Draft Winter Plan Has No Plan for Newly-Homeless DC Families

August 15, 2013

Every year at about this time, the District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness produces a Winter Plan. This is one of the responsibilities the law that created it assigns.

The plan is supposed to account for how the District will meet its legal obligation to ensure that no one in the jurisdiction is exposed to freezing-cold weather during the winter months.

The ICH has a multi-stakeholder Operations and Logistics Committee that’s technically responsible for much of the draft plan. But as a practical matter, the Department of Human Services calls the shots when it comes to such crucial matters as shelter sites and other resource commitments.

I’ve analyzed — and written about — the annual Winter Plan for five years now. I’ve focused mainly on the portion that deals with homeless families because DHS has struggled to accommodate all those who are entitled to shelter (or housing) ever since the recession began.

The issue has always been whether the plan was realistic, given the number of homeless families DHS should be prepared to accommodate.

Past plans have given us some ability to arrive at conclusions. We’ve been told how many units DHS planned to have available at DC General, the main shelter for homeless families. We’ve also usually been given some figures for subsidized housing units.

No such figures for the latter last year. But we were able to back into a range of the number that would be needed because the Operations and Logistics Committee had gotten some expert help with projections — not only for the whole winter season, but month-by-month.

This year, the draft Winter Plan itself includes something like this projection — a month-by-month estimate of the number of families who will need shelter or housing and won’t already have it in November, when the winter season officially begins.

The plan anticipates a 10% increase in the number of families who will qualify for shelter or housing, i.e., those who will otherwise have no safe place to stay on freezing-cold nights.

By this estimate, DHS will have to shelter and/or house 590 families. These are in addition to the 271 that the plan assumes will be at DC General come November and perhaps some of the 65 or so who are still in motels because DHS had nowhere else to put them when it had to put them somewhere.

Also in addition to however many will have limited-term or indefinite-term housing subsidized with DHS funds. (Still trying to get reasonably accurate numbers for them.)

The draft also provides a month-by-month estimate of the number of families who will leave DC General with no assistance from DHS. It then subtracts this number from the number of newly-qualified families. I can’t see why.

Be that as it may, the plan foresees the need to accommodate 467 newly-qualified homeless families during the five-month winter season.

What DHS will do with them is a total mystery. The plan doesn’t tell us how many units will be open at DC General because families there received some form of subsidized housing or a one-time cash infusion from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

It gives us no numbers for the ERAP grants or the several diverse forms of subsidized housing — nor for the placements in motels that the plan formally acknowledges may be necessary.

All we have is a list of resources DHS may use.

This isn’t because Operations and Logistics fell down on the job. It’s in part because of some serious problems over at DHS — problems that at least some committee members felt could again lead to an overly-reassuring Winter Plan if it incorporated the agency’s placement projections.

Next post will talk about some of these problems.

UPDATE: The limited-term subsidized housing I referred to is housing for which a portion of the rent is paid by the Family Re-Housing and Stabilization Program — the District’s name for its rapid re-housing program. I’ve just learned that there are currently 386 families in FRSP. This is probably roughly the number that will be in the program in November.


Summer Meal Program Participation Rate Ticks Down Nationwide, Plunges in DC

June 17, 2013

The Food Research and Action Center’s tenth annual report on federally-subsidized summer meal programs delivers mixed news for the nation as a whole.

News for the District of Columbia is just plain bad — worse, in fact, than last year’s. And I’m still puzzled, though I’ve got a few glimmers now.

Nationwide Summer Meal Participation

On any given weekday in July 2012, about 12,790 more low-income children received a free meal from a school, other government agency or nonprofit subsidized by one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s funding sources.

This does not, however, mean that summer meal programs served a higher percent of children in need because the number of children poor enough to receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year increased by somewhat more than 444,500.

By this benchmark, the percent of low-income children served by summer meal program dropped by 0.3%.

Very slight, but it means that only 14.3% of these children received a free, well-balanced meal during the summer recess. That left some 16.8 million children at risk of hunger.

They lived in families with incomes no higher than 185% of the federal poverty line — apparently much lower in more cases than not.

