DC Gets a Barely Passing Grade for Homeless Family Services

December 10, 2014

Last spring, a coalition of advocates and service providers developed a “roadmap” for preventing another wintertime homeless family crisis in the District of Columbia. Now, as a new winter season opens, it’s issued a report card, indicating how much progress the District has made toward the 10 goals the roadmap set.

Not the sort of report card you’d like to take home to your parents. Virtually all Cs, meaning the District has taken steps toward the goals, but too recently for the coalition to decide whether they’ll result in significant progress.

Two Ds, meaning no significant progress — or, one infers, much by way of promising steps. And a single B, for homelessness prevention. That seems pretty generous to me, since the progress described has thus far not resulted in an “up and running program.”

Like the original roadmap, the report card reflects a lot of effort to gather, assess and communicate information about the District’s homeless family services. Highly recommended reading for all concerned. I’ll confine myself here to the big picture, as I see it.

Not Enough Shelter Units (Again)

As you may recall, the Department of Human Services was overwhelmed last winter by homeless families it couldn’t legally turn away because they’d sought shelter during freezing-cold weather.

One, though not the only problem was that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, was nearly full when the winter season began. The roadmap recommended both a plan and additional staff to move at least 100 families a month from shelter into housing so as to open up space for more.

DHS has managed to increase the rate to 63 families a month — not enough to have significantly more vacant units at DC General when this year’s winter season began. To its credit, it has contracted for hotel rooms. But there was no money in the budget for them.

The agency plans to use funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — an estimated $8.5 million, I’m told. Hard to see how this won’t mean cutbacks in programs and/or services those TANF funds would otherwise support.

At the same time, as I’ve written before, the Gray administration has proposed a plan (of sorts) to replace DC General with smaller shelters. The total number of units would remain the same.

So there’d probably still be fewer units than homeless families entitled to shelter during the winter season — and surely too few for the District to once again keep the shelter doors open year round for families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

More Affordable Housing, But Mostly Temporary

On the upside, the District has invested funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing, including apartments big enough for larger families. And the DC Council has approved more funds for vouchers that enable homeless families to rent at market rates.

But the District’s strategy relies heavily on rapid re-housing, i.e., short-term housing subsidies, renewable for up to a year, provided that families measure up to expectations.

DHS has still not issued final rules for the program. And the theoretically temporary rules it issued in late June raise serious concerns — among them, the share of rent families have to pay, both initially and during renewal periods.

The rules are also highly ambiguous about whether families can get an extension of their subsidy if they can’t afford to pay full rent at the end of the year — a likely possibility for many, I’ve suggested.

DHS could, at the very least, enable nonprofit partners to provide some services and/or rental assistance to families that seem likely to become homeless again. But it hasn’t even explored the possibilities, the report card says.

One Small Step for Young Families

More than 40% of the families sheltered last winter were headed by parents who were, at most, 24 years old. Needless to say (I hope), they had very little, if any work experience. Many, the report card says, had neither a high school diploma or the equivalent — a high predictor of unemployment, even for older District residents.

Like as not, the young parents had never rented an apartment. Some probably had just aged out of foster care, since that’s a high risk for homelessness.

They often don’t have ongoing family support or other concerned adults to help with the challenges of housing, credit and the like. The same, of course, can be true for young mothers who were kicked out — or harassed out — of their homes when their parent(s) found out they were pregnant.

These are not the sort of families that rapid re-housing was designed for. Nor the sort of families that the needs assessment tool DHS relies on was designed for. The roadmap, therefore, called for reviews of the tool, the case management system and rapid re-housing itself to ensure they’re suitable for young families.

DHS has launched a small pilot program, which offers the fortunate participants more intensive services and potentially rental assistance for more than a year.

It’s not clear whether the agency can expand the program, the report card says. Nor is it clear whether DHS has reviewed — let alone modified — the tool or case management services.

Much Else Unclear

Families first encounter the District’s homeless system at the Virginia Williams intake center. Caseworkers there still have no written protocol to tell them how to decide whether to grant a family shelter. Nor, therefore, do we know how decisions are made — only that some indicate ignorance (or casual disregard) of the law.

That’s far from all we don’t know. For example, the District doesn’t release information on services families receive while they’re at DC General. More generally, it either doesn’t have or won’t release data that would enable us to determine how key elements of its homeless system are working — apparently more the former than the latter.

Part of the problem, the report card says, is that DHS contracts out much of homeless services to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. And the Partnership doesn’t deign — and isn’t required — to publicly report how it spends the funds it gets or what they achieve.

