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.


Can You Help A Family With No Place To Stay?

July 31, 2010

Another urgent e-mail from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Same issue as the e-mail that triggered my last posting on the District’s homeless family crisis.

This time, a father with a two year old and a four year old who’d been evicted and were facing the prospects of a weekend outdoors, with a temperature forecast of 110.

One of three families the Clinic was trying to place that night because all the shelters were full and the District still hasn’t come up with a plan for emergency relief. As of July 18, the Family Resource Center had 543 families on the waiting list for shelter.

But I’ll let the Clinic tell the story because it’s got a brand new blog that fills in the background and tells us how we can help.

Anyone in the District who works with homeless people and/or follows the issues that affect them knows that the Legal Clinic has been out in front as an advocate for a very long time — nearly 25 years, says the welcome to the blog.

Now we have a new, ongoing way to get to know them, their clients and evolving developments in the District’s faltering efforts to serve our homeless and at-risk neighbors. And a new way to join them in the struggle to make “housing and justice for all” a reality in D.C.

A welcome and needed addition to the blogosphere.


Homeless DC Families Just Have To Wait For Shelter

June 23, 2010

I recently got a blast e-mail from an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. He wanted to know if anyone could help a homeless mother with two young children who had no place to spend the night. The Department of Human Services had told the Clinic it couldn’t help because there was no room at DC General. All other family shelters have been full for many months now.

Happily, SAFE stepped up to the plate with arrangements for a hotel room. Why, I wonder, did the family’s safety have to depend on the generosity of a fairly small nonprofit. Is this what the funding constraints on homeless services have brought us to?

Apparently so.

As of June 20, there were still (or again) no vacant units at DC General. The Legal Clinic tells me there are now at least eight and maybe as many as 25 families who urgently need shelter because they’ve got no place else to stay. In recent weeks, the attorneys have spoken with families who’ve spent nights in the open air, on the subway and at Union Station.

Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper reports that Fred Swan, head of the Family Services Administration at DHS, admits that the agency can’t provide any timetable for moving families out of DC General so that other families can get in. It’s got no intention of exceeding capacity again — understandable, given the bad publicity and threat of litigation that got it moving on the problem in March.

So homeless families just have to wait while the agency makes case-by-case placements contingent on available units in transitional or other subsidized housing. Where are they supposed to wait? In the home of a family or friend? That’s where the homeless mother and her children were until the friend’s landlord told her she was violating the terms of the lease? In a car, if they have one? Under a bridge or in a park?

And what will happen as these dog-days of hang on? The District, after all, has a legal obligation to ensure that all homeless residents have shelter in extreme weather conditions — heat as well as cold.

DHS has no solution. And it’s not the agency’s fault. It’s got to operate its homeless services program at the same funding level as in Fiscal Year 2009.

What will happen when the new fiscal year opens and winter sets in? Mayor Fenty proposed no increase for homeless services, despite the large spike in family homelessness and the egregious over-crowding at DC General. The DC Council went along with this, though it did find funds to share up some other under-funded safety net programs.

It’s not as if the Council had no choice but to let homeless families fend for themselves. It just put a higher priority on keeping high-income residents and businesses like health clubs and yoga studios happy.

The Council’s Committee on Human Services will hold a hearing on shelters and other housing for homeless people this Friday, June 25 at 10:00.

Maybe some of the questions here will get answered. I hope they at least get asked.


DC Human Services Director Ducks Responsibility For Family Shelter Crisis

April 5, 2010

Last Wednesday, the end of the District’s hypothermia season, the DC Council’s Human Services Committee revisited the vexed matter of the 2009-10 Winter Plan for homeless services.

The hearing went on for about seven hours. Though officially billed as a review of how the winter plan had been implemented, most of it was devoted to testimony by parents housed or formerly housed at DC General–the only facility dedicated solely to winter-only space for homeless families.

Thanks to persistent investigative reporting by Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper, the rest of us already knew a good bit about major problems there–mold, leaks, peeling paint (maybe lead-based), pest infestations, food that apparently sickened some children, workers who propositioned residents and/or sold drugs, caseworkers who failed to screen incoming residents for potential mental health problems or to help residents get the heck out of the place.

Still, it was acutely distressing to hear residents speak of their personal experiences.

  • A pregnant mother in a room too hot to stay in because the window wouldn’t open and whose four-year-old couldn’t play on the floor because of the rats, droppings and roaches.
  • Another mother who couldn’t get food for her wheat-intolerant son or access a kitchen so she could prepare food for him.
  • A disabled woman who had to walk down four flights of stairs because the elevators were broken.
  • A woman who told her caseworker she wanted to get out and was asked, “How are you going to do that?”

Many viewed the hearing as a proceeding against Families Forward, the nonprofit contractor for managing the family shelter portion of DC General. Supporters showed up in tee shirts reading “Support Families Forward.”

Staff praised the leadership, spoke convincingly of how they cared for the residents and had guidance about what to do in cases of untoward events, like the deaths of two newborns in the last 12 months. Some clients also spoke favorably about operations at DC General, especially the kindness and helpfulness of caseworkers.

All for naught. The Families Forward contract expires at the end of the month. Mayor Fenty has announced it won’t be renewed–a belated effort at damage control.

It’s hard to argue that Families Forward should retain responsibility for the day-to-day operations at DC General. But the problems there didn’t originate with the contractor. Nor will they be resolved by bringing in another.

When the Interagency Council for Homelessness issued its draft winter plan last summer, advocates questioned its proposal for family shelter space. So did I. The numbers just didn’t add up. Nor did they seem realistic in light of the rising tide of family homelessness and dismal projections for the economy.

Yet Clarence Carter, head of the Human Services Department, insisted that all would be well–that DHS had “identified all the needed resources to meet the full demand for homeless services during the hypothermia season, as outlined in the District’s 2009-2010 Winter Plan.

Some ambiguity there. But notwithstanding the $12 million cut for homeless services, both he and the final winter plan itself repeatedly committed to opening additional facilities if needs exceeded projections.

Winter set in. The temperatures dropped–also record-setting amounts of snow. In mid-February, 170 families were crammed into a facility with 124 contracted units. Nine units were added. The snow melted. And, in mid-March, there were 75 more families than units–some on cots lined up in activity rooms, some bedded down in hallways.

Yet apparently no one from DHS went out to look at the situation. Indeed, Carter testified that the prime contractor for homeless services, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, was responsible for monitoring homeless shelters, not DHS.

And who was monitoring to make sure the that Partnership had the resources for the task? Who was checking on whether the agencies responsible for the physical conditions at DC General were doing their job? Apparently no one.

The District is legally responsible for the safety and well-being of its most vulnerable residents–not the Partnership nor its subcontractors. It shouldn’t take a public relations disaster and the threat of a lawsuit to trigger action on problems that anyone could have identified some months ago.

Contract monitoring is a basic agency function. If DHS didn’t have the resources for it, then someone should have come forth and said so.


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