The District of Columbia has achieved the dubious distinction of being rated as a jurisdiction with the highest level of vulnerability to increased homelessness. Only three states got as high a rating from the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Should this set off alarm bells? Probably, though the people who need to hear them don’t seem to be listening to alarms already sounded.
First, a look at how NAEH got to its ratings. The methodology is a little complex. But it helps us understand why many District residents are at high risk of literal homelessness. So bear with me here.
NAEH first identified states that had an elevated level of vulnerability. Two factors got states into this category — a higher rate of homelessness than the national average and multiple risk factors for an increase.
- A huge increase in the number of people living doubled up with friends or relatives.
- A very high percentage of poor households paying more than half their income for rent.
- A drop in the real value of the income of the District’s working poor.
- And, of course, a large increase in the number of jobless residents looking for work.
These factors, combined with the homelessness rate, got the District into the elevated vulnerability group, along with eight states.
Then NAEH added two new factors — cuts in public sector employment and/or in public cash assistance, e.g., benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
Why only public sector job losses? Maybe because total job loss figures were hard to come by. More likely because NAEH wants to deliver a message to state-level policymakers, who’ve got control over only the public sector payroll.
In any event, only cuts in both categories boosted states into the highest vulnerability group.
No one who’s followed the District’s budget-balancing exercises should be surprised to find it there.
As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, the District’s Fiscal Year 2012 budget wipes out 205 full-time equivalent vacancies. These come on top of nearly 400 positions eliminated in Fiscal Year 2011 and somewhere around 1,300 positions cut in Fiscal Year 2010.
How much these cuts potentially impact the District’s homelessness rate is unclear — at least, to me. Not so the cuts in TANF benefits.
Last December, the DC Council agreed to a 20% cut in TANF benefits for families who’d been in the program for more than five years.
This cut went into effect in April, leaving nearly 7,000 families with even less than the meager cash assistance they’d been trying to get along on.
Meanwhile, as I suspected he would, Mayor Gray reverted to his plan to make additional 20% cuts until the families were left with nothing. The Council decided to delay further cuts until next fiscal year. But they’ll still go forward.
At this point, a temporarily-reprieved family of three is eligible for a maximum of $342 a month. Need I say this falls far short of rental costs in the District?
Which brings me to a risk factor NAEH didn’t include in its rating scheme — significant cuts in funding for the District’s main affordable housing programs.
True, the Council has said it will restore them if revenues are sufficiently higher than the forecast used for the budget.
But the numbers crunched by Bob Pohlman at the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development indicate that not one dollar will go back into the affordable housing programs unless a future revenue forecast comes in more than $3.2 million higher than the latest.
Many, many millions more needed just to get us back to the under-funded levels we’ve had.
So, sad to say, the District has earned its homelessness vulnerability rating. Now, what will our policymakers do when vulnerability turns into a real-world increase in homelessness?