DC Should Spend Some of BIG Surplus on Urgent Safety Net Needs

January 28, 2013

Tomorrow, the District’s Chief Financial Officer reportedly plans to release the results of the Fiscal Year 2012 audit. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, it will show a surplus of at least $140 million — maybe as much as $400 million.

Under current law, the entire surplus, no matter how large, must go into the fund balance — essentially, a savings account.

The DC Council passed the law in 2010, after several years of tapping reserves to make up for revenue drops during the recession.

The law might have made sense then, though I personally feel that such hand-tying measures are a poor substitute for responsible policymaking.

Sweeping the whole surplus into savings certainly doesn’t make sense now, when the Council has identified priorities to fund if the CFO projected higher revenues within the first three quarters of the year.

That he didn’t reflects his very conservative approach to ensuring budgets remain balanced — clearly seen in his accounts of potential impacts on the national economy.

He did nevertheless project a surplus close to $140 million at the end of the fiscal year.

As I said at the time, the Mayor could have asked the Council to pass a bill that would have freed up some of the surplus for items on the contingency revenue “wish list.”

The Fair Budget Coalition and grassroots supporters urged him to do this — and the Council to approve the request.

Nada. So as things stand now:

  • Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of more than 60 months will lose a portion of their meager cash benefits. For about 6,100, this will be a second cut.
  • At the same time, the TANF program won’t have as much as it needs for job training, counseling and other services that could help some of these families “graduate” from welfare to work.
  • The Department of Human Services could face a shortfall of at least $7 million for homeless services. And even if it got that, it will again start denying shelter to homeless families when the winter season officially ends — unless it gets more than is needed to plug the identified budget gap.
  • Meanwhile, the Housing Production Trust Fund — the main source of local budget support for affordable housing construction and preservation — will remain shy $20 million. So there’ll be minimal new funding for long-term housing solutions to homelessness.
  • And as if this weren’t enough, I’m told that homeless youth could have an even harder time getting shelter and services when they need them, due to recent agency contract changes.

The Mayor and Council could meet all these needs and still have a stash to add to the burgeoning fund balance — already $1.1 billion by the end of 2011.

All that’s needed is a reset of what seem to be some skewed priorities — or perhaps a thoughtless adherence to a commitment made when the District’s financial affairs were quite different.

Or perhaps only a preoccupation with other things, e.g., how Councilmembers would be accommodated during the inauguration.

Whatever explains the inaction thus far, another surge of grassroots pressure could persuade our decision-makers to do the right thing.

The Fair Budget Coalition has an editable letter we can send them.

UPDATE: The CFO reported a surplus of $417 million. The Mayor intends to bank it all, increasing reserves to $1.5 billion. He’s indicated that he might see his way clear to making some investments in social programs (unnamed) if revenue projections for the current fiscal year are revised upward.


No Help for Homeless DC Family, But Mayor Shortchanges Shelter Funding

April 9, 2012

I met a homeless family the other day. The mother was, to all appearances, six months pregnant. The father was tending to their toddler.

They had no place to stay and no money for food. And the Family Resources Center — the District’s central intake for homeless families — couldn’t help them.

The mother told me that they’d been advised to find some place to stay — as if they’d have asked for shelter if they had one.

They’d returned to the Center in hopes of a gift card so they could buy some food, but it had run out of cards. I was told the cards were donated by corporations like Safeway and Giant, and the chains hadn’t come through of late.

The family could, however, get a Metro fare card. I asked the father what they’d do with it. He said he guessed they’d go back to their former neighborhood and see if someone would take them in. Not likely, he seemed to think.

So here’s a family that’s destitute. A little kid and an unborn child at high risk of long-term health and developmental damages due to hunger.

Perhaps for the toddler also psychological damage if he understands what it means that they’re spending nights in bus stations or hospital waiting rooms — even, as seems likely, if he picks up on the fear and stress his parents are feeling.

Who knows how many more stories like this there are — and how many more there’ll be in months to come?

All because the District government couldn’t find enough money to fund its homeless program in light of projected needs.

A 46% increase in family homelessness since 2008. A report indicating extraordinary vulnerability to increased homelessness.

And a budget for this fiscal year that provides not a penny more for homeless services — actually $3 million less than what the Department of Human Services was spending.

So DHS has again stopped providing shelter for newly homeless families. Official end of the winter season means they’ll be on their own — perhaps till the next freezing-cold day.

And now Mayor Gray has proposed a budget that would effectively cut homeless services by $7 million. These are “lost,” i.e., spent, federal funds that he could have replaced with local dollars.

No doubt the budget must address many priorities. But I fail to see how letting homeless families fend for themselves squares with budget development principles that include “protect the District’s most vulnerable residents.”

Also fail to see why all tax and fee increases must be off the table if the alternative is cuts that undermine other principles.

The Mayor tells us that to “seize our future,” we must “improve the quality of life for all.”

My quality of life wouldn’t be impaired by paying, say, a sales tax on services that aren’t covered now — or for that matter, income taxes at a higher rate.