Last year, 59% of children in the school lunch program qualified for free meals. Most thus had family incomes no higher than 130% of the FPL — about $24,800 for a family of three.

In 2010-11, 14.7% of these children were food insecure or sometimes actually didn’t have enough to eat, even though their families also received food stamp benefits, according to a recently-published USDA analysis.

So need is outstripping capacity to serve. But over the long haul, capacity is shrinking too.

Even with last year’s increase, summer meal programs still served 3% (about 99,100) fewer low-income children than they did in July 2008 — and 7.8% fewer than the peak in July 1998.

DC Summer Meal Participation

The District’s summer meal participation rate plummeted — from 73.5% in July 2011 to 59.8% last July.

True, this is still higher than any state’s rate, but we don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison here. The District is, after all, a city. It’s got none of the challenges states face because they’ve got children dispersed in far-flung suburbs and rural areas.

The year-to-year comparisons for the District itself probably are fairly reliable. So the sudden, large rate drop is alarming — especially because it’s not one of those things we can lay off on recession-related poverty increases.

Specifically, the summer meal participation rate didn’t plunge because vastly more children received free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. Only 944 more did.

It’s almost entirely due to a large decrease in the number of low-income children the District’s summer meal programs served — 4,249 fewer than in July 2011.

With the exception of a blip the summer before, both the number of children served and the participation rate have been trending down since July 2007, when the District’s programs served nearly 96% of low-income children.

Yet both District government agencies and local nonprofits have worked hard to make summer meals readily available — and known to low-income families in the community.

Last July, meals subsidized by USDA’s Summer Food Service Program were offered at 338 sites across the city — 16 more than the year before.

What I understand now, however, is that the sheer number of sites is too crude a measure. We need also to consider how big the programs were and whether they were programs kids were likely to participate in for reasons other than getting something to eat.

From this perspective, the large reduction in the District’s public summer school enrollment may help explain last summer’s lower participation rate. Also perhaps reduced funding for nonprofit day camps and other summer activities.

A bright spot in all of this is that DC Hunger Solutions — a mover-and-shaker in the District’s nutrition programs, including summer meals — plans to do a deep dive into the participation data.

Let’s hope what it finds helps get the rate turned around.


What We Know (and Don’t) About the Drops in DC Homelessness Rates

May 9, 2013

In my last post, I summarized the major results of the latest point-in-time, i.e., one-night, count of homeless people in the District of Columbia.

We see one-year decreases for the homeless population as a whole and for all the subgroups the District reports to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Decreases are longer-term for two overlapping groups — homeless individual men and women, i.e., those not with family members, and individuals classified as chronically homeless.

The District’s report attempts to account for the decreases. It attributes them to an expansion in permanent supportive housing capacity and its investments in homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

We’ve got sound evidence for the impact of PSH. The evidence for HPRP — the rapid re-housing component, in particular — is squishy.

It may help explain the one-year declines, but they’re no proof that rapid re-housing will end homelessness for the families that the Mayor — and his Director of Human Services — want to force into the program.

Permanent Supportive Housing

As I previously remarked, the steady drop in the number of chronically homeless individuals counted probably reflects the high priority that both federal and local policies have placed on moving these individuals into PSH.

The report itself provides additional evidence for this. At the time of the latest count, it says, 3,690 individuals and 983 families were in PSH units, thus not homeless for the purposes of the count.

Both these figures are higher than those reported in 2012 — by 18% and 8% respectively.

But this doesn’t mean that the District can take credit for providing housing with supportive services for all these formerly homeless people.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that the Department of Human Services expects to have 1,350 households in the PSH units it’s funding this fiscal year.

Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing

The PIT count report offers no basis for assessing the impacts of homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

A brief by the Community Partnership to End Homelessness says that 762 individuals and 643 families are “stably housed” because of HPRP.

But we have no timeframe for these figures. So we don’t know how long ago the beneficiaries received the one-shot or limited-time assistance — let alone anything about them, e.g., how much steady income they had.

We do, however, have data indicating that a goodly number of individuals and/or families didn’t stay stably housed after their rapid re-housing subsidies expired, presumably because they couldn’t afford to pay the full rent.

