Amendments to DC Homeless Rights Law That Shouldn’t Be Needed, But Are

June 26, 2014

The DC Council Committee on Human Services will soon hold a hearing on a couple of bills affecting homeless families in the District. At least one — the Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act — shouldn’t be necessary. But it is.

The bill doesn’t do something else that shouldn’t be necessary, but also is. Advocates will argue strongly for an amendment. And the committee should adopt it.

The bill clarifies what the Homeless Services Reform Act means when it says families should be sheltered in a private room, if no apartment-style units are available.

A “private room,” the bill says, has to have “four non-portable walls, a ceiling and a floor that meet at the edges,” a door, with an inside lock, as its main point of access, lights that occupants can turn on and off from within the room, and so forth.

Well, whoever thought a private room was something different? Apparently the Department of Human Services.

In late January, it resorted to warehousing homeless families in recreation centers, separated from one another by flimsy partitions on the sides, but open at the top — and to anyone who felt like walking in.

Families got a reprieve when an administrative law judge ruled that the spaces weren’t rooms. Shortly thereafter, a Superior Court judge told the agency it couldn’t place any families in rec centers — at least until he issued a final decision in the case.

But the Gray administration has said it will contest the rulings, indicating that it wants to preserve the option. No surprise here, since families placed in the rec centers generally stayed only a couple of nights, if that. And others, hearing of the placements, decided not to ask for shelter.

Some I’ve heard went back to dangerous situations, including living with abusers. One mother and her children started spending nights in a stairwell again. And so the Mayor’s people concluded that the homeless family crisis was over — or had never existed.

The bill’s sponsors clearly want to put a permanent end to this form of diversion. But, as I mentioned, they’ve got more work to do.

Because long about the time DHS came up with the rec center “solution,” it also began requiring all newly-homeless families to reapply for shelter every day — and re-sheltering them for another night only if it had no legal alternative, i.e., because the outdoor temperature put them at risk of freezing to death.

The HSRA doesn’t unequivocally grant homeless families a right to remain in a shelter — or a motel room — once they’ve been placed there. This, however, had been government policy since at least 1996, shortly after the law was passed.

One can understand why. Homeless families face many risks besides freezing when they have no safe place to stay –  abuse by people in homes they’ve perforce returned to or by strangers who come upon them in stairwells, for example.

Parents can’t look for work — or keep the jobs they have — if they have to spend part of each day sitting around in the intake center.

Those who participate in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, as many do, can’t comply with their work preparation requirements — something you’d think would concern DHS, which has made such a much of its efforts to help “more families in making the climb to self-sufficiency.”

Bad as these things are, the harms to children are probably worse. We know that homelessness itself puts them at high risk of emotional and behavioral problems. For this reason, as well as others, many fall behind in school — and eventually drop out.

A root cause is the stress and insecurity children experience when they don’t have a stable home base. How much greater when they have to pack up every morning and don’t know where they’ll spend the night.

The big picture, of course, is that the District must do more to prevent family homelessness — and more to ensure that when it’s unpreventable, it’s brief and non-recurrent. Both will require larger investments than the Mayor and the Council seem prepared to make.

But at the very least, the Council can accord families the “dignity” of a genuine private room they can stay in until they’re able to move into an affordable place of their own.

Better for them, especially the children — and ever so much better for our community than the efforts, abortive and otherwise, to keep them out of the shelters that are supposed to protect them from harm.

 


Over 25 Percent Increase in Homeless DC Families, Annual Count Finds

May 14, 2014

I knew we had a homeless family crisis in the District of Columbia — as I suppose did just about everyone who’s reading this. But I was still stunned by the new one-night count figures from the Metropolitan Council of Governments.

On a night late last January, 1,231 families in the District were in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. This represents a one-year increase of about 25.2% — and a mind-boggling increase of 109.7% over 2008.

At this one point in time, 2,236 children were homeless and with parents or other caretakers. The District’s report to MCOG also identified five unaccompanied homeless youth, who, by definition, were under 18 years old. Would this were an accurate count!

Homelessness apparently increased for virtually every other population the report breaks out, but the family increase outstrips the rest.

For example, the count identified more unaccompanied men and women, i.e., those who didn’t have children with them — 3,953, as compared to 3,696 in 2013. Yet the increase in the number of people in families — adults, plus children — is well over two and a half times greater.

The 6.95% increase in the number of homeless individual men and women may be a blip, since the number had been trending modestly downward since 2010. Not so the homeless family increase, which has risen every year since 2008, when MCOG first began reporting families as a unit.

We also see what may be a blip in the recent (also modest) downward trend in the number of chronically homeless individuals, i.e., adults who have a disabling condition and have been homeless for at least a year or recurrently during the past four years.

This year, 1,785 were counted — 21 more than in 2013. This is nevertheless a decrease of nearly 18.3% since 2008. We can credit it largely, if not entirely to investments in permanent supportive housing, though the count clearly supports the need for more.

