Big Takeaways From The Homeless Services Reform Act Hearing

Last week, the DC Council Committee on Human Services held a hearing on Councilmember Wells’s bill to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act.

One of the those very, very long hearings. Many witnesses. A good bit of back and forth, with Wells seemingly seeking a way to move his bill forward. Here are my biggest takeaways.

Councilmember Wells feels he’s between the rock and the hard place. He’s staring at a current $175 million budget gap — maybe as big as $400 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

He knows there will be cuts in the programs his committee oversees, even if his colleagues join him in supporting a tax increase.

At the same time, he knows that pressures on homeless services will remain at least as high as they are now. Also apparently expects the homeless services budget will be targeted in part because it’s mostly local funds.

So Wells thinks we need to “ration resources,” which, in this case, means ensuring that local dollars are spent only on homeless services for District residents. The only alternative he sees is eliminating some services, e.g., meals for people in shelters during dangerously cold weather.

However, the major costs he repeatedly referred to arise when individuals or families are placed in permanent supportive housing. No homeless person gains overnight access to PSH. So a reasonably flexible process of verifying residency might be possible here. But Wells seemed unwilling to entertain an alternative like this.

Would ensuring that only District residents get PSH placements free up funds for other homeless services? Carter said that PSH funding consisted of housing vouchers and the earmark in the District’s federal appropriation. So the answer is apparently no.

Seems that there’s either a confusion of concerns or a felt need to grab onto any possible justifications for the proposal.

We see this also in the way Wells characterized the scant data available, e.g., his harping on the fact that the number of putatively non-resident families who’d applied for help at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center had tripled. The tripling here is from 2% to 6%. And, of course, applying doesn’t mean getting.

The bill is fraught with unintended consequences. Carter seemed appalled by the notion that blankets or other crisis services couldn’t be provided to people on the streets in freezing weather unless they could document residency.

He said the Wells bill couldn’t be interpreted that way. Councilmember Michael Brown said it could. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless thinks so too. So at the very least, we’ve got a critical — and possibly life-threatening — ambiguity.

Carter also said it was “essential” that no documentation be required for people seeking entry to a low-barrier shelter. This, I assume, on the understanding that individuals who’ve been out on the streets or moving from shelter to shelter often don’t have any of the specified proofs of residency or a ready way to get one.

Yet, as I read the bill, the low-barrier exemption applies only in severe weather conditions. And, as the Legal Clinic said again in its testimony, documentation apparently would be required even then for access to the additional space that’s added to some low-barrier shelters during the winter season.

Similarly, Carter said that the exemption for domestic violence victims shouldn’t apply only during hypothermia alerts. However, the exemption for them along with victims of spousal abuse and human trafficking also seems to apply only in such times.

Even then, they’d have to identify themselves as victims. And as a witness from the District Alliance for Safe Housing pointed out, there’d be no assurance that their whereabouts would be kept confidential.

Looks to me like either sloppy drafting or some serious differences of opinion between the Councilmember and the agency head who’d have to implement the bill.

The bill runs counter to Councilmember Wells’s own concerns. As Wells has repeatedly observed, DC General is “an awful place for children.” Testimony by Matt Fraidin, a law professor at UDC and visiting professor at Georgetown University Law Center, amply confirmed this with results from interviews conducted there this summer.

Yet the bill would eliminate a key control on the conditions in which families are housed. As Wells said at the hearing, the District has never been able to comply with the requirement that they be placed in apartment-style units.

But if he objects to DC General, why would he allow the District to place families in barracks-type facilities not only during severe weather emergencies, but indefinitely?

There are problems that have to be addressed. Councilmember Wells is right in saying that the District can’t become the provider “of last resort” for homeless people who can’t get help from their own local agencies. We’ve got a regional problem, but no mechanism to ensure shared responsibility.

He right that we need to do what we can to conserve resources for District residents — not only because we’ve none to spare, but because, as he observed, District taxpayers will be outraged if they learn that local funds are supporting people who’ve come here to benefit from our relatively compassionate system.

A key question is whether we can reserve emergency shelter space for residents without excluding the neediest and most vulnerable. Wells repeatedly challenged advocates to say whether his proposal was infeasible or unwarranted. The consensus seemed to be both, but stronger for the former.

Wells is also right to “feel panicked” about what will happen this winter. DC General is still full, as are transitional housing units. DHS plans to place 150 families in permanent supportive housing within the next 10 months.

But what’s it going to do about homeless families right now? Sending some relatively small number of them back where they came from isn’t going to ensure enough shelter space for our very own, even if they could prove they’re current residents.

And Carter’s right when he says that “shelter has become the de facto housing system” in the District. The enormous pressures his department is facing come mainly from the growing dearth of affordable housing. Seems that cutbacks there have been truly a pennywise solution.

Wells unfortunately seems to feel that he’s got to work within the framework he’s constructed. “Starting back at zero,” he says, “is not what the Council gets to do.” I’m not clear why it doesn’t. But I’m glad he seems open to suggestions. We may see how open when the Human Services Committee tackles the language of the bill on Wednesday.

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