No Clear Answers on DC Shelter Cutbacks

Last Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the Fenty administration had cut funding for homeless services by $20 million. The source for that figure was Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee. He says the cuts took him by surprise–that the budget he asked the Council to vote on included no cuts in homeless services.

That takes me by surprise. The expenditure reductions table that blogger and budget “insider” Susie Cambria got from reliable sources certainly indicates cuts for homeless services, though nowhere near $20 million.

In any event, Wells changed the agenda for a scheduled hearing so that he could look into the issue. As the Post reports, Clarence Carter, head of the Department of Human Services, testified that Wells was “dead wrong.” The actual cut was more like $900,000.

Moreover, he said, funding for the Community Partnership for Homelessness Prevention, which manages homeless services for the District, is about the same as last year’s, though he also referred to a budget reduction of $11.5 million. Wells and homeless advocates insisted the cut was larger–about 30%.

One would think the amount of funding available for homeless services would be beyond dispute. But the Budget Request Act–the appropriations the Council approved–has no separate line item for homeless services. So DHS can allocate funding for these services as it sees fit and move money around in response to changing priorities and pressures.

Whatever the figure, a fact sheet issued by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says that at least five emergency shelter and transitional housing providers were notified on September 28 that their contracts would be cut by an average of 30%, effective October 1. This much apparently is not in dispute.

We’re given to understand that a lot of people who now have shelter will be out on the streets unless the mandated cuts are rescinded. And we know there are now 385 families on the waiting list for shelter or other housing.

The official start of the hypothermia season is just weeks away. And the winter plan, which is supposed to be a blueprint for how the District will provide shelter for every individual and family who needs protection from the cold, assumes more capacity than apparently will be available.

So we obviously have a crisis–and, what’s worse, no clear view of its dimensions or potential solutions. The roots of the problem go back to the over-broad budget allocation and what certainly seems to be a lack of transparency on the part of the Fenty administration.

Whatever Carter told the Community Partnership and/or the providers, he testified that his department had the funds to cope as recently as mid-July. And he said not a word to the contrary when the Interagency Council on Homelessness met in early September.

But I’d be sorry to see all the blame heaped on DHS. After all, the Council voted to cut the department’s budget. What did they expect? That somehow homeless and other poor people wouldn’t be hurt?

CORRECTION: The version of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget submitted for Congressional approval on September 28 has a separate line item for homeless services. The budget was restructured this year to put these in the family services account.

2 Responses to No Clear Answers on DC Shelter Cutbacks

  1. […] parties have locked horns on the size of the homeless services budget cut. We’ve now learned that it’s apparently […]

  2. […] October 2009, we learned — months after the budget was passed — that funds in the federal block grant for the […]

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