Thus, as the report card says, “it is impossible to determine if the District has allocated sufficient funding to meet the need and if programs are performing as well as they should be.”

Impossible for the roadmap coalition, which so clearly wants to help create a humane, effective system that prevents homelessness, when possible, affords shelter when that isn’t and then helps families move quickly to a safe, stable home.

Impossible for our policymakers as well. But they can make the egregiously opaque system more transparent. This ought to be a first order of business for the new administration and the new chair of the Council’s Human Services Committee.


DC General Closing Plan Won’t Shelter All Homeless Families at Risk of Harm

November 13, 2014

I’ve been feeling I should say something about the Gray administration’s plan for closing the DC family shelter ever since it saw the light of day a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t because I’ve had trouble getting my mind around it.

Not altogether my fault. The plan, you see, isn’t really a plan. It’s more like a working paper — or a statement of preferences perhaps. These are certainly clear enough. But whether the next administration can translate them into a reality is at the very least questionable.

And in a couple of respects, I hope it doesn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the major issues, as I see them.

Should DC General Be Closed?

A rhetorical question. No one, I venture to say, thinks that DC General is an okay place for children and their parents to live, even temporarily. It’s too big — a “small city” Councilmember Graham called it.

It was never fully converted from the hospital it used to be — apparently because no one wanted to acknowledge that it was the replacement for the then-notorious shelter the former mayor felt pressed to close in 2007.

Its basic systems are seemingly beyond redemption — frequent heat and air conditioning outages, no hot water for long periods of time, elevators that break down — or in one recent case, get flooded. And the place is persistently infested by mice, roaches, bed bugs and the like. Moldy too.

In short, it’s shameful that a child would have to go missing to get District officials serious about closing DC General.

Where Would the District Shelter Homeless Families?

The Gray administration envisions smaller shelters scattered across the city. They would have to include play spaces for children and be near to public transportation and “community amenities [undefined].”

The administration would prefer buildings leased from private landlords because, it says, this option would be quicker and cheaper than renovating publicly-owned buildings or constructing shelters on publicly-owned land.

The latter would also require the District to pay for ongoing operating costs, e.g., utilities, maintenance. The preferred option would make private landlords responsible for these, as well as security systems, furniture and whatever renovations their buildings require.

Ideally, each building would have 40-50 units, though the plan allows as how some larger shelters might be okay. For the smaller shelters, it projects a $2,000 per month cost.

Now, why would an owner of a potentially suitable building in any of our high-rent, high-demand neighborhoods agree to lease it for a minimum of 10 years at a rate this low — or anything close?

And if one did, wouldn’t the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces “come out of the woodwork,” as the Director of the General Services Department has predicted? One recalls what happened when the District considered putting a smaller shelter in soon-to-be Mayor Bowser’s ward.

So, says Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper, the “available candidates” will instead probably be “boarded-up properties” in low-income neighborhoods on “the city’s margins” — far less convenient to public transportation and “amenities” than DC General.

What Would a Unit Be?

Well, I’ll tell you what it wouldn’t necessarily be — an “apartment-style” unit, which the District’s homeless services law requires for families, except when no such unit is available.

The Gray administration interprets this limited exemption to mean that shelter units the District has yet to lease or build don’t have to include a bathroom for each family or any place to prepare a meal. They apparently may be just a single room, where parents and children must sleep together — just as they must at DC General.

How Many Homeless Families Would Have Shelter?

The Gray administration wants the replacement shelters to have, in total, the number of units currently provided at DC General — and to close the shelter in one fell swoop “so as to avoid an unplanned shelter expansion.”

It’s not altogether clear how many replacement units there’d be, since the Department of Human Services has concluded that 40 or so units at DC General don’t meet the (minimal) criteria the court established when it ordered the agency to stop “sheltering” families in recreation centers.

What is clear is that there won’t be nearly enough replacement units unless the number of families needing shelter miraculously plummets — or the homeless prevention and rapid exit strategies the Winter Plan promises miraculously work much better than they’ve done to date.

The plan isn’t short on units because providing enough to meet the need would cost more than the District could afford. It’s “a clear philosophical stance,” says the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.

And it’s based on a truly appalling ignorance — or worse — of what happens to homeless families when the District won’t provide them a safe place to stay. Senior policy advisor Sakina Thompson, who wanted even fewer units, says, “During the summertime, when shelter is not available, families find other means.”

