More Light And A Lot More Heat On DC Summer Youth Employment Program

August 5, 2010

Monday’s hearing on the District’s troublesome Summer Youth Employment Program lasted more than eight hours. Many witnesses — most of them SYEP participants who, I gather, had been rounded up and possibly coached. Also invited government witnesses and some top-flight advocates for homeless and other poor D.C. residents.

Many pleas for the requested seven-day extension — a chance to earn more, learn more and have something to do besides hang out on the streets and get into trouble.

Cogent opposition from the Brookings Institution’s Martha Ross and the advocates, whose principal concern was the diversion of funds from homeless services, cash assistance and better job training for TANF participants and a swifter, more accurate case management system.

A blast from the DC auditor on the administration’s chronic practice of ignoring SYEP budget constraints. “Irresponsible … a threat to other vital District programs and the District’s fiscal stability.” Violations of the federal and District anti-deficiency laws, which, among other things, prohibit agencies from authorizing spending in excess of approved budgets.

An account of the run-up to this year’s raid on the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund from the Associate Chief Financial Officer. A raking over the coals for keeping the Council in the dark.

A strong defense of the SYEP from Joe Walsh, Director of Employment Services. The largest program in two decades. The largest in the country, in fact. Most participants from the three wards with the highest unemployment rates. About 30% of them from families who receive public assistance. The usual enumeration of benefits to participants. Diverse administrative improvements.

Considerable distress and frustration on the part of Councilmembers, who rightly felt jammed by the last-minute extension request and, more importantly, the administration’s utter disregard for the budget process.

Seems they thought the $22.7 million appropriated for the SYEP was what the administration was supposed to spend, not a minimum that could be freely augmented from other accounts without so much as a heads-up to the oversight committee.

Seems that Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, believed that the Department of Human Services would spend the TANF Emergency Contingency funds according to the allocations submitted during this year’s budget deliberations. Blindsided by the department’s transfer of $8.4 million to DOES.

But there really wasn’t much the committee could do — or the full Council either. Back in May, DOES had met with CFO staff about the costs of a program enrolling 21,000 participants for seven and a half weeks, rather than the authorized six. CFO staff told DOES it had funds for at most four weeks of wages. DOES then identified the TANF funds as the way to close the gap.

It assured CFO staff that the Emergency Contingency funds could be used because 80% of participants had addresses indicating they were eligible for TANF. Apparently no one in the CFO’s office questioned this dubious methodology.

So now SYEP participants are owed about two weeks of wages that can only be paid by tapping a source outside the approved budget. And since the Council found out about this only days ago, it hardly had time to go back through the budget and find another way to cover the overrun.

But it did what it could. It soundly defeated the proposed extension. This reportedly leaves $4.3 million in TANF funds that ought to go back to DHS.

It also leaves some big issues on the table. Where will DHS find the additional funds to provide shelter or other housing for the District’s many homeless families? Will it use any of the funds passed back to provide emergency relief to the families who’ve got no place to stay? What will happen with its TANF job training and other initiatives?

And what can the Council do to ensure that whoever directs the SYEP doesn’t again commit to a larger, longer program than the budget can cover?


DC Human Services Director Ducks Responsibility For Family Shelter Crisis

April 5, 2010

Last Wednesday, the end of the District’s hypothermia season, the DC Council’s Human Services Committee revisited the vexed matter of the 2009-10 Winter Plan for homeless services.

The hearing went on for about seven hours. Though officially billed as a review of how the winter plan had been implemented, most of it was devoted to testimony by parents housed or formerly housed at DC General–the only facility dedicated solely to winter-only space for homeless families.

Thanks to persistent investigative reporting by Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper, the rest of us already knew a good bit about major problems there–mold, leaks, peeling paint (maybe lead-based), pest infestations, food that apparently sickened some children, workers who propositioned residents and/or sold drugs, caseworkers who failed to screen incoming residents for potential mental health problems or to help residents get the heck out of the place.

Still, it was acutely distressing to hear residents speak of their personal experiences.

