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But the Mayor hasn’t withdrawn his bill — merely asked that the Council defer consideration.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.


More and Less Money for Affordable Housing in DC

February 11, 2013

Well, Mayor Gray finally said what a majority of District of Columbia residents at his One City Summit implicitly called for a year ago. He’ll invest in affordable housing.

Local advocates have long been beating the drum for a bigger commitment, most recently at the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development’s Housing for All rally.

Now it seems the Mayor has enough confidence in the upward revenue trajectory — and enough confidence that the Chief Financial Officer will acknowledge it — to propose a $100 million investment in preserving and creating more affordable housing.

Affordable for whom is an unanswered question. The Mayor cited seniors, District employees (specifically police officers, firefighters and teachers) and “the most vulnerable residents, like people who are homeless and those with disabilities.”

Needless to say, what’s affordable for a teacher is far from affordable for a homeless family. And we’ve got seniors at all income levels — up to and above the $69,530 that would qualify a couple for housing that could be officially designated as affordable here.

Also unanswered is what the promised investment will achieve. The Mayor cited 10,000 affordable units. A little back of the envelope math shows that would mean, on average, $10,000 per unit.

You can’t produce housing for that, says Bob Pohlman, CNHED’s Executive Director.

Nor would any units created be affordable for the District’s lowest income residents if the investment the Mayor talked about weren’t paired with housing vouchers.

These, notes the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s housing expert Jenny Reed, require annual funding. And, as she tactfully doesn’t note, it shouldn’t be taken out of another affordable housing program, as the last two budgets have done.

The Mayor’s recognition that a city so flush with cash shouldn’t keep hoarding it all is welcome, however, as is his recognition of those “most vulnerable residents.”

DC General — the District’s main shelter for homeless families — had no vacant units, as of early last month, according to a new, profoundly disturbing report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

The Department of Human Services won’t provide any family with a safe place to stay unless freezing temperatures give it no legal option or there’s room at DC General

And when the winter season officially ends, families with no place to stay will again be on their own, unless some of the units DHS originally planned to use this winter are vacant.

They would be, of course, if families now occupying them could afford to move into housing.

Ironically, both the Mayor’s announcement and the Legal Clinic’s report come at a time when the federal government — long a weak housing partner — is poised to further reduce funding.

The across-the-board cuts I’ve gloomily forecast will include housing assistance programs. Also homeless assistance grants, though it seems reasonable to expect an uptick in homelessness as housing agencies retrench.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities gives us specifics for the nation as a whole and for the District, as well as each state. Briefly:

  • The Housing Choice vouchers cut will leave an estimated 111,233 families without this form of housing assistance. Here in the District, 530 fewer families will have these vouchers, according to CBPP’s estimate.*
  • Public housing funding will be cut by $298 million, leaving less for both ongoing operations and expenditures to keep — or in some cases, make — facilities livable. The District will lose more than $2.9 million.
  • Funding for HOPWA (Housing Opportunities for Persons With AIDS) will be cut by $15 million. For the District, this will mean about $694,800 less to house and serve one of our highly vulnerable populations.
  • Homeless assistance grants will be cut by a total $100 million. The District’s share will be $1.1 million — this on top of original $7 million shortfall that DHS is trying to make up for.

These are far from the only federal fund losses the District will sustain unless Republicans and Democrats in Congress come together on a plan to halt sequestration — or rather, a plan that doesn’t make even larger cuts on the non-defense side of the budget.

Even the sample here, however, shows that the Mayor and DC Council will have challenges barely hinted at in the State of the District address.

Will they view them as occasions to tap the reserves the Mayor is so proud of building, even at the expense of vulnerable residents’ urgent needs?

Or will our rip roaring economy yield enough revenues to close the gaps — and still leave enough for the Mayor’s new affordable housing commitment?

Or will he seek to fulfill that commitment no matter what happens to the homeless individuals and families who need long-term affordable housing right now?

As with the impacts of the commitment itself, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

* The Director of the DC Housing Authority told me several weeks ago that she thought sequestration would require DCHA to hold back about 200 vouchers rather than reissue them when households no longer needed or were eligible for them. I sent her the CBPP report, with a request for her views. She has thus far not responded.

