DC Homeless Family Crisis Reaches New Level

February 10, 2014

As the polar vortex approached, Washington City Paper’s Aaron Wiener reported that the District was housing 243 homeless families in hotels because all its publicly-funded shelter units were full.

By the next arctic blast, there were 83 more in hotels — some of them out in Maryland. And then 110 in Maryland alone, according to a fine update by Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte.

Well, the Department of Human Services won’t send any more homeless families to Maryland because officials there don’t like them in their backyard, though they put other spins on their interventions.

So when homeless families seek shelter in freezing cold weather now, DHS will put them up in city recreation centers — just cots lined up in a big open space. This, whether intended or not, is a mighty successful way to keep homeless families with no safe place to stay from seeking the shelter they’re legally entitled to.

I’ve referred before to the homeless family crisis here, but this is bigger and more urgent. The 2013-14 Winter Plan for families projected 306 newly-approved requests for shelter by the end of last month.

But DHS has already had to shelter or house about 700 newly homeless families — more than the total projected for the whole winter season. As of February 2, it was sheltering a total of 754 families — 469 in hotels. This is more than 10 times the number that were in hotels at this time last year.

No one knows how to account for such a big spike, though a couple of witnesses at last week’s DC Council on Human Services Committee roundtable hearing had some ideas. Only Mayor-hopeful Tommy Wells, for obvious reasons, said it “should have been anticipated.”

The pressing issue now is that DHS faces problems it doesn’t know how to solve, except in what Director David Berns referred to as “horrid and deplorable” ways, e.g., by simply closing shelters and/or ceasing to pay for hotel rooms.

Perhaps also, he hinted, by resurrecting a coercive provisional shelter arrangement the Council rejected last year. Mayor Gray seems ready to give it another try.

If newly homeless families continue to seek and qualify for shelter at the current rate, DHS will have well over 1,000 in hotels and DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, by the end of March, when the winter season officially ends.

But as many as 150 of the hotel rooms that families are in now won’t be available during the upcoming Cherry Blossom Festival because they’re already reserved for tourists. What will DHS do with those families?

Though part of the problem is the unprecedented inflow of homeless families, another part — not unprecedented — is that DHS can’t move enough of them out of shelter fast enough.

As I’ve written before, its strategy relies chiefly on rapid re-housing — temporary subsidies that cover at least part of market-rate rents. The subsidies are initially good for four months and renewable for up to a year (maybe longer Berns has suggested), so long as families are complying with the rules and the self-sufficiency plans developed for them.

Some families have rejected rapid re-housing — largely, it seems, because they doubt they’ll be able to pay the full rent when their subsidies expire. They’re “scared,” one homeless mother testified, because “a lot of families that tried rapid re-housing are back at DC General.”

But DHS has run into larger problems — a shortage of reasonably well-maintained units that currently homeless families might be able to afford and landlords willing to rent to them when they’ve no assurance of getting paid for more than four months.

The agency has aimed for 60 placements a month. It’s averaging 37 a month, Berns testified. If it can’t ramp up placements, it will by shy some $20 million because sheltering families at DC General and in hotels costs about three times as much as rapid re-housing subsidies.

“It sounds bad,” he said, “and it’s worse than it sounds.” He’s looking toward the next winter season, when he’ll potentially have no money for newly homeless families because he’ll still be paying shelter costs for so many who are being sheltered now.

And he’s apparently stymied. “I don’t have any fresh ideas,” he answered when asked what he planned to do.

Some leading advocates and service providers have stepped into the breach with a multi-part strategy to address the family homelessness crisis. I’ll have more to say about it in a separate post.

Will merely note, at this point, that it’s offered as a basis for “community conversation” — and even in its current form a whole lot better than letting the crisis play out. Berns would do well to get moving on it PDQ — and to tell his higher-ups to forget about those provisional placements.

DC Rapid Re-Housing Program Not Rapidly Re-Housing Homeless Families

September 30, 2013

Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper reports on a big problem in the DC Department of Human Services rapid re-housing program.

As you may recall, DHS earlier gave us to understand that the program would largely solve the problems it’s faced providing shelter for homeless families when it’s legally required to. (Providing shelter for those who’ve got no safe place to stay when it isn’t was abandoned a couple of years ago.)

Well, rapid re-housing didn’t rapidly re-house as many families as DHS projected. The agency had “a terrible time getting people to accept” a housing subsidy they could count on for, at most, a year, said Director David Berns.

This, however, doesn’t fully explain why DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, is nearly full — or why DHS also has 94 families in hotel rooms.

The larger reason its plans have come a cropper is that there’s a vast gap between housing costs and the near-term income prospects of these families, most of whom are so poor as to be eligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program.

A total of 150 families — some at DC General and some in the hotels — have been deemed suitable candidates for rapid re-housing. But DHS can’t find apartments for them — and they apparently can’t find apartments for themselves either — because the rent’s too damn high.

That, at any rate, seems to be the main problem. We should also, however, factor in landlords’ understandable reluctance to rent to families with spotty credit records — a reflection of the financial problems that made them homeless to begin with — and with no assurance that DHS will pay any part of the rent after the first four months.

