Dreaming of a Freezing Cold Christmas

December 22, 2012

Jesse, my husband, hopes for a white Christmas, as he always does. I, a California child, like the Christmas card prettiness of a fresh snowfall. But I hate cold weather. Always have.

I find myself hoping for another cold snap nonetheless — preferably with snow, for my husband’s sake, but without if that’s the best the weather gods can do.

Because unless the forecast calls for freezing temperatures — 32 degrees or less, including wind chill factor — some homeless families in the District of Columbia may have no safe place to bed down tomorrow night.

Nor any night thereafter until we get that arctic blast.

Time was not so long ago when the District’s shelter doors were always open to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay, i.e., those the intake system ranked as Priority One.

Then came a significant increase in family homelessness — an acute symptom of recession-related job losses, stagnant (or reduced) wages for those still working and rising rental costs.

What didn’t come were increases in funding for housing vouchers beyond what was needed to pay for those already in use.

So once homeless families were admitted to DC General — the main shelter for them — they tended to stay there longer than they had in the past.

A whole series of failures to fully come to grips with this problem.

Insufficient funding — both local and federal — to support services for the growing number of homeless families.

Formal plans for sheltering homeless families during the winter season that attempted to make everything look okay, funding constraints notwithstanding.

Large costs incurred for motel rooms and related needs because the plans really weren’t okay.

A sharp drop in funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing. First, because the designated revenue stream shrank when the real estate market went south.

Then because the Mayor, with the Council’s consent, tapped the recovering revenue stream to cover the costs of locally-funded housing vouchers. But only those already issued.

For homeless families, the District had some Recovery Act funds for short-term housing vouchers. But for a variety of reasons, including the terms, they proved only a limited substitute.

So, at some point, the Family Services Administration, which administers the District’s homeless services program, changed the policy for Priority One families.

Henceforward, they’d gain shelter only when they were legally entitled to it, i.e., when the effective temperature was expected to drop to 32 degrees before the following morning.

Now, I’m told, it will also shelter them in less frigid weather if there’s room for them at DC General. Midweek, units were filling up fast. So I don’t know whether any will be vacant by the time you read this.

Jesse and I don’t see homeless families when we take our pre-dinner strolls around the neighborhood. I doubt residents in most other parts of the District do either.

The families are scattered in the safest, warmest places they can find — in their cars, if they’re fortunate enough to have them, in hospital waiting rooms, bus stations, stairwells, etc.

So they probably don’t weigh heavy on our consciences as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of someone whose mother was given shelter when there was no room at the inn.

But I think of them now and hope the forecast for the upcoming week is wrong.


DC Winter Plan For Homeless Families Falls Apart

October 21, 2011

A couple of days ago, I observed that the District’s plan for providing homeless families with shelter would fall apart unless the Department of Human Services could deliver on some iffy assumptions.

Well, it seems that DHS can’t — or has decided not to — deliver on the only one that didn’t seem iffy.

So now the part of the Winter Plan that addresses shelter and/or other temporary housing for homeless families has to go back to the drawing board. And a good thing too.

For the plan to work — if only on paper — 57 units at DC General Hospital had to be vacant on November 1, when the hypothermia season officially begins. DHS made sure they would be — by denying homeless families entry even though they had no place else to stay.

Seems that some effective pressure was exerted because on Monday it started admitting these so-called Priority One families again. And, lo and behold, there were a lot more of them than it expected.

We the public and the DC Council Committee on Human Services learned this yesterday at what promised to be a routine hearing on the Winter Plan.

DHS Director David Berns testified that opening the doors to DC General, as they had, will probably mean that all the vacant units are full when the winter season begins. Why the “big flood” surprised the agency is a mystery — at least, to me.

In any event, DHS will need to figure out how to offset the loss of those 57 units — and where the funds to pay for them will come from.

Some discussion about hotel rooms — a costly option, but one DHS reverted to last winter when DC General filled to capacity.

A bit of discussion about lining up some rental units in apartment buildings — more cost-effective, but like hotel rooms, problematic unless DHS sets up systems to ensure that the families it places immediately have food, transportation and access to social services.