Indeed, they do. They walk the streets looking for someone to take them in for awhile. They sleep in cars, if they have them, or at bus stops or on a church floor. They take refuge in a laundromat. Some presumably return to the abusers they’ve fled.

Whatever “other means” they find, they’re likely to have more and/or worse problems when the District must finally shelter them than they had when they become homeless.

Not so long ago, the District provided shelter year round to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will have to decide whether to move forward with a plan that would intentionally replicate the crises that Gray and his people have used to justify barring the shelter doors, except when it’s freezing outside.

I’m hoping for a more compassionate — and policy-smart — philosophical stance.

 


And We Thought DC Had a Homeless Family Crisis Last Winter

September 4, 2014

Last year, I remarked that the draft Winter Plan was notably sketchy on how the District would fulfill its legal obligation to protect families from exposure to “severe weather conditions.”

The Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the annual plans for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, decided against specifics that would minimize the foreseeable challenges.

And challenges there surely were — even greater than most think could have been foreseen. The Department of Human Services was caught off guard. Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper recaps the results, as of mid-March.

Now we have another Winter Plan. And my heart sinks. Because it’s as clear as day — acknowledged, in fact — that we’ve got another crisis looming.

Like as not, a bigger crisis than last year’s and one that DHS is by no means prepared to cope with — at least, not in a way that would ensure homeless families a modicum of safety and stability. Here are the lowlights.

More homeless families expected. DHS will need to make an estimated 840 shelter and/or housing placements during the upcoming winter season. This represents a 16% increase over the number of placements made during the 2013-14 season.

Yet it’s 10% lower than the increase in the number of homeless families who sought help at the intake center between May and August. They couldn’t get into shelter then, but at least some will return as soon as the weather turns freezing-cold.

Not enough shelter units. The Operations and Logistics Committee again foresees that all — or nearly all — units at the DC General family shelter and those in smaller shelters around the city will be occupied when the winter season opens.

DHS will need “overflow capacity” by December, the plan says. This would probably be true in any case. But about 40 units at DC General may have to remain vacant because they fail to comply with the criteria the court established when it ordered DHS to stop warehousing families in recreation centers.

No plan for the overflow. The ICH has, for good and proper reasons, decided against any semblance of a shelter plan for families.

It instead recommends, among other things, that the Department of General Services prepare “an options analysis that considers different solutions,” e.g., use of District-owned buildings, short-term leases from private landlords, motels.

Not much time for General Services to do this — let alone for DHS to choose solutions and make the necessary arrangements, even if one of them isn’t re-purposing buildings.

Not enough money. The plan calls on the District government to acknowledge that “meeting the anticipated need for shelter will exceed currently available resources.”

The District should further acknowledge, it says, that additional resources will be needed to prevent adverse effects on other homeless services programs, especially those “designed to move families out of shelter.”

This was altogether foreseeable — and in fact, was foreseen by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Mayor Gray’s proposed budget included funds for only 150 units at DC General, rather than the 280 or so then available — and no funds at all for motel rooms. The DC Council went along.

Trust in performance improvements. “A major emphasis,” the plan says, “will be on enhancing system performance to both decrease the number of entries into the system … and accelerate exits out of shelter.”

As I (and others) have said before, DHS has had a hard time moving enough families out of shelter fast enough to free up anything close to the number of units needed. Various reasons for this — some of the agency’s own making, some not.

Resources committed to the Mayor’s 500 in 100 initiative may have speeded up the rate somewhat. But we’ve no assurance families will leave shelter even sooner this winter. “It is expected,” the plan says, “that placements from shelter will continue or exceed” the current monthly average.

Perhaps we should be at least as concerned about the other half of the emphasis — decreasing entries, i.e., keeping families out of the shelters.

The plan specifies two approaches. One is “strategic targeting of resources to prevent housing loss.” This presumably is a reference to the one-time funds some District residents may receive as emergency rental assistance. No problem here, except limited funds.

The other approach is casework and “housing stabilization support” for families who’ve been “diverted” from shelter. Translated into everyday English, the latter refers to resources that may enable families to stay where they are for awhile — mainly, if not exclusively in doubled-up arrangements.

The resources include cash or cash equivalents to give friends and relatives incentives for hosting homeless families, e.g., help with utility bills and/or food costs. DHS already provides such incentives and will have funds for more.

But the cost burdens of having extra people in the home are hardly the only reason doubled-up situations tend to be temporary. So diversion of this sort may, in many cases, merely delay “entries into the system.”

