Homeless DC Families Face Loss of Vital Legal Protections

June 3, 2013

In one of its smarter moves, the DC Council unanimously decided to pull the proposed amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act out of the Fiscal Year 2014 budget legislation.

But only because Councilmember Jim Graham, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, introduced them as a free-standing bill — and promised to move on it quickly.

So today the committee will hold a hearing on the bill. And it will certainly get an earful.

The more I’ve heard from people who will testify — advocates, service providers and homeless people themselves — the more I’ve understood how problematic the amendments are.

Here’s an example — a pair of proposals seemingly designed to place homeless families in a better situation than DC General, the District’s main shelter for them.

No one, I think, would object to this in principle — least of all the parents there. They want out, for a host of reasons.

And most do get out, one way or the other, in a fairly short period of time. The average stay, I’m told, is about three months.

The DC Department of Human Services has nevertheless had serious problems sheltering all homeless families who have no safe place to stay — those the system designates as Priority One.

Though it now admits them to DC General only when the weather is freezing cold, it seemingly can’t move enough out fast enough to make room for all newly-eligible families.

The main reason is that its plans for rapid re-housing have run afoul of realities, including reluctance to accept a time-limited subsidy.

Rapid re-housing, as the amendments define it, provides homeless individuals and families with some limited financial assistance intended to get them stably housed — a security deposit, first month’s rent and, in some cases, a short-term rental subsidy.

It’s surely better for them than trying to cope with shelter living — or rather, would be if shelter doors were open year round for those who couldn’t later come up with full rent.

And such research as we have suggests that rapid re-housing is all some people need to get through a financial crisis.

But “short term” in the District means four months — potentially, but not necessarily renewable up to a year. Homeless parents perceive a risk, as well they might.

Landlords also. Needless to say, many don’t want tenants who can’t show they’ll be able to pay rent for the full lease term.

This may be another reason that DHS hasn’t achieved the turnover it wants at DC General — let alone been able to house anything close to a majority of homeless families so rapidly that they don’t spend time there.

Last winter, the Virginia Williams intake center tried what I guess we could view as ramped up diversion, i.e., keeping families out of the formal homeless system.

It decided to hold off placing Priority One families at DC General. Instead, it put them some place for a couple of nights. After that, shelter hinged on their proving they’d done whatever the caseworker told them to.

Constant anxiety for the families, of course — and utter disruption of normal necessary routines, as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has reported.

And at least one family was diverted — into one of those doubled-up arrangements that often lead to (or back to) a local homeless system.

The Legal Clinic stepped in, warning that the system violated District law. Now DHS has resurrected something similar in the HRSA amendments.

And unless they’re amended, as I surely hope they will be, DHS will have a coercive solution to what the director refers to as a “terrible time getting people to accept” rapid re-housing.

Henceforward, Priority One families — and perhaps homeless individuals living on the streets — would be provisionally placed in a shelter or supportive housing unit during a two-week or less assessment period.

During this period, the caseworker would determine their eligibility for assistance, assess their needs and “identify an appropriate referral, including an alternative housing arrangement.”

This, of course, is much better than a one-night-at-a-time deal.

But families could be summarily kicked out of their provisional placement if they failed to cooperate with the assessment and referral process — or rather, if DHS decided they had, based presumably on whatever the caseworker said.

Or they could be transferred — again, with virtually no warning — to other housing or an “appropriate referral,” whatever that means.

Families would thus lose the due process rights that shelter residents generally have.

For them, the law requires a 15-day advance notice, which gives them time to file a formal appeal while they’re still in shelter, and the right to remain in place until a final decision on their appeal is issued.

Families could still appeal, but they’d be out on the streets unless and until they won — or as too often happens, back in a house where they and/or their children have been beaten (or worse).

Failure to cooperate with the referral process might include refusing to go live with a friend or relative, no matter how unsuitable that arrangement might be.

It would definitely include refusing two units offered as rapid re-housing. These, under the amendments, would be, by definition, “appropriate permanent housing.”

But the units might not be appropriate at all. They might be too small for the family, for example, or not accessible for a family member who’s disabled or unsafe, as we gather a fair number of low-cost D.C. apartment units are.

Or the units simply might be too pricey for the family to afford when the temporary rent subsidy expires.

More likely perhaps, one unit would be unsuitable for one reason and the other for another. But, as the amendments are written now, there could be no appeal because they’d all be ipso facto, appropriate.

I’ve picked out only one subset of the potential harms the amendments would permit — or in some cases, impose.

So there will be a lot of work to do in a hurry to protect some of the most disadvantaged — and too often disparaged — members of our community.


DC Bars Shelter Doors to Families With No Safe Place to Stay

September 10, 2012

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless shares another outrageous story — a classic example of the needless hardships homeless families endure because the Gray administration has decided to retreat to what it views as its minimum legal obligations.

Hence we’ve got a mother and five children spending their nights in a bus station, though there’s plenty of room for them at DC General — the main local shelter for homeless families.

They wash up in the morning at a nearby McDonald’s. Heaven knows how the children do their homework.

You’d think the Gray administration would worry about this. The Mayor, after all, has made a big deal of his plans to ensure “high-quality educational outcomes for [the] District’s children.”

But the Department of Human Services is shy $7 million. And it’s bound and determined to make the Winter Plan work — within or under budget if it can.

As I earlier wrote, the plan calls for leaving 118 units at DC General vacant unless and until DHS would otherwise have to place families in costly motel rooms, as it did last winter. So families can’t get in now, even though there are reportedly about 100 units vacant.

This is not, I think, what the DC Council intended.

The Budget Support Act — the package of legislation that’s paired with the actual appropriations bill — includes specific instructions for what DHS is to do before the winter season officially begins.

It says that DHS “shall ensure” that at least 100 families in hotels, motels, shelters and/or transitional housing are in “apartment-style housing units” by September 30.

But that’s not all the BSA tells DHS to do. “Once there are vacancies in temporary shelters, severe-weather shelters, or transitional housing,” it says, “the Department [DHS] shall use all available resources currently budgeted for homeless families to place new family-shelter applicants who cannot access other housing arrangements … into shelters or housing.”

DHS reportedly contends that it’s currently budgeted for only 153 units at DC General — those that it designates for regular use in the Winter Plan. How it could have been funding 271 units at the time the BSA passed is a mystery, at least to me.

But this is all legalistic niggling. DHS wants those 118 units vacant. They won’t be if it allows homeless families like the Legal Clinic’s client to move from the bus station to DC General now.

So, as things stand now, families who’ve got no safe place to stay have to wait for shelter till the first freezing cold day.

As if hypothermia is the only thing that can harm them. As if the top priority for homeless services is avoiding a lawsuit — or a funding shortfall that the Mayor and Council could remedy, if they chose to.

The Legal Clinic urges us to tell that Mayor that homeless families need shelter — or even better, stable housing — now.

His e-mail address is mayor@dc.gov. And his Twitter handle @mayorvincegray.

UPDATE: The Fair Budget Coalition now has an editable letter we can useĀ  to send to the Mayor and key decision-makers in his administration. As it says, there are not only vacant units at DC General, but about 65 unused, fully-funded housing vouchers that could go to homeless families.


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.


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