The District reports that 3,500 individual men and women are formerly homeless — and thus not counted — because they are in PSH. It also reports 858 families so housed. The huge homeless family increase would thus have been even greater without PSH.

At the same time, the number of chronically homeless families counted, i.e. those with at least one adult who meets the official definition, was virtually the same as in 2011, when they were first added to the count. And it was 50 families higher than last year.

A smaller number of families were counted as formerly homeless because of rapid re-housing, i.e., housing that’s temporarily subsidized and typically paired with some services.

At the time of the count, 635* families who’d been homeless reportedly had housing — at least, for the time being — through one of several rapid re-housing programs. Most of them had been moved from emergency shelters via the main rapid re-housing administered by the Department of Human Services.

The DC Council is expected to vote on the budget for next fiscal year two week from today. Before then, the Human Services Committee has to wrap up its proposals for homeless services.

It’s got three sets of recommendations from advocacy and service provider organizations — each focused on a different segment of the homeless population, though families have a place in all three.

The count, in different ways, lends support to all of them — The Way Home, which aims to end chronic homelessness in the District, the “roadmap” for homeless family services and the Bold Strategy to End Youth Homelessness, which, among other things, calls for an “extended point-in-time study” to give us a better fix on how many homeless youth there actually are.

The count also reinforces the urgent need to act on some other recommendations — obviously, though not only larger investments in programs to make housing affordable for extremely low-income individuals and families. And for the 42% of homeless adults who reported no income of any kind.

The Council doesn’t need the new numbers to know we’ve got a large, complex homelessness problem in the District — and a worsening homeless family crisis. But maybe the numbers will galvanize agreements to increase funding where it’s so obviously needed.

* This, at any rate, is what the housing and shelter “inventory” indicates. The report isn’t altogether clear on whether all units for families were occupied. For PSH, it seems that not all were.

 

 


DC General Family Shelter in Councilmember’s Bull’s-Eye

May 5, 2014

One of those interminable hearings on the proposed budget for the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services. A list of 81 witnesses, not counting DHS Director David Berns, whose testimony was deferred.

Many issues teed up — most, though not all related to homeless services. No way to wrap them up in a blog post. One, however, raised a new red flag.

Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the Human Services Committee, insisted that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, be closed by year’s end.

He wants to force the District to “marshal the will … and the resources” by putting a mandate to this effect in the Budget Support Act, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper reports.

Graham returned to this notion over and over again — and attempted (unsuccessfully) to garner advocates’ support.

His lead-off witness put a plank in the platform with observations and some survey results — all confirming that DC General is an awful place. Hot water only some of the time, rats, roaches and, as one current resident testified, bedbugs that caused her daughter’s face to swell up with infection.

It’s “a dead building,” Graham said, quoting past testimony by Berns. No point then in putting any money into making it somewhat more habitable.

And even if it were, it would still be an out-sized facility — “a small city” of homeless families, each with only a single room to live in.

No one, so far as I know, believes that DC General is a perfectly okay place to shelter homeless families when they’d otherwise have no safe place to stay. Some doubts, in fact, as to whether it is safe — raised most recently by the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd.

The issue is rather whether the District should close DC General before it can open enough more suitable shelter units to meet the need. Graham clearly believes this is the only way to ensure it will ever open them.

He cites the Mayor’s initiative to rapidly re-house 500 homeless families by mid-July. That, he says, would leave only about 100 families in DC General.

So there’d be vacant units — assuming, as he apparently does, that the initiative succeeds and accepting, as he does, the Mayor’s intent to keep them vacant for as long as he can. They’d still eventually be filled, Graham foresees, unless the shelter is shut down.

What to do then with the 100 or more families — and the who knows how many who will seek shelter as soon as the weather turns cold enough to trigger their legal right to protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions?”

Graham would temporarily shelter them in hotels, using money saved by not operating DC General.

This is wholly contrary to the approach DHS plans to take. Berns, recall, believes that homeless families left doubled-up situations once they knew they’d be put up in a hotel, instead of DC General.

It’s also quite different from the approach envisioned in the “roadmap” that 20 leading advocacy and service provider organizations released the day of the hearing.

This is the second time this year that advocates and service providers have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands because the Gray administration either won’t or can’t develop and carry out a plan to ensure that all homeless D.C. families have a safe, decent place to stay — and sufficient help to make their time there brief.

Or both. On the won’t side, we can look at the Mayor’s proposed budget, which would effectively cut homeless family services by $11 million — 20% of what DHS has this year.

The first coalition effort was a multi-part strategy to address the immediate family shelter crisis. The “roadmap” is a more evolved version — goals, sub-goals and new cost estimates to move the District toward a significantly improved homeless family system.

That, of course, will include something other than DC General — apartment-style units in smaller buildings, scattered in different parts of the city. The coalition expects the overhaul to take several years, however, and so focuses on improved casework and other services for families who’ll be at DC General.

Not so many there perhaps — or any for so long, if other goals are met. But there will be “safe and adequate emergency shelter for families when they need it” — whatever the outdoor temperature.