You’d think that DHS would have foreseen at least the rental cost problem. It’s not as if rents suddenly spiked in the last year or so. Units affordable for low-income households have been vanishing for a long time.

Yet the agency initially figured it could move a large number of homeless families into housing swiftly if it only had the authority to coerce them into accepting whatever unit it identified. Or so one infers from the largely abortive effort to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act.

In this respect, it’s refreshing that Berns now acknowledges an inherent problem in the program itself — one closely related to the problems that have driven so many families to seek help from his agency.

He understands that it would be irresponsible to place them in apartments costing thousands of dollars a month — even if, as he’s now suggesting, the rent might be subsidized for as long as two years.

Sooner or later, they’d have to pay that rent — relatively soon, no matter what. How would the mother Wiener interviewed manage that when she and her children now rely on TANF benefits?

In the meantime, how will she find the multi-bedroom apartment they need — let alone one that isn’t in poor shape and an unsafe neighborhood, as another interviewee says units she was offered were — when DHS caseworkers have decided that $1,400-$1,600 a month is too high?

Not an unreasonable decision. An apartment at the low end of this range would be affordable only if she had an income of about $4,667 a month. This is more than three times what she’d earn as a full-time minimum-wage worker.

So you see what DHS is up against.

Berns nevertheless stands by his program. Wiener reports (no direct quote, alas) that he termed “indefinite subsidies … unsustainable.” The reference here presumably is to housing assistance families may have for as long as they’re income-eligible.

But, for Berns, it’s not just a budgetary issue. The short-term vouchers “keep that sense of urgency,” he says. In other words, parents will get off their proverbials and find jobs that pay enough to cover the rent if they know their families will otherwise become homeless again.

Ah, yes. The efficacy of time limits, which have done such wonders for poor families since TANF replaced an indefinite-term cash benefit.

There surely is a sense of urgency among the parents in hotel rooms — and at DC General, as we know from a hearing Councilmember Jim Graham held there in March.

Enough are apparently willing to risk the imminent end of a housing subsidy to have created such a big backlog that DHS has closed its rapid re-housing waiting list.

Now we’re only a month away from the official opening of the winter season. When freezing cold weather kicks in again, DHS will have to shelter families who’d otherwise be exposed to the elements.

It’s already got so many in the low-cost hotels it uses that Berns worries there won’t be enough additional rooms there. He reportedly thinks he may have to put newly-homeless families up in hotels outside the District.

An allusion, presumably his, to the extra cost. Much greater costs to the families, who’d be far from their networks, any job training or other programs they’re enrolled in, their kids’ schools, etc.

“D.C. has failed to adapt its rapid rehousing program to the realities of an expensive housing market and a highly competitive population of renters,” Amber Harding at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says.

Hard to argue with that. Harder for me to see a rapid solution to the District’s homeless family crisis.

Draft Winter Plan for Homeless Families Deliberately Vague … and for Good Reasons

August 19, 2013

When I first looked at this year’s draft Winter Plan, I was struck by the vagueness of the part that’s supposed to guide efforts “to protect the lives” of homeless families in the District of Columbia.

These are families who’ll have no safe place to stay unless the District provides it when they’re at risk of freezing to death, as it’s legally obliged to do.

The District has the same legal obligation to protect homeless individual men and women, i.e., those who don’t have children with them.

For each of the individual groups, the draft identifies shelter locations and beds available, as past Winter Plans have. Total capacity for each group reflects projected need, based on past experience.

As my last post noted, the draft plan provides a more sophisticated projection for homeless families — a month-by-month estimate of the number who will pass the screening test for eligibility.

But we’ve no specifics. Merely a list of diverse “resources” the Department of Human Services may (or may not) use — everything from motel rooms to two different types of long-term subsidized housing.

One of them is the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s locally-funded version of the federal Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers program.

I was surprised to see it in the plan, since the DC Housing Authority ordinarily issues vouchers to households at the top of its long waiting list.

True, the DC Council made an exception. It provided funds for 200-250 additional LRSP vouchers in the budget for this fiscal year — all specifically for homeless families.

But the fiscal year began on October 1. Here we are, more than nine months later — and more than twelve months since DHS knew it would have to select families to bestow the vouchers on. Turns out the vouchers haven’t all been issued.

I’m told that DHS actually had 267 vouchers at its disposal. Only 187 were helping the target families pay rent, as of less than a month ago. And the draft Winter Plan suggests there may still be some vouchers unissued in November.

This helps explain why the Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the Winter Plan for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, didn’t specify how many homeless families will be accommodated with one resource or another.

For the past several years, DHS has insisted on overly-optimistic projections for rapid re-housing placements, i.e., arrangements for families to live in housing that’s temporarily subsidized.

These projections enabled the agency to minimize other resource needs — for example, to decide that last year’s Winter Plan would assume use of barely more than half the units at DC General, the main shelter for homeless families.

Well, we know how that worked out. DHS had to use all the units at DC General, plus apparently some extra space, since the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports a maximum of 289 families there.