  • A pregnant mother in a room too hot to stay in because the window wouldn’t open and whose four-year-old couldn’t play on the floor because of the rats, droppings and roaches.
  • Another mother who couldn’t get food for her wheat-intolerant son or access a kitchen so she could prepare food for him.
  • A disabled woman who had to walk down four flights of stairs because the elevators were broken.
  • A woman who told her caseworker she wanted to get out and was asked, “How are you going to do that?”

Many viewed the hearing as a proceeding against Families Forward, the nonprofit contractor for managing the family shelter portion of DC General. Supporters showed up in tee shirts reading “Support Families Forward.”

Staff praised the leadership, spoke convincingly of how they cared for the residents and had guidance about what to do in cases of untoward events, like the deaths of two newborns in the last 12 months. Some clients also spoke favorably about operations at DC General, especially the kindness and helpfulness of caseworkers.

All for naught. The Families Forward contract expires at the end of the month. Mayor Fenty has announced it won’t be renewed–a belated effort at damage control.

It’s hard to argue that Families Forward should retain responsibility for the day-to-day operations at DC General. But the problems there didn’t originate with the contractor. Nor will they be resolved by bringing in another.

When the Interagency Council for Homelessness issued its draft winter plan last summer, advocates questioned its proposal for family shelter space. So did I. The numbers just didn’t add up. Nor did they seem realistic in light of the rising tide of family homelessness and dismal projections for the economy.

Yet Clarence Carter, head of the Human Services Department, insisted that all would be well–that DHS had “identified all the needed resources to meet the full demand for homeless services during the hypothermia season, as outlined in the District’s 2009-2010 Winter Plan.

Some ambiguity there. But notwithstanding the $12 million cut for homeless services, both he and the final winter plan itself repeatedly committed to opening additional facilities if needs exceeded projections.

Winter set in. The temperatures dropped–also record-setting amounts of snow. In mid-February, 170 families were crammed into a facility with 124 contracted units. Nine units were added. The snow melted. And, in mid-March, there were 75 more families than units–some on cots lined up in activity rooms, some bedded down in hallways.

Yet apparently no one from DHS went out to look at the situation. Indeed, Carter testified that the prime contractor for homeless services, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, was responsible for monitoring homeless shelters, not DHS.

And who was monitoring to make sure the that Partnership had the resources for the task? Who was checking on whether the agencies responsible for the physical conditions at DC General were doing their job? Apparently no one.

The District is legally responsible for the safety and well-being of its most vulnerable residents–not the Partnership nor its subcontractors. It shouldn’t take a public relations disaster and the threat of a lawsuit to trigger action on problems that anyone could have identified some months ago.

Contract monitoring is a basic agency function. If DHS didn’t have the resources for it, then someone should have come forth and said so.


Next Round In the DC Homeless Services Crisis

October 13, 2009

This Wednesday at noon, the DC Council Committee on Human Services will hold a roundtable hearing on the District’s winter plan. Or at least that’s the formal topic for the hearing. The dialogue will undoubtedly be broader because, at this point, what’s at stake is the longer-term future of homeless services in D.C.

Since the hearing was scheduled:

  • Homeless service providers have been told that their contracts will be reduced by an average of 30%. Five shelter providers have warned that their clients are at immediate risk. One has said her organization will have to close a housing program for families.
  • Interested parties have locked horns on the size of the homeless services budget cut. We’ve now learned that it’s apparently somewhat over $12 million. Most of this cut represents funds in the federal block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These were formerly used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation but have been diverted to other programs.
  • Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, has issued a statement committing only to funding for the shelter capacity and other services identified in the winter plan, capped at the Fiscal Year 2009 level. No assurance that any funds will be available for the rest of the year.
  • Some Councilmembers, including Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, have expressed dismay at this turn of events.

So the hearing promises to be lively and potentially consequential.

A coalition of homeless service providers, advocates and homeless people has scheduled a press conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, at 11:00 a.m. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about what’s happening and likely to happen if the Council or administration higher-ups don’t step in to restore the homeless services budget.

You can influence the outcome of this crisis by calling or e-mailing Mayor Fenty, the City Administrator and members of the Human Services Committee. Contact information for committee members is in the Council directory.

Also attend the press conference and/or hearing if you can. A big turnout will show Councilmembers that their constituents care about the safety and well-being of their homeless neighbors.