A presentation, also by the Community Partnership, says that two-thirds of rapid re-housing participants “exited” the program to “permanent destinations” (HUD-speak for permanent housing) and that 91% of them remain stably housed.

So about 39 out of every 100 households that had the limited-term rent subsidies are in some sort of unstable situation — either at-risk or literally homeless.

We don’t know how long the rest have been stably housed, though a recent statement by David Berns, the director of Human Services, suggests perhaps only one year.*

We do know, however, that some homeless families declined rapid re-housing because they were pretty sure they couldn’t pick up the full rent. So even if the stably-housed figure is fairly long-term, it would reflect some self-selection.

Why Fuss About the Rapid Re-Housing Data?

I’m nattering about the under-supported claims for the success of rapid re-housing because they have immediate policy implications.

As I recently wrote, the Mayor’s proposed amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act would, among other things, give homeless families a choice between rapid re-housing and life on the streets.

At the time of the PIT count, 18% of homeless D.C. adults with children had no source of income whatever. Twenty-five percent were employed, but obviously not earning enough to pay market-rate rents here.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was the most commonly reported source of income. TheĀ maximum TANF benefit for a family of three is less than a third of the monthly rent on a modest two-bedroom apartment.

How many families who’ve remained stably housed entered the rapid re-housing program with comparable incomes — and comparably doubtful near-term prospects for such significant improvement that they could afford full rent?

For the two-bedroom apartment, that would require a monthly income of nearly $4,707 — more than three times the District’s minimum wage.

Seems to me the DC Council should have a much better grasp on the putative — and prospective — success rates of rapid re-housing before it votes on the HRSA amendments.

A better grasp and a lot more input on other issues too.

* Berns says that “91 percent of those who have been re-housed … remained in stable housing after one year.” He’s apparently using the Community Partnership’s figure as if it were a percent of the whole, rather than of two-thirds.


DC Homelessness Rates Trend Downward, But Still Very High

May 8, 2013

The upsurge in homelessness in the District of Columbia seems to have abated — at least for the time being. The actual numbers, however, remain very high.

And while homelessness among individual adults is now lower than in 2008, when the recession had just set in, family homelessness is still exponentially higher.

This is the top line news for the District in the just-issued report on the results of the one-night homelessness counts by communities that belong to the Metropolitan Council of Governments.

As I always say, these point-in-time counts don’t tell us how many homeless people there are — only how many meet the restrictive definition the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates.

Nevertheless, they’re all we’ve got for the District’s homeless population and the subgroups reported to HUD.

So here are the figures, with some additional calculations I’ve made to indicate change over time. I’ll deal with how the report explains the recent decreases in a followup post.

The total number of homeless people counted dropped a bit — from 6,954 last year to 6,865. This represents a decrease of 1.3%, but it’s still 16% higher than in 2008.

The number of homeless families also decreased — from 1,014 to 983 or by 3%. Even with the drop, however, the number has increased by nearly 67.5% since 2008.

The count identified 3,169 homeless family members — just 18 fewer than in 2012. Of these, 1,301 were adults and 1,868 were children with them.

The number of homeless individual men and women, i.e., those not with family members, declined for the third year in a row. The latest count identified 3,696 — 22% fewer than in 2008.

These are adults only. The count identified six homeless unaccompanied youth, i.e., kids under 18 who weren’t with a family member.

This presumably reflects major flaws in the count, since a limited survey by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates found about six times as many who’d fit the definition the count used.

Both local and federal policies have put a high priority on moving chronically homeless individuals into permanent supportive housing.

We see the results in the number counted — 1,764, as compared to 1,870 in 2012. This is the fourth year in a row that the number has dropped.

PSH probably also helps explain the relatively small number of unsheltered homeless individuals counted — 512. This is 25% fewer than in 2012.

The count isn’t complete, of course, but the percent drop is probably fairly accurate. Figures for earlier years may not be comparable because recent PIT reports suggest greater efforts to identify the unsheltered population.

All these numbers speak to choices local policymakers have made — and some facing them right now. More on this tomorrow.


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