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.

 

 


Gray Administration Finds More Effective Way to Divert Homeless Families From Shelter

March 3, 2014

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.


Aunt Suzy Is No Answer to DC Homeless Family Crisis

February 24, 2014

As expected, Mayor Gray has asked the DC Council to pass proposed changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act as emergency legislation, i.e., on a single vote instead of the usual two and without a public hearing.

There’s an emergency all right. Nearly 750 families are in the DC General shelter or in cheap motels because they had no safe place to stay when it was freezing cold outside — the only time the District will grant families shelter now.

Gray’s chief of staff nevertheless says that those of us talking of a homeless family crisis are wrong. The crisis is simply “too many families in shelters.”

So the administration plans to keep them out, “even if that means living with a grandmother, a sister, whatever.” Even if that means, as it frequently will, creating another crisis for the homeless family.

The Mayor has, for all intents and purposes, resurrected a proposal the Council wisely rejected last year. He wants to institute provisional placements. This is what the Mayor’s plan means by taking “advantage of all opportunities to keep families in their communities.”

Now, doesn’t that sound better than giving families a choice of sleeping on Aunt Suzy’s floor for the weekend or in a Metro station?

I’d intended to run through all the things wrong with the provisional placement proposal, but lead advocates beat me to it. And did a better job than I would have.

So I suggest you read the assessment of the Mayor’s plan by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s Policy Director Jenny Reed and Policy Analyst Kate Coventry and the Huffington Post column by Patty Mullahy Fugere, Executive Director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

These responses are all the more important because the Mayor misleadingly claims that his emergency legislation is “part of a comprehensive new strategy developed in partnership with many of the District’s homeless advocates and service providers.”

Two parts of the plan, which is far from comprehensive, do reflect recommendations in the advocate-service provider strategy I recently wrote about. I understand that some of the authors have been talking with the Department of Human Services about how to implement them.

But there’s nothing in the strategy that could be construed as recommending provisional placements aimed at coercing homeless families into doubled-up situations.

Fundamentally, that’s because they don’t, as the Mayor claims, increase families’ “chances for stability.” Quite the contrary. They’re inherently unstable — and thus a major risk factor for future homelessness, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

We don’t need data to know this, though we do have them. Consider Aunt Suzy, the mythical relative my husband Jesse and I refer to when we talk about provisional placements.

She’s used to living alone and somewhat set in her ways. So she and her homeless niece start bickering about one thing and another. She gets tired of having kids running around — or crying in the middle of the night. She misses her privacy — and use of her living room for something other than a makeshift sleeping space.

And this assumes she’d welcomed the family for an indefinite stay. The Mayor’s bill would authorize an “alternative housing arrangement” far more unstable than this.

An arrangement DHS would have the “flexibility” to impose could be no more than a weekend with Aunt Suzy — followed perhaps, the DCFPI analysts suggest, by a couple of days with someone else. Yet a family would have no choice but to accept the arrangement or fend for itself on the streets.

Families couldn’t return to shelter — even provisionally — unless it was freezing cold outside. And those placed with friends or relatives in public housing will probably be on the streets in April.

This is because the Mayor’s plan takes a stab at addressing advocates’ concerns that doubled-up arrangements could violate leases and thus put hosts at risk of eviction.

But all it does is relax the occupancy rules in public housing (not Aunt Suzy’s duplex because it couldn’t) until the winter season ends. At that point, shelter doors will again close to families and remain closed until November.

The bottom line here is that the Gray administration has a serious problem. And it’s trying to solve it in part by shirking responsibility for the well-being of vulnerable District residents.

Note, the homeless families are residents or they wouldn’t have passed the initial screening Fugere mentions. The Maryland and Virginia families who’re supposedly overwhelming our shelter system are as mythical as Aunt Suzy.

The D.C. families the Mayor wants to put in provisional placements have been evicted — even perhaps from a doubled-up situation. Or they’ve had to flee from an abuser or housing that was unsafe for some other reason.

So they’ve already experienced an upheaval. The end of a provisional placement — no more than two weeks from the time it began — creates another. The sort of alternative housing arrangement that Gray and his people have in mind sets them up for another.

And for the possibility of living in “places not meant for human habitation,” as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development puts it, until the next freezing-cold day, when the cycle will begin again.

Research tells us that emotional and behavioral problems resulting from the stress of constant change are among the many negative effects of homelessness on children. This is partly because constant upheaval and uncertainty cause stress for parents too.

