2, 2012

Speak for We blogger Michael Dahl recaps a bit of his experience as a long-time advocate for better homelessness and affordable housing policies in Minnesota.

Over the years, he says, homelessness advocates have given top priority to diverse strategies — prevention, supportive housing, rapid re-housing, etc.

He sees a consistent thread in three elements. They aren’t actually common elements in the strategies, however. They’re questions that policymakers and other stakeholders should ask when they decide what their community needs by way of a homelessness system.

They’re painfully apt here in the District of Columbia as the DC Council considers the Mayor’s proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget.

So here they are (with some minor edits):

  • Do we have enough affordable housing?
  • Do we have jobs in the community that pay for housing here?
  • Do the supports that we rely on when we fall on hard times, e.g., a job loss, poor health, work for our lowest income residents?

These components, Dahl says, “provide stability and a pretty sturdy safety net.” If they’re all in place, the number of homeless people will be small, and the time they spend homeless will usually be short.

If they’re not in place, then “you need a homeless system to pick up the slack.”

Well, the District surely doesn’t have enough affordable housing.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute took a close look at the situation two years ago. It found that the market had lost 23,700 low-cost rental units between 2000 and 2007 — more than a third of the stock.

Two in every five households were spending more for housing than they could afford, based on the standard 30% of income. Nearly three in five of poor and near-poor households paid at least half their income for a roof over their heads.

We’ve good reasons to believe that the situation has gotten worse. Rental costs have risen. More affordable units have been converted to upscale rentals or condos. More may have fallen into such disrepair as to be uninhabitable — victims of a combination of forces, including the recession.

The Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main tool for supporting affordable housing development and preservation — suffered losses when property sales slowed and prices dropped.

Then the Fund was raided to shore up the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s locally-funded voucher program. And now the Mayor proposes another raid, leaving the Fund with enough to support only 170 new units next year.

This second fund shift to LRSP would cover the projected costs of all existing vouchers, but no additional vouchers for people who are homeless — or may become homeless in months to come.

Whether the District will be able to renew all federally-funded vouchers is anybody’s guess.

The District does have jobs that pay for local housing, but not nearly all residents have them.

The local unemployment rate seems stuck at 9.8% — and that’s only residents who are actively looking for work. The latest rates for Wards 7 and 8 are 16.3% and 24.3%.

The average income of the poorest fifth of D.C. households was just $9,100 in 2010 — about $4,770 less than the annual rental cost of a modest efficiency unit then.

Even if the District prepares more residents for living wage jobs — and cracks down on enforcement of its living wage law — housing will remain unaffordable for a substantial number of workers.

At the current living wage rate, they’d have to pay more than half their income for rent on that efficiency, assuming they work full-time, year round.

Our safety net is far from sturdy for our lowest income residents.

They can get health care through Medicaid or the DC HealthCare Alliance, though those in the latter might lose essential services if the Council goes along with the Mayor’s savings plan.

Unemployment benefits are available for some, though far from all residents who lose their jobs. But they’ll be cut off sooner due to changes in federal law.

For families with children, we have the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program. But cash benefits are way too low to cover the cost of unsubsidized housing. The maximum cash benefit for a family of three — currently $428 a month — is less than 37% of what the efficiency unit costs.

This is true, however, only for a family that’s been in the program for less than 60 months. For a family that’s been in longer, the benefit is only $257 a month. And the Mayor’s proposed budget would reinstate further cuts that the Council wisely deferred last year.

So it would seem that we truly do need a robust homeless services program. Under the Mayor’s budget, it would have $7 million less than last year.

And it already lacks funds to provide homeless families with shelter or other housing now that the winter season is officially over.

In short, the District fails Dahl’s test on both counts. Not enough stability or safety net support. Not enough in homeless services to pick up the slack either.


DC Mayor’s Budget Would Punish TANF Families for Program’s Failures

April 29, 2012

How would you like to try living on $275 a month — and in the District of Columbia no less? Inconceivable for a single person. What then for a single mother with two kids?

Under Mayor Gray’s proposed budget, more than 6,100 families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program will lose a fifth of their meager cash benefits come October — this on top of the same sized-cut imposed last April.

The figure I led off with is what a family of three would be left with. Additional benefits cuts would follow until the family got nothing at all.

More than 11,000 children under thirteen would be plunged into even deeper poverty. Some of them, as the Children’s Law Center warns, would be put into foster care simply because their parents couldn’t afford adequate housing.

The families who’ll suffer are those who’ve spent 60 months or more in the program — not necessarily consecutive.

In many cases, the affected parents haven’t gotten the services they need to overcome severe work barriers, e.g., mental and physical health problems, domestic violence trauma, minimal or no marketable job skills.

Some were expected to engage in what passed for work preparation activities — sessions on workplace behavior, writing a resume, interviewing, etc.

Then, as one participant said, “[t]hey have you on the computer all day,” searching the online listings and pressured to take the first job offered.

Many have cycled back into the program because they didn’t have the skills for the jobs they’d found — or hadn’t gotten the help they needed to overcome other barriers. Others, I suppose, returned when they lost their jobs due to the recession.

Not all the parents whose benefits will be cut were required to engage in work activities for their whole term in the program. Some were excused for awhile because their barriers made work activities wholly unrealistic. But the time off is being counted toward their 60-month maximum anyway.

What’s happening here is that part of the Department of Human Services’ TANF redesign is barreling ahead — the part that gives parents a stronger incentive to engage in required work preparation and work search activities.

Nothing like facing a penniless future to get one moving — unless, of course, one’s too ill, disabled or occupied with other responsibilities, e.g., caring for a severely disabled child, to move on the work front, even knowing the hardships awaiting.