It is impaired by helpless worrying about the literally help-less family I met. Their quality of life goes without saying.


No Shelter For Homeless DC Families At Risk Of Harm

March 16, 2011

Two recent postings on the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless blog have me brooding about our priorities.

Kate Gannon, a legal intern at the Clinic, tells us about counseling a mother with three young children who’s understandably incredulous and upset when told that the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center can’t arrange any place for them to stay because the temperature is a few degrees above freezing.

Staff attorney Marta Berensin reports an outrageous threat to a homeless mother who’d gone back to the Center once again in hopes of help: Get on a bus to a shelter outside the District or lose your children to the foster care system.

The episode, she says, may be partly attributable to the recently-enacted residency verification requirements.

But the “myriad barriers” to shelter that families are experiencing are rooted in a shortage of family shelter units. Notwithstanding warnings, the Department of Human Services again failed to plan for enough capacity this winter.

I’ve been told that the District used to provide some form of shelter for all so-called Priority #1 families, i.e., those who have absolutely no place to stay.

Now it seems to have reverted to its minimal legal obligation. Homeless families are left to fend for themselves — on the streets, in abandoned buildings, who knows where? — unless the effective temperature is 32 degrees or colder because that’s all the Homeless Services Reform Act requires.

DHS apparently feels it has no choice. DC General — the only emergency shelter for families — has been full or nearly so for many months.

It announced last fall that it wouldn’t open more units there because that would run counter to its long-term strategy. But it apparently can’t open alternative housing units fast enough to keep up with rising need.

Nor do they provide a stable housing situation for the majority of homeless families. I understand that it’s now offering only short-term, phased-out rental assistance — obviously suitable only for families that are temporarily short on cash.

The hypothermia season officially ends on March 31. For at least the past two years, DHS  has kept what are technically winter-only units at DC General open longer to accommodate the ongoing stream of Priority #1 families.

Looks as if this year will be different. An e-mailed action alert from the Legal Clinic says that DHS plans to stop sheltering any more homeless families until next November, when the next hypothermia season begins.

It’s as if freezing to death is the only harm we need concern ourselves about.

Gannon writes that virtually every mother she interviewed was a victim of domestic violence. We know — or ought to know — that domestic violence victims often return to their abusers when they feel they’ve got nowhere else to go.

Homeless mothers sometimes give their children up or parcel them out among relatives if they can. How can young children understand this as anything except desertion?

Homeless children generally suffer psychological damage even when their parents manage to find safe places where they can all stay together.

They develop physical as well as mental health problems. Their schoolwork suffers. They feel isolated from their peers — as indeed they are, since they’ve few opportunities to socialize.

How much worse when they’re spending the night in a bus station or under a bridge.

I understand that the District had a large budget gap to close — and that it’s facing another. But I refuse to believe that our policymakers have no choice but to neglect the urgent needs of homeless families in our midst.

The Legal Clinic asks us to e-mail or call Mayor Gray and urge him to propose an increase in local funding for homeless services for Fiscal Year 2012.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute explains, $25 million will be needed just to keep funding level because the District won’t have certain federal funds to shore up the program.

Seems to me that’s not enough, given what’s been going on this winter. And what will happen to Priority #1 families before the new budget kicks in?


More Homeless DC Families Denied Shelter

October 4, 2010

I’m sick and tired of e-mails seeking funding or space to house homeless D.C. families. I’m not at all sick and tired of the outreach to help them. It’s a comfort to know that the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless is trying — and that local nonprofits are responding.

But I am sick and tired of the District’s failure to provide parents and their children with shelter when they’ve no place to spend the night. At least four cases in the last ten days, I’m told.

The latest e-mail tells of a woman with a two year-old child who’d lost her job and, as a result, her housing. She’d been staying with a friend who couldn’t help her any longer. So she went to the Virginia Williams intake center for homeless families.

That’s what homeless families in the District are supposed to do — and must do to get publicly-funded assistance. She was told there’d be no space in a shelter until maybe some time the following week. Period.

I recently sat in on a meeting of the Interagency Council for the Homeless committee that drafts the nuts-and-bolts of the District’s winter plan. Fred Swann, who heads the Department of Human Services’ Family Services Administration, proudly assured us that they were strictly observing the space limits at DC General.

No more over-crowding like what finally precipitated the devastating public exposure (and the threat of legal action) last winter. All very well and good.

But where’s the achievement when DHS is leaving parents and children to the tender mercies of the streets — or the compassion of local churches and other small, resource-constrained nonprofits?

We were told that the department has ramped up efforts to move families out of DC General into more suitable, stable housing. Again, well and good — both for them and for the families they’ll make room for. But it’s not doing a damned thing for the mothers and children who need a roof over their heads right now.

I acknowledge, as I have before, that DHS is strapped for funds. I’d feel better if some of its key people didn’t seem to be just shrugging their shoulders.

A whole lot better if Councilmember Jack Evans, chairman of the influential Finance and Revenue Committee, hadn’t already targeted the department for major budget cuts because “there’s no place else to go.” No place else but shelter or subsidized housing for homeless families either.


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