The agency still had to house as many as 166 families per night in motel rooms, DCFPI adds.

I think it’s fair to lay some blame on DHS, which should have known that it couldn’t place more than three times as many families through rapid re-housing as it had the year before — and in half the time.

Hardly the case it wasn’t told, as the post by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless I’ve linked to indicates. And now we’re seeing a more perplexing sluggishness in issuing vouchers that don’t have the drawbacks of the rapid re-housing type.

Even so, the Operations and Logistics Committee might have been able to at least estimate monthly vacancies at DC General — and perhaps also other types of placements — if DHS had provided the data needed, including average timeframes from intake to placement via each of the resources it can draw on.

It didn’t. Whether it has them is, at this point, an open question.

What we can readily infer from the draft itself is that the Operations and Logistics Committee decided that no figures were better than bad figures. And, in one respect, even reasonably good figures would be meaningless because the Winter Plan doesn’t bind DHS to anything, as members have stressed when we’ve talked about the plan.

More importantly perhaps, I’m told that at least some committee members didn’t want to put forth another plan that made the homeless family situation seem less challenging –and potentially costly — than it’s likely to be.

I know all this seems like a lot of inside baseball, but it has very real consequences for homeless families — and for individual homeless men and women as well.

The homeless services budget doesn’t expand just because DHS has to spend $40,650 a night for families at DC General when the shelter is full — or an additional $130 a night for every family it’s got to park in a motel.

If there’s a crunch at the end of the winter season, something will have to give — unless, of course, DHS or the Mayor finds extra money to sustain the inadequate system we’ve got.

That system, recall, leaves newly-homeless families to fend for themselves unless it’s freezing cold outside — and except at those times, turns homeless men and women out of shelters at the crack of dawn, with no assurance they can return at sundown.

This whole situation is ripe for reform — and the money to go with it, much of which ought to be on the long-term affordable housing side of the ledger.

But first and foremost, the Council’s Committee on Human Services should dig into the Winter Plan — and the issues that help explain what’s missing.

Draft Winter Plan Has No Plan for Newly-Homeless DC Families

August 15, 2013

Every year at about this time, the District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness produces a Winter Plan. This is one of the responsibilities the law that created it assigns.

The plan is supposed to account for how the District will meet its legal obligation to ensure that no one in the jurisdiction is exposed to freezing-cold weather during the winter months.

The ICH has a multi-stakeholder Operations and Logistics Committee that’s technically responsible for much of the draft plan. But as a practical matter, the Department of Human Services calls the shots when it comes to such crucial matters as shelter sites and other resource commitments.

I’ve analyzed — and written about — the annual Winter Plan for five years now. I’ve focused mainly on the portion that deals with homeless families because DHS has struggled to accommodate all those who are entitled to shelter (or housing) ever since the recession began.

The issue has always been whether the plan was realistic, given the number of homeless families DHS should be prepared to accommodate.

Past plans have given us some ability to arrive at conclusions. We’ve been told how many units DHS planned to have available at DC General, the main shelter for homeless families. We’ve also usually been given some figures for subsidized housing units.

No such figures for the latter last year. But we were able to back into a range of the number that would be needed because the Operations and Logistics Committee had gotten some expert help with projections — not only for the whole winter season, but month-by-month.

This year, the draft Winter Plan itself includes something like this projection — a month-by-month estimate of the number of families who will need shelter or housing and won’t already have it in November, when the winter season officially begins.

The plan anticipates a 10% increase in the number of families who will qualify for shelter or housing, i.e., those who will otherwise have no safe place to stay on freezing-cold nights.

By this estimate, DHS will have to shelter and/or house 590 families. These are in addition to the 271 that the plan assumes will be at DC General come November and perhaps some of the 65 or so who are still in motels because DHS had nowhere else to put them when it had to put them somewhere.

Also in addition to however many will have limited-term or indefinite-term housing subsidized with DHS funds. (Still trying to get reasonably accurate numbers for them.)

The draft also provides a month-by-month estimate of the number of families who will leave DC General with no assistance from DHS. It then subtracts this number from the number of newly-qualified families. I can’t see why.

Be that as it may, the plan foresees the need to accommodate 467 newly-qualified homeless families during the five-month winter season.

What DHS will do with them is a total mystery. The plan doesn’t tell us how many units will be open at DC General because families there received some form of subsidized housing or a one-time cash infusion from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

It gives us no numbers for the ERAP grants or the several diverse forms of subsidized housing — nor for the placements in motels that the plan formally acknowledges may be necessary.

All we have is a list of resources DHS may use.

This isn’t because Operations and Logistics fell down on the job. It’s in part because of some serious problems over at DHS — problems that at least some committee members felt could again lead to an overly-reassuring Winter Plan if it incorporated the agency’s placement projections.

Next post will talk about some of these problems.

UPDATE: The limited-term subsidized housing I referred to is housing for which a portion of the rent is paid by the Family Re-Housing and Stabilization Program — the District’s name for its rapid re-housing program. I’ve just learned that there are currently 386 families in FRSP. This is probably roughly the number that will be in the program in November.


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