Looking beyond the the no-plan plan. The Homeless Services Reform Act charges the ICH to develop an annual plan “consistent with the right of clients to shelter in severe weather conditions, describing how member agencies will coordinate to provide hypothermia shelter and identifying the specific sites that will be used.”

The ICH has, in effect, said, “We can’t do that for homeless families. The money is not there.” This, to my mind, is altogether better than putting forth a plan that glosses over the acute problems the District’s homeless services programs will face.

“We face an enormous challenge,” said Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney and long-time ICH member Scott McNeilly. “If we don’t rise to the occasion, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

But ultimately “we” isn’t the ICH. It has no control over the budget or how available funds are used. It’s the Mayor and the DC Council who must “rise to the occasion.” And they’d better do it PDQ.

 


Another Round in the Debate Over Who Is Truly Homeless

August 25, 2014

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has again raised objections to the proposed Homeless Children and Youth Act — the formal title of a pair of bills now pending in Congress.

As I earlier wrote, they would expand the definition of “homeless” that controls uses communities may make of their federal homeless assistance grants.

They would, among other things, extend eligibility to homeless children and youth if they’re living doubled up with friends or relatives or in a cheap motel, just as they’re already eligible for services from public schools that receive funds under another part of the same law.

Families and children could become eligible in other ways as well, as could youth who are out in the world by themselves, without a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

NAEH argues that federal funds for homeless people can’t even meet the needs of those already eligible. “Tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied youth go unsheltered every night,” it says, “because there is not enough money to serve them all.”

No one, I think, would say otherwise. Funding for homeless assistance grants has remained virtually flat since Fiscal Year 2010. And they will get either no increase or a very small one when Congress gets around to agreeing on funding for the upcoming fiscal year.

NAEH also notes egregious under-funding for programs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services administers for unaccompanied youth who’ve run away from home or are homeless for other reasons.

These programs, plus HUD’s serve barely 14% of these youth now, according to the Alliance’s estimates.

But NAEH goes further. “[M]ost people in doubled up households are not homeless,” it says. And the HEARTH Act, which governs HUD’s homeless assistance program, already covers those who are.

Some of them are people who’ll have no place to stay at the end of two weeks. Others are those who’ve fled — or urgently need to flee — the place they’ve been living because of domestic violence or some other dangerous situation, if they don’t have the resources or networks to move into other housing.

For the rest, NAEH says, the answer is HUD-funded rental assistance. But, it continues, there’s not enough money for that either. Indeed.

Only about one in four very low-income households receives rental assistance, according to HUD’s latest (somewhat outdated) assessment. And the prospects for the remainder are dismal.

In fact, we may be looking at a loss of even more than the 72,000 or so housing vouchers local agencies retired to deal with the across-the-board cuts in 2013, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Like as not, the agencies will also have to keep more public housing units vacant because they won’t have the funds to make essential repairs.

So NAEH is right in saying that we need a significant increase in funding for affordable housing.

What divides the Alliance from the large coalition that supports the bills is its view that we need to preserve the current restrictive definition of “homeless” so that “the very limited resources” available remain “dedicated to children, youth, and families who are without any housing at all.”

It essentially pits their needs against those of families and youth who are living doubled up. The proposed legislation, it says, “asks people living on the street and in shelter to compete with them.”

Not really. The bills would merely allow communities to include services for the newly-eligible families and unaccompanied youth in the plans they must submit to receive homeless assistance grants — and prohibit HUD from denying them grants merely because it has other priorities.

The larger issue, I suppose, is whether we should draw a bright, white line between families who are living with Aunt Suzy one month and a charitable friend the next and those who’ve exhausted such options.

Should we put families living in motels through two extra weeks of acute anxiety and stress before we offer them HUD-funded rapid re-housing, knowing they won’t have enough money to stay where they are?

And do we really want young people who’ve left their families, been kicked out or aged out of foster care to bounce from one couch to another when we know this puts them at risk of abuse, problems (or worse problems) in school and more?

NAEH apparently feels we must because the Homeless Children and Youth Act doesn’t increase funding.

The National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth vehemently disagrees. It’s “nonsensical,” the Association says, to define a problem by the funding currently available to address it.

That just gives policymakers “an unrealistic view of the scope of the problem.” Congress “needs to know who and how many people are without housing in order to define effective solutions,” NAEHCY contends.

This seems to me as incontrovertible as what NAEH says about insufficient federal funding for both homeless and affordable housing programs. Yet Congress already knows more than enough to know it’s short-changing them.