No Clear Answers on DC Shelter Cutbacks

October 7, 2009

Last Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the Fenty administration had cut funding for homeless services by $20 million. The source for that figure was Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee. He says the cuts took him by surprise–that the budget he asked the Council to vote on included no cuts in homeless services.

That takes me by surprise. The expenditure reductions table that blogger and budget “insider” Susie Cambria got from reliable sources certainly indicates cuts for homeless services, though nowhere near $20 million.

In any event, Wells changed the agenda for a scheduled hearing so that he could look into the issue. As the Post reports, Clarence Carter, head of the Department of Human Services, testified that Wells was “dead wrong.” The actual cut was more like $900,000.

Moreover, he said, funding for the Community Partnership for Homelessness Prevention, which manages homeless services for the District, is about the same as last year’s, though he also referred to a budget reduction of $11.5 million. Wells and homeless advocates insisted the cut was larger–about 30%.

One would think the amount of funding available for homeless services would be beyond dispute. But the Budget Request Act–the appropriations the Council approved–has no separate line item for homeless services. So DHS can allocate funding for these services as it sees fit and move money around in response to changing priorities and pressures.

Whatever the figure, a fact sheet issued by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says that at least five emergency shelter and transitional housing providers were notified on September 28 that their contracts would be cut by an average of 30%, effective October 1. This much apparently is not in dispute.

We’re given to understand that a lot of people who now have shelter will be out on the streets unless the mandated cuts are rescinded. And we know there are now 385 families on the waiting list for shelter or other housing.

The official start of the hypothermia season is just weeks away. And the winter plan, which is supposed to be a blueprint for how the District will provide shelter for every individual and family who needs protection from the cold, assumes more capacity than apparently will be available.

So we obviously have a crisis–and, what’s worse, no clear view of its dimensions or potential solutions. The roots of the problem go back to the over-broad budget allocation and what certainly seems to be a lack of transparency on the part of the Fenty administration.

Whatever Carter told the Community Partnership and/or the providers, he testified that his department had the funds to cope as recently as mid-July. And he said not a word to the contrary when the Interagency Council on Homelessness met in early September.

But I’d be sorry to see all the blame heaped on DHS. After all, the Council voted to cut the department’s budget. What did they expect? That somehow homeless and other poor people wouldn’t be hurt?

CORRECTION: The version of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget submitted for Congressional approval on September 28 has a separate line item for homeless services. The budget was restructured this year to put these in the family services account.


DC Council Hearing On Emergency Shelter Crisis

July 20, 2009

Last Friday, Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, held a hearing on emergency shelter capacity in the District. He wanted to know if the system is in crisis.

The figures certainly suggest it is:

  • Between April 1 and June 17, women’s shelters were full beyond capacity more than half the time.
  • In June, there were, on average, four vacancies per night for women and just one for families, indicating there were probably nights when people were turned away.
  • About 30 families are still in what’s supposed to be additional cold weather space at DC General–as Wells says, “an awful place for children to be.”
  • At least 285 families are on the waiting list for shelter. The usually-reliable Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says it’s actually 311.
  • No one knows how many families didn’t register when they found out how long the waiting list is.

But Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, doesn’t see a crisis because he’s got a plan to relieve needs for emergency shelter. He says that:

  • Within months, the department will be using $7.4 million it’s received through the economic recovery act to provide more short-term assistance to families on the verge of homelessness.
  • It will also be coordinating planning so that individuals discharged from institutions have a place to live.
  • In upcoming months, the District’s Housing First initiative will expand to provide long-term supportive housing for 160 more individuals and 24 more families, thus shifting long-term users out of the shelter system.

But what will happen to homeless women and families in the meantime? And what if needs for housing assistance continue to grow? Carter says not to worry. The department has enough funds to cope.

Of course, that’s what agency heads are supposed to say when an administration has no intention of requesting more funds–let alone when it’s trying to close a budget gap with virtually no tax increases.

Still, it’s disturbing to hear such optimism when all the evidence indicates that needs for emergency shelter and affordable housing will continue to outstrip resources for some considerable time to come.

More disturbing yet when the Mayor’s gap-closing plan would eliminate the modest increases approved for Housing First and the Local Rent Supplement Program–funds that could help some homeless or about-to-be-homeless people get an affordable place to live.


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