UPDATE: CBPP has just slightly revised its estimates of the total spending cuts for programs subject to annual appropriations, as the various kinds of housing assistance and homeless assistance grants are. This means that the dollar figures above may be somewhat too low.


How Will DC Mayor Gray Answer the Call for More Affordable Housing?

January 31, 2013

Back when I first started working on the kinds of issues I blog about, I asked a local advocate what she meant by affordable housing. After all, I said, even the costliest housing is affordable for someone.

I recalled the exchange as I listened to speakers at the Housing for All rally organized by the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development — the lead advocacy organization for affordable housing in the District of Columbia.

For CNHED, affordable housing means that all residents have “decent, quality housing at a price they can afford,” i.e., rent or mortgage payments that consume no more than 30% of their income.

I don’t suppose I need to say that we’ve got a long way to go.

About one in five of all District households — and nearly two-thirds of low-income renters — spent more than half their income on housing in 2010.

And last January’s one-night survey identified nearly 7,000 homeless people here — a significant undercount, as I’ve often said.

Everyone who spoke at the rally acknowledged the problems — some more forthrightly than others. And everyone seemed to agree that the District had to put some money into solving them.

I detected differences, however, between the advocates and the Mayor and other District officials who spoke — except perhaps Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who used to occasion to take a couple of pokes at the Mayor.

For CNHED — and the vast majority of us in the audience — the District has to ramp up investments in its main affordable housing programs.

For the Mayor, well, we’re really not sure. He alluded several times to the District’s improved fiscal situation — as well he might, given the very large amount it’s got in reserves.

“Now that we’re back at the point of fiscal stability,” he said, we’ll be able to act on the recommendations of his Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.

No hint of what those will be. We should all turn out for his State of the District address on February 5, he said.

We can get a glimmer of his leanings, however, in some of the remarks delivered by Human Services Director David Berns.

“We need more people who can afford housing,” he said. This suggests to me that the big push won’t be on the housing side — more vouchers, more construction and preservation of rental units that truly low-income people*can afford, etc.

It will instead be on training, other services and perhaps education so that low-income — and no-income — people can earn enough to pay market-rate rents.

Hence my flashback to the question about what affordable housing means.

How the Task Force report itself will balance affordable housing investments and the investments that Berns implied will limit the need for them remains to be seen.

Likewise, what the Mayor will do with the recommendations — most immediately, in the proposed budget he’ll send to the DC Council in March.

And maybe other proposals if revenue projections for the current fiscal year indicate another hefty surplus.

I hope he’ll recognize that no amount of training — even if effectively shaped by a workforce intermediary — will enable the 67,000 or so households on the housing assistance waiting list to just go out into our local housing market and rent a place they can afford.

At this point, a worker would have to earn more than three times the local minimum wage to afford a modest two-bedroom apartment. Even a worker earning the District’s living wage makes only about half the amount needed to afford it.

And, as the Mayor himself acknowledged, we’ve got residents who can’t be expected to work — seniors, whom he referred to, and people with severe disabilities.

On the other hand, I’m quite certain that adults who can work would prefer to be fully self-sufficient — free of the rules and monitoring that are the price of receiving public assistance.

And thousands will soon be freer of these things, whether they can afford housing or not, because they’ll be dropped from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program if they’ve participated for a lifetime total of 60 months.

So training and other services to maximize their job prospects are obviously needed. Likewise investments that will enable poor residents who are working to qualify for jobs that pay a real living wage, as distinct from what the District defines as such.

But we’ll still be a city with affordable housing for only some if the Mayor and the Council decide to rely mainly on reducing demand when what’s also needed is a robust recommitment to increasing supply.

* In the affordable housing world, there are several tiers of “low-income” households — all based on percents of the median income for the geographic area, as the federal government defines it.

In the District, housing units designated as affordable include those that are affordable only for households with incomes at 80% of the AMI. That’s $78,221 — four times the federal poverty level — for a family of three.


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