Amending the HEARTH Act to include doubled-up families, motel-dwellers who can’t afford their rooms, couch-surfers and others precariously and perhaps unsafely housed would give communities more flexibility to develop plans based on their own assessments of local needs.

But until we have a Congress that’s prepared to spend more on our safety net, every dollar spent on the newly-eligible will be a dollar less for other homeless people — at least so far as federal dollars are concerned.

That much, I think, NAEH is right about. Whether dollars spent to keep doubled-up families and the rest from joining the already-eligible on the streets or in shelters is another matter.


New Rule Shows Need to Rename DC’s Rapid Re-Housing Program

August 7, 2014

The District’s Department of Human Services has issued another emergency rule* for its rapid re-housing program — formally named the Family Re-Housing and Stabilization Program. The notice says that the agency intends to make this one permanent.

It’s got me wondering what DHS has in mind for its rapid re-housing program — and what we should have in mind. Here’s why.

DHS has, in the past, looked to rapid re-housing as its main tool for getting homeless families out of the DC General shelter quickly so as to free up space for more. That has never worked out as planned, but it’s still apparently reflected in the agency’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

The budget assumes only 150 families at DC General and allocates no funds whatever for hotel rooms if this assumption proves egregiously over-optimistic.

So you’d think that DHS would give its all to make rapid re-housing an attractive option for homeless families — and to get all takers rapidly re-housed. You’d also think its recent experience with the Mayor’s 500 Families in 100 Days campaign would have made an imprint.

I’m thinking here about how the campaign managed to identify something pretty close to the targeted 500 acceptable units landlords would rent to families with only short-term housing subsidies.

Lots of outreach by nonprofits that had relationships with potentially willing landlords. Efforts to acquaint them with rapid re-housing — something hopeful parents couldn’t always do on their own. Reassurances that reportedly included promises of financial help if tenants defaulted.

Yet the FRSP rule instead requires homeless families to find suitable units, sign leases for them and actually move in within 30 days.

As a fallback, they can attempt to prove they’ve done their best to find a unit that a landlord will rent to them at a rate consistent with the applicable affordability standard — and one that can pass inspection.

Only then can the service provider they’ve been assigned to offer them a unit that’s already been identified as suitable and available, assuming such exists. The rule makes no provision for maintaining an inventory of units.

The burden on homeless families is consistent with what the emergency rule says FRSP will do — “provide District residents with financial assistance for purposes of helping them become rapidly re-housed” (emphasis added).

Staying re-housed is a whole other matter. DC Fiscal Policy Institute analyst Kate Coventry notes that families must initially pay 40% of their rental costs, rather than the 30% that’s used for public housing and indefinite-term housing vouchers — and more generally, as the maximum for housing affordability.

Families will then become responsible for increasing shares of their rent every four months, when their provider decides whether they’re still eligible for rapid re-housing. Or at the very least, their ability to pick up a bigger share will be a factor.

This is consistent with initial eligibility, as the rule defines it. Only families providing information leading to “a reasonable expectation” that they “will have the financial capacity to pay the full amount at the end of the FRSP assistance period” can qualify.

So in one respect, shifting the rent burden to them at four-month intervals might seem reasonable, especially because they’ll get no subsidy at the end of a year — unless their need for further assistance is “caused by extraordinary circumstances.” What those might be the rule doesn’t say.

We can assume, however, that merely lacking enough money to pay the rent won’t suffice. So a reality check seems in order.

Families who’ll get top priority for FRSP are those in a publicly-funded shelter or transitional housing and those who’ve been designated Priority One because they have no safe place to spend the night.

A large majority of those at DC General are enrolled in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. This means they are dirt poor and relying, at least officially, on benefits that wouldn’t begin to cover rental costs in the District.

By way of reference, the maximum monthly benefit for a family of three will probably be about $438 come October. A modest one-bedroom apartment costs, on average, roughly $1,240 a month, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s fair market rent calculations.

So a family that’s relying on TANF would have to rapidly bootstrap its way up the income scale to avoid becoming homeless again when its FRSP subsidy expired. And I do mean up. A full-time minimum wage job would leave the parent in our three-person family with about $305 for expenses after s/he paid the rent on the FMR apartment.

In short, FRSP, as now designed, may rapidly re-house homeless families. But it shouldn’t lay claim to stabilization. And though the name still does, the new rule doesn’t.

