Draft Winter Plan for Homeless Families Deliberately Vague … and for Good Reasons

When I first looked at this year’s draft Winter Plan, I was struck by the vagueness of the part that’s supposed to guide efforts “to protect the lives” of homeless families in the District of Columbia.

These are families who’ll have no safe place to stay unless the District provides it when they’re at risk of freezing to death, as it’s legally obliged to do.

The District has the same legal obligation to protect homeless individual men and women, i.e., those who don’t have children with them.

For each of the individual groups, the draft identifies shelter locations and beds available, as past Winter Plans have. Total capacity for each group reflects projected need, based on past experience.

As my last post noted, the draft plan provides a more sophisticated projection for homeless families — a month-by-month estimate of the number who will pass the screening test for eligibility.

But we’ve no specifics. Merely a list of diverse “resources” the Department of Human Services may (or may not) use — everything from motel rooms to two different types of long-term subsidized housing.

One of them is the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s locally-funded version of the federal Housing Choice (formerly Section 8) vouchers program.

I was surprised to see it in the plan, since the DC Housing Authority ordinarily issues vouchers to households at the top of its long waiting list.

True, the DC Council made an exception. It provided funds for 200-250 additional LRSP vouchers in the budget for this fiscal year — all specifically for homeless families.

But the fiscal year began on October 1. Here we are, more than nine months later — and more than twelve months since DHS knew it would have to select families to bestow the vouchers on. Turns out the vouchers haven’t all been issued.

I’m told that DHS actually had 267 vouchers at its disposal. Only 187 were helping the target families pay rent, as of less than a month ago. And the draft Winter Plan suggests there may still be some vouchers unissued in November.

This helps explain why the Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the Winter Plan for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, didn’t specify how many homeless families will be accommodated with one resource or another.

For the past several years, DHS has insisted on overly-optimistic projections for rapid re-housing placements, i.e., arrangements for families to live in housing that’s temporarily subsidized.

These projections enabled the agency to minimize other resource needs — for example, to decide that last year’s Winter Plan would assume use of barely more than half the units at DC General, the main shelter for homeless families.

Well, we know how that worked out. DHS had to use all the units at DC General, plus apparently some extra space, since the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports a maximum of 289 families there.

The agency still had to house as many as 166 families per night in motel rooms, DCFPI adds.

I think it’s fair to lay some blame on DHS, which should have known that it couldn’t place more than three times as many families through rapid re-housing as it had the year before — and in half the time.

Hardly the case it wasn’t told, as the post by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless I’ve linked to indicates. And now we’re seeing a more perplexing sluggishness in issuing vouchers that don’t have the drawbacks of the rapid re-housing type.

Even so, the Operations and Logistics Committee might have been able to at least estimate monthly vacancies at DC General — and perhaps also other types of placements — if DHS had provided the data needed, including average timeframes from intake to placement via each of the resources it can draw on.

It didn’t. Whether it has them is, at this point, an open question.

What we can readily infer from the draft itself is that