Turns out the emergency isn’t such an emergency after all, so far as Mayor Gray is concerned. Two weeks ago, he wanted a quick vote on his emergency legislation to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act. Now he’s asked the DC Council to postpone it.
As I earlier wrote, the bill would authorize provisional placements, i.e., short-term shelter for homeless families while caseworkers try to find a friend or relative to foist them off on.
I’d like to say the Mayor’s request is altogether good news, but it isn’t because it means the administration has found another way to keep homeless families out of the shelter system — or get them out swiftly, perhaps at risk to their safety.
It is good news insofar as it eliminates the remote chance that the Council would hastily approve a proposal aimed at coercing homeless families into doubled-up situations — a high risk for becoming literally homeless again.
But the Mayor hasn’t withdrawn his bill — merely asked that the Council defer consideration. “We’re pressing the pause button,” the Mayor’s spokesperson says.
More disturbing is the reason the Mayor cited for the pause. Pressure on the shelter system is easing. The Department of Human Services needs more time to determine whether the emergency measure is “as urgently needed as previously believed.”
Hardly so urgent if the current trend continues. The number of newly homeless families seeking shelter has recently dropped by about 90%.
Ordinarily one would think that fewer families seeking shelter — and gaining it because they have no safe place to stay — is good news.
But these aren’t ordinary times. DHS is now sheltering newly-homeless families in recreation centers — on cots in big open spaces that were initially divided only by the sort of flimsy partitions the Red Cross throws up during a natural disaster.
An administrative law judge ruled that this violated the HSRA — as it surely does, since the law, honored more in the breach than the observance, requires “apartment-style” shelter units for families.
But the ruling applies only to the families for whom the complaint was filed. DHS is reportedly putting in sturdier partitions. The families, however, are still all in one big room. No real privacy, of course. Nor safety, since any adult in the center can just walk into their space.
And the families can stay in their space only at night. They have to pack up and leave first thing in the morning and can’t get back in until 9:00 at night — not even then unless they return to the intake center, as Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless recently testified.
And, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute adds, not unless it’s again freezing-cold outside. Otherwise, they may have no place that’s even marginally safe to spend the night.
Needless to say, I hope, working parents can’t return to the intake center over and over again without putting their jobs at risk. Parents who do return have to hang out someplace, with all their belongings and their kids, well into the evening.
So it should hardly surprise us that the number of new shelter placements has dropped precipitously — or that families in the rec centers are “finding other options on their own,” as DHS Director David Berns told the Interagency Council on Homelessness last week.
I’d guess these are mostly doubled-up arrangements like those the Mayor’s bill would constrain homeless families to agree to. As I said before, they’re inherently unstable — even if not a sequential couple of days here, couple of weeks there.
Others may be egregiously unsafe. We know that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women with children. We know that they often return to their abusers because they’ve nowhere else to go when the time they can spend in a shelter runs out.
Might some make the same choice if the only shelter for them and their kids is a partitioned-off nighttime space in a rec center?
In short, the rec center placements are a pernicious form of diversion. Berns seemingly felt he had no other option.
Spaces at the DC General family shelter weren’t opening up fast enough — in part because DHS couldn’t rapidly re-house as many families as it needed to.
All the low-cost motel rooms it had contracted for were full. It couldn’t find any more, Berns told his ICH colleagues. So he concluded, “We’re stuck.”
Maybe. But I can’t persuade myself that the Mayor couldn’t have unstuck the agency if he didn’t view diversion, by any means possible, as an appealing solution to what his chief of staff referred to as “a crisis of too many families in shelter.”
As Berensin pointed out, the Mayor found $9 million to gift housed District residents with new Supercans. For that, he could have provided hundreds of homeless families with locally-funded vouchers to subsidize market-based rents.
He could create vouchers for about 140 families* right now, using only the additional revenues the Chief Financial Officer recently projected for the current fiscal year.
Subsidizing housing would be a whole lot cheaper than sheltering the homeless families — and altogether better for them too, especially those the administration is warehousing in rec centers.
* This estimate is based on the average 2012 cost of a tenant-based voucher for a three-person family — the average size of families in shelter now. It may, therefore, be somewhat too high, though Berensin’s testimony suggests otherwise.