DCFPI’s comments on the new rule observe that the one it replaces defined the purpose of the program as “assisting … [families] to obtain and remain in a new rental unit.”

Now “and remain” is gone. And the rule is utterly silent on services that might help some rapidly re-housed families become stably housed, though one infers they will receive case management of some sort.

Arguably, even a year (or less) in a reasonably decent private apartment is better than enduring conditions at DC General. But respite from shelter isn’t what rapid re-housing is supposed to be about.

It’s undoubtedly all that some families need to get through a bad patch, e.g., an injury that sidelined the breadwinner for awhile, an over-long break between contracts.

And it’s altogether possible that some other families will overcome barriers that have made them unable to afford market-rate rents for a long time. But I doubt we’ll find all that many of them at DC General — or entitled to shelter, if it’s freezing cold, because they’re designated Priority One.

And I suspect DHS shares these doubts. How else to explain the retreat from the goal of stabilization?

* Unlike ordinary rules, emergency rules become effective immediately, rather than after the public has had an opportunity to comment. The District’s Administrative Procedures Act says they are for occasions when “the adoption of a rule is necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, safety, welfare, or morals.”

 


New Hope for Left Out Homeless Children and Youth

August 4, 2014

How many children and youth are homeless in our country? We still don’t know. What we do know is that many of them don’t qualify for programs and services funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bipartisan bills introduced in both the House and Senate aim to close this gap in the safety net. Whether they will fare better than earlier efforts to expand the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use remains to be seen.

What’s the Problem?

The U.S. Department of Education reports that well over 1.1 million homeless children and youth attended public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

But this is an under-count — in part because not all school districts reported data. Even those that did probably didn’t know how many homeless students they had because, for obvious reasons, homeless kids don’t always ask for help. Nor are they always easy for school personnel to identify.

And, of course, the reported number doesn’t include infants and toddlers — or all somewhat older preschoolers either, the National Associations for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports. Homeless youth who’ve dropped out of school or graduated aren’t in the tally either.

Only some fraction of homeless children and youth — counted and otherwise — can get into a shelter funded in whole or in part by HUD because they and their parents have some place else to stay and aren’t demonstrably at immediate risk of being out on the streets.

They’re surely at risk of having to find another accommodating friend or relative — in some reported cases, because the place they’re staying is unhealthful or unsafe. But even in the best of cases, they’ll be moving from one place to another. And we know that instability is bad for kids.

The families are also ineligible for the limited-term housing assistance that HUD’s grantees provide — and for the services that aim to improve their finances so they can afford market-rate rents.

The children and youth are, however, homeless under the part of the McKinney-Vento Act that applies to public education — hence the count cited above. They may also be homeless under other federal laws.

What the Bills Would Do

The bills address several major problems advocates have identified. The largest is the restrictive definition that bars so many homeless families from HUD-funded aid — unless and until they’re out on the streets or about to be.

First off, the bills would enable families to qualify if they stand to lose their housing within 30 days, instead of the current two weeks.

Second they would extend the definition of “homeless” to children and youth who are verified as such by administrators of seven federal programs, in addition to HUD’s.

So, for example, children and youth who are living doubled-up with friends or relatives or staying in a cheap motel would become eligible for HUD-funded services, as they already are for those public schools must provide.

A somewhat similar provision extends eligibility to families and unaccompanied youth who are certified by a public housing authority as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Communities wouldn’t have to make these newly-eligible homeless families and youth a priority. But they could do more for them than HUD rules now allow. The bills, in fact, prohibit the agency from giving priority to any homeless population in its decisions on grant awards.

HUD currently gives top priority to people who are chronically homeless, i.e., those who have a severe disability and have been spending their nights in a shelter or “a place not meant for human habitation” for at least a year or recurrently.

Obviously not conducive to extending services for families and unaccompanied youth who’ve been couch-surfing.

Lastly, the bills require HUD to make the results of the HMIS (homeless management information system) reports that grantees must submit available online to anyone who’s interested — and to Congress.

We wouldn’t, of course, see personally-identifiable information about clients. But we would have access to better data than the one-night counts provide because HUD would have to report cumulative HMIS figures.

So we’d have a better fix on the extent of the problem. Of course, we’d also need more funding to address it — and to do so without shorting the needs of homeless adults who don’t have children in their care.

First, however, we need more members of Congress signed on to the bills. Those of you who have voting representation in Congress have several opportunities to help, including a quick and easy e-mail. We who live in the District of Columbia can pass the word along.

 


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.

 


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