Pressed to endorse immediate closure, Judith Sandalow, who heads the Children’s Law Project, demurred because “we haven’t seen a plan that will keep families safe.”

Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless was understandably unwilling to rely on “all the big ifs.” She envisions a process in which units at DC General will be closed as they’re replaced.

A crisis-creating measure like what Graham wants could set off a repeat of the “draconian measures” DHS resorted to this winter, she warned. These measures would mean shelter for families only on freezing-cold days and no shelter during the next severe cold snap unless they went through the whole application process all over again.

One can understand Graham’s impatience. DC General was initially supposed to be an interim solution. There’s been talk about closing it for some time. Yet the Mayor only very recently directed Berns and the Deputy Mayor for Human Services to develop a closure plan.

We’ve no reason to believe that the District can establish alternative shelters for hundreds of homeless families by year’s end — or that it will pick up the costs of hotel rooms for them whenever they’ve no safe place to stay.

We do have reasons to believe that some of those families will be boomeranging back because they can’t pay rent when their rapid re-housing subsidies expire.

So I can’t help wondering if Graham, who’ll be leaving the Council shortly, wants to make a bit of history, knowing he won’t have to deal with the fallout — or perhaps just go out swinging.

UPDATE: The DC Fiscal Policy Institute now has a petition asking Councilmembers to fund the reforms recommended in the roadmap. It’s a quick and easy way for those of you who live in the District to support sorely needed improvements in the homeless family system.

 

 


Homeless DC Families Out in the Not-Quite-Cold-Enough

April 21, 2014

I never thought I’d welcome freezing-cold weather, especially in mid-April. But last week I did because I knew the District would have to shelter homeless families who have no safe place to stay.

I assumed that, as in the past, it would continue to shelter them until they could move into actual housing, with or without its assistance. I’ve learned I was wrong.

Since some time in January, the Department of Human Services has kicked newly-sheltered families back out onto the streets as soon as the forecasted temperature, including wind chill was above 32 degrees.

I wrote some time ago that DHS had reverted to the District’s minimum legal obligation under the Homeless Services Reform Act.

I was wrong about that too because I was referring to its decision to give homeless families access to shelter only in freezing-cold weather, rather than whenever they’d otherwise be at risk of immediate harm.

Now DHS truly has reverted to what the narrowest reading of the law requires — protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions” and, for families, a private room, if an apartment-style unit isn’t available.

The District is now contesting the privacy requirement, claiming that a partly partitioned-off space in a recreation center is a private room. The judge thus far is having none of it. So DHS has been putting newly-homeless families into motel rooms — something the city’s attorneys said it couldn’t possibly do.

But, as I said, they’re sheltered only very temporarily. As soon as the freezing-cold spate is over, they’re out and on their own.

And if hypothermic conditions are forecasted again, they have to return to the Virginia Williams intake center and apply for shelter all over again, as if they were in need for the first time.

They might have another opportunity, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper notes. But pretty soon we won’t have any more freezing-cold nights. The District apparently feels no responsibility for the families then.

What will they do? If they’re lucky, probably double up with one family and then another — or quadruple up for that matter.

If not so lucky, perhaps return to an abuser — a sadly common recourse, we’re told. Or they may spend nights in an emergency room or a bus station, as homeless D.C. families already have.

Or in a laundromat. “You sit in a chair and fake like you are washing clothes,” explained a grandmother who did — and may again if the only alternatives are returning her grandson to his unstable mother or giving him up to the child welfare agency.

An attorney who worked on the HSRA told me that everyone involved assumed that families would have continuous access to shelter, since that was already the operative policy. And it remained so until three years ago.

The DC Council will be considering an amendment to the HSRA that spells out what a private room is — pathetic that such legislation should be needed.

It could use the occasion to also explicitly require year round shelter for homeless families who’ve no other safe place to stay, thus making the law work as intended.

There are actually cost-saving arguments that can be made here, but I’ll refrain because the fundamental issues are human costs.

We need only imagine what it’s like for a parent who’s got to worry about where she and her kids will sleep, how to protect them, what to do with their belongings, what to do now that she’s lost her job because she had to spend so much time dealing with their here-and-there housing, the kids’ school arrangements, etc.

The multifarious damages to children are also easy to imagine — and supported by lots of research.

It tells us, among other things, that the traumas of instability put them at much higher risk of problems in school — something Mayor Gray seeks to compensate for with targeted boosts in public education funding, but not to prevent by minimizing the instability to begin with.

I started the internal rant that’s externalized here the day after the last hypothermia alert was called. It was Emancipation Day in the District.

Now, I like a parade as much as anyone. Balloons and free concerts too. But I couldn’t help thinking about better uses for $350,000 — and about how Mayor Gray covered an extra $116,000 when Councilmember Orange and his fellow organizers ran through their budget.

And I couldn’t help thinking that the Mayor’s proposed $10.8 billion budget apparently consigns homeless families to more of the same.

 

 


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