Testimony by Washington Legal Clinic attorney Amber Harding indicates that DHS has verbally committed to this sort of backup plan. But, as she says, it’s absence from the Winter Plan is “troublesome.”

Suggests to me that DHS didn’t really put its mind to the logistics — or want to be held accountable for them.

One way or the other, DHS will need to scramble. And higher-ups in the Gray administration will probably need to find some funds — as they seem capable of doing when they choose to.

What if DHS had decided from the get-go that denying shelter to desperate families for seven months of the year was an unacceptable way to comply with its legal obligations during the other five months?

Berns himself termed it a “hideous” choice.

Still, it’s unfair to lay all the blame for the situation on DHS. As Berns said, at the policy level, the real crisis isn’t homelessness. It’s lack of affordable housing.

DHS has more shelter capacity than it did in 2008 — including at DC General.

But once families get there, it can’t move them out fast enough to make room for more because the District has egregiously failed to keep up with needs for more stable, suitable housing alternatives.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved overnight — even if the Gray administration and the Council rethink their priorities.

The problem of how to ensure that homeless families don’t spend more nights in stairwells, bus stations, etc. does have to be solved now — at least for the winter season.

One would hope that, this time, the solution would be year round.


DC Winter Plan Comes Up Short On Shelter For Homeless Families (Again)

October 19, 2011

My, how time flies. Here we are once again less than two weeks from the official beginning of hypothermia season in the District of Columbia. And once again, we’ve got a Winter Plan that’s, at the very least, problematic.

A big issue, once again, is whether the plan provides for enough units to ensure that homeless families have shelter during the cold-weather months.

Last year’s plan made some assumptions that didn’t pan out — as I, among others, thought they wouldn’t.

The Department of Human Services ultimately had to open more units at DC General, the main emergency shelter for families. Still not enough room at some points, however.

According to planning documents I’ve seen, emergency family shelter needs peaked during the first two weeks in March. “Emergency” here means the families had no place to stay unless the District provided it.

During the peak period, a total of 224 emergency units were provided, including 31 community-based units, i.e., units temporarily rented in apartment buildings, and 40 rooms or suites in hotels.

Unclear, however, whether all homeless families were accommodated during the peak. They certainly weren’t a short time later. And maybe not now, since the Winter Plan assumes that 57 units at DC General will be vacant on November 1.

All told, 264 families spent time at DC General last winter, not counting families who were there when the hypothermia season opened. This served as the baseline for work on this year’s Winter Plan.

The Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the Winter Plan for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, projected a 7% increase in emergency shelter needs for the upcoming hypothermia season.

This seems a reasonable, conservative figure since it reflects the percent increase in emergency shelter requests received at the Virginia Williams family intake center during the 2010-11 season.

Nevertheless, the new Winter Plan provides for fewer family units than last year’s plan.

For seasonal emergency shelter alone, the plan provides for only 159 units — 65 fewer than were needed during the peak.

The plan, however, also again identifies housing units — 150 of them. These, I’m told, are short-term vouchers that homeless families can use to rent apartments in the private market.

That will certainly take them off the homeless rolls for awhile. But they’ll be back unless they manage to increase their incomes enough to pay full market rent, plus utilities within a pretty short period of time.

Possible for some perhaps. Unlikely for many, I think, especially when jobs are so much scarcer than job seekers and rental rates in the District so high.

But the Winter Plan looks ahead only as far as next March. From that perspective, the 150 family housing units belong — assuming, of course, that DHS has funds for the vouchers.

Count them all and the Winter Plan still provides for six fewer family units than last year. Factor in the projected 7% increase in need and the plan is shy 57 units — unless certain conditions are met.

The first, as indicated, is vacancies at DC General. This condition has already been met — by denying families shelter. The others are, to my mind, iffy.

Specifically, the average stay at DC General can be no longer than it was last winter season. And DHS has to get families into non-shelter housing at the same rate it did last winter season, if not quicker.

A hitch — or an anticipated number of homeless families — and the scheme falls apart.

Last year, Councilmember Tommy Wells, who then chaired the Human Services Committee, thought there ought to be a backup plan, as did some witnesses who testified at the Winter Plan hearing.

Seems to me that would be a good idea now.


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