The DC Department of Human Services has a problem. Too many homeless families for the space it’s got to shelter them. And far too many for the permanent supportive housing units it’s funded to give some of them a more suitable place to live.
Mayor Gray has a solution, tucked into his proposed Budget Support Act — the legislative changes supposedly needed to make his actual budget consistent with District laws.
The changes I’m referring to would amend the Homeless Services Reform Act — the law that, among other things, gives homeless families with no safe place to stay a right to shelter or housing in extremely cold and hot weather.
The amendments would allow DHS to force sheltered families into temporarily-subsidized housing — or out onto the streets if they refuse it.
Families it decided weren’t cooperating with caseworkers assigned to assess their needs could also be kicked out of wherever DHS had temporarily parked them — and with none of the due process protections they have now, as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless explains.
They’d lose them because the amendments give legal authority to a provisional shelter policy that the Legal Clinic successfully contested last winter.
So they’d be highly vulnerable to expulsions based on subjective judgments that they’ve failed to meet demands, even if they couldn’t or didn’t for good and proper reasons.
Experience with sanctions imposed on parents in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs shows this is not a far-fetched concern.
And just to ensure that DHS would have fewer homeless families to serve, the amendments would authorize the Mayor to require that they establish and contribute to savings accounts or the equivalent “as a condition of receiving shelter or supportive housing services.”
As if these families have money to squirrel away — even the vast majority at DC General, who rely on the egregiously low cash benefits they get from the District’s TANF program or are poor enough to qualify.
The amendments would also allow providers of supportive housing to establish time limits on residency — a strange redefinition of what’s commonly called permanent supportive housing.
Even stranger because DHS could bar the doors to its PSH units after residents were away for 60 days, even if they’d been in a hospital.
And there would be a fixed two-year time limit on transitional housing — another form of housing that includes supportive services designed to help residents deal with problems that led to their becoming homeless.
Now, as I said, DHS does have a homeless family problem. But it has neither the authority nor the resources to appropriately solve it.
Not surprisingly, the number of homeless families increased when the recession set in. And not surprisingly, it hasn’t decreased, though the local economy is in a recovery mode.
The larger problem, however, is the acute shortage of housing that low-income District residents can afford. This helps account not only for the rise in family homelessness, but for the difficulties DHS has had in moving families out of DC General so that others can move in.
It insisted that it would have enough units there this winter — perhaps more than enough — because its rapid re-housing program would continuously free up space.
Unrealistic, as predicted — and partly because of problems baked into rapid re-housing.
This program, as I’ve written before, provides families with housing that’s subsidized for, at most, a year. It’s good for families that are temporarily down on their luck, but they’re hardly a majority of those at DC General.
Many have looked at the rapid re-housing offer and sensibly concluded they’d be homeless again as soon as they had to pay the full rent — and perhaps then denied shelter because it wasn’t cold enough.
Some, I’m told, have also refused to be rapidly re-housed because the units offered were potentially unsafe or otherwise inappropriate, e.g., because they lacked accessibility features a disabled member needed.
Now the Mayor wants to deny them shelter or supportive housing if they refuse two offers — regardless of the reasons.
Also, as I’ve said, kick them out of transitional housing at the end of two years and potentially — or in some cases, definitely — out of permanent supportive housing.
Here too support would end with no assurance that residents wouldn’t immediately be literally homeless again.
In the long run, their housing prospects may be better because the Mayor wants most of his promised $100 million put into the Housing Production Trust Fund, which is supposed to spend 40% of its money on housing that’s affordable for extremely low-income residents.
He’s also proposing that all the additional $5 million he’s allocated to project-based and sponsor-based vouchers, i.e., those that help cover operating costs, be used to house families with no safe place stay or individuals referred by District agencies.
But he’s not proposing a penny more for vouchers that homeless residents — and those who are about to be homeless — could use to help pay market-rate rents until such time as they didn’t need subsidies any more.
A nice boost in funding for these vouchers would help solve the problem his punitive Homeless Services Reform Act amendments seek to address — and in a way that would provide homeless families with a safe, stable housing situation suitable to their needs.
He’s instead decided to spring major, coercive policy changes on homeless residents, service providers, advocates and the DC Council itself without notice — let alone opportunities for input.
You’d think he’d at least have run the proposals by the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which is supposed to play a lead role in the District’s strategies and policies for meeting the needs of its homeless and at-risk residents.
But he and some of his representatives on the ICH probably wouldn’t have liked what they’d have heard.