Rolled together, they help explain why homeless children often fall behind in school. So does having no place to do homework except in Aunt Suzy’s crowded living room — or a train station.

You’d think the Mayor, who truly does want those standardized test scores to rise, would care about this. Not, however, apparently as much as diverting homeless families from shelter — and getting them out of the news.


What DC Could Do About the Homeless Family Crisis

February 12, 2014

As I said a couple of days ago, the District’s homeless family crisis has reached an unprecedented — and unforeseen — level. At the end of last month, the Department of Human Services was already sheltering about 100 more newly homeless families than were projected for the entire winter season.

DHS Director David Berns seems resigned to some sort of cataclysm. “I don’t see how we can continue at this rate,” he said during the recent hearing on the crisis — but also that he didn’t have “any fresh ideas.”

Some movers and shakers on the Interagency Council on Homelessness do have fresh ideas — mainly for how DHS could do what it’s been trying to do better. They’ve produced a multi-part strategy to address the crisis. It also identifies issues that must be swiftly resolved to prevent a recurrence.

The first part consists of immediate measures to speed up the rapid re-housing placement rate, e.g., more staff and other resources to identify and inspect affordable units, perhaps some sort of incentive for landlords so they’ll rent to families with short-term, iffy housing subsidies.

A second part identifies existing homelessness prevention and subsidized housing programs that should receive more funding so as to open up space in the DC General shelter for homeless families and thus reduce — or altogether eliminate — the use of hotels as a fallback.

Roughly 80% of the families would receive rapid re-housing subsidies, plus “help in identifying a longer-term affordable unit” and services “related to housing stability” and employment.

Permanent supportive housing would be made available to about 10%. The remaining 10% or so would receive emergency rental assistance, i.e., one-time help with a security deposit and first month’s rent, plus again help finding an affordable unit.

The percent allocations are based on results of assessments that two of the service providers have been conducting, using a research-based tool designed to match homeless families to the most appropriate types of aid.

Only 15% of the families thus far assessed have sought homeless services in the District again after a term in rapid re-housing, according to testimony by the Community of Hope’s Executive Director Kelly Sweeney McShane.

The Transitional Housing Corporation, which is also using the tool for assessments, has posted similar results for its rapid re-housing program.

I still can’t help wondering how a much larger number of homeless families will manage to pick up the rent — and keep paying it — or find a longer-term affordable unit when their subsidies expire, even if someone’s scouting the market for them.

So it’s good to note that the strategy also calls for a “community conversation” about the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s own version of federally-funded housing vouchers.

As Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless observed in her testimony, the District has, for some years, ignored the recommendations of the original Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.

These included 14,600 locally-funded housing vouchers by the beginning of the next decade. The current budget will support about 2,730.

We know the Gray administration doesn’t like these vouchers — at least, not those that enable low-income residents to pay market-rate rents. And both Berns and at least some members of the strategy-development group worry that homeless families will hunker down in shelter if they think they’ll eventually get one.

But if we really want to solve the homeless family crisis, I think the so-called tenant-based vouchers have to be part of the toolbox too. The strategy drafters may agree, since they acknowledge the need for vouchers and other “affordable housing supports.”

We’re also to engage in conversation about other matters, including a return to year round services for homeless families. This is now being framed as a preventive strategy, though basic human decency alone could justify it.

One reason for the current crisis, Berensin testified, is the decision DHS made several years ago to “close the front door to shelter” during the seven months outside the official winter season.

This, she said, creates a “pent up demand” by the time the first freezing-cold day arrives. And some families may by then have more severe problems — thus be less likely to rapidly recover their ability to pay for housing, assuming they ever had it.

The strategy also calls for the creation of a new ICH committee to monitor and improve the rapid re-housing process. It’s to be a very hands-on group and to have direct access to Berns when progress hinges on decisions he must make or runs into “roadblocks” he can clear.

Ultimately, however, as the strategy says, the homeless family crisis reflects problems that DHS alone can’t solve, e.g., the acute shortage of housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents, the divers disadvantages that keep them near or below the poverty line.

In this respect, the more than 1,000 newly homeless families DHS now projects for this winter season are canaries in the coal mine. The Mayor and his lead officials would do well to recognize this, instead of effectively blaming them for leaving doubled-up situations that they — and/or their hosts — know are untenable.


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.


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