The administration could exempt up to 20% of such “hardship cases” from the 60-month limit and still use federal funds for a share of their cash benefits. But it’s chosen not to.

The other part of the TANF reform — in-depth individual assessments to identify their individual strengths and needs — is lagging behind. Thus also appropriate agreements on what they should do to fulfill their responsibilities for striving toward self-sufficiency.

As of late February, DHS had completed only 12% of the assessments needed for families at immediate risk of cash benefit loss.

At the reported rate of 150 assessments a week, it won’t get through them all until months after the next 20% cut kicks in.

It might if the rate applied only to parents subject to the phase-out rather than to all parents who show up when they’re told to. Some at immediate risk haven’t heard, don’t understand or perhaps figure it’s futile because they’re going to lose their benefit anyway.

Councilmembers Jim Graham and Michael Brown have introduced a bill that would temporarily stave off the benefits cuts and mandate reasonable time-limit exemptions, such as many states provide.

Advocates have suggested ways the bill could be strengthened, including a longer reprieve period. But it’s a whole lot better than what’s coming down the pike.

Why didn’t Mayor Gray fold a version into his proposed budget? Surely he knows that TANF families will lose benefits because the program failed them.

For the same reason he put the benefits phase-out into last year’s proposed budget. Savings to help close the budget gap. This year he expects to save more than $5.6 million.

Well, the DC Council could do what the Mayor wouldn’t. The Human Services Committee took a step in this direction last week with a vote (4-1) in favor of the Graham-Brown bill

Now comes the need to find funds to substitute for the Mayor’s proposed savings — and to get at least three more Councilmembers on board.

Maybe we should launch a TANF Challenge along the lines of the popular Food Stamp Challenges.

Who knows what might happen if our elected representatives had to try living on $275 for a month?


House Agriculture Committee Slashes Food Stamp Program

April 22, 2012

You can’t have both guns and butter. House Republicans have taken this old piece of federal budget wisdom seriously. They’ve opted for guns — not over butter, but over food assistance for poor people.

The guns at issue here are funds for defense. Sequestration, i.e., the annual across-the-board cuts required by the Budget Control Act, would reduce them by $54.7 billion a year.

Nobody in a position of power wants those cuts, including the President.

His proposed Fiscal Year 2013 budget would hit the total deficit reduction targets in the BCA by a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases. It would also, as the BCA does, protect certain key programs for low-income people, including food stamps.

House Republicans will have none of this. Their budget plan, among other things, charged six committees to come up with more non-defense savings — enough to hit the deficit reduction targets, but without touching defense.

The House Agriculture Committee had to save $33.2 billion over the next 10 years, beginning with $8.2 billion in the upcoming fiscal year.

It could have gone after the costly subsidies our government pays to farmers — actually, for the most part, large farming operations.

Some of these provide special benefits for producing certain crops, e.g., yearly payments (even if the farmer grows nothing), compensation to make up for lower market prices. Another subsidizes insurance against crop losses. Yet farmers also get compensated when droughts, frosts, etc. ruin their crops.

All told, these subsidies cost some $25 billion a year. Nice safety net, huh?

The House budget plan itself identifies some of these subsidies for “reforms.” But they’re for another day.

So the Agriculture Committee, heeding “assumptions” made by the Budget Committee found its mandated savings — all of them and more — in the food stamp program.

First, it would shave months off the expiring boost in benefits that was part of the Recovery Act. They’re now scheduled to end in November 2013 — thanks to earlier cutbacks Congress made to offset the costs of other measures.

Under the House Agriculture plan, the boost would end two months from now. For a family of four, this would mean $57 less per month, according to a new brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The bulk of the savings, however, would come from two changes in the food stamp law itself.

One of them would, in effect, require households to be poorer to qualify for food stamps.

Under current law, a household can generally have no more than $2,000 in assets — or $3,250 if any of its members is a senior or a person with a disability. Total household income must be no greater than 130% of the applicable federal poverty line.

But most states — and the District of Columbia — have used an option in the law to eliminate the asset test. They’ve expanded their definition of “categorical eligibility,” i.e., types of low-income households that automatically qualify for food stamps.

This not only allows low-income families to conserve what they can for unexpected expenses. It also lets states raise the income eligiibilty threshold up to 200% of the federal poverty line — the level that many analysts use for classifying the low-income population.

The House Agriculture Committee would put a stop to this. Only households in which all members receive cash assistance could be deemed categorically eligible.

No more categorical eligibility for those that receive other types of publicly-funded support for low-income people, e.g., child care subsidies, job training.

Nor for households where only the children receive cash benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program or as Supplemental Security Income.

At least two million people — perhaps as many as three million –would be forced out of the program. More than 280,000 children would lose not only food stamp benefits, but free school meals.

The other change in existing law would permanently reduce the benefits some households receive — again by severely limiting an option a growing number of states now use.

Briefly, the complicated formula states must ordinarily use to calculate food stamp eligibility and benefits levels includes an income allowance for utility costs, based on those applicants actually have to pay for.

But if the family receives benefits from the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, it automatically qualifies for the maximum allowance.

Fourteen states — and the District — have given families in the food stamp program a small LIHEAP benefit. Some of the families get higher food stamp benefits as a result. No big windfall here, however.

The House Agriculture Committee would virtually eliminate the so-called “heat and eat” option — or so I infer, since it expects to save $14 billion.

All this would be in addition to, not instead of the $133.5 billion House Republicans intend to save by converting the food stamp program to a block grant.

Moral of this story: Some people’s safety nets are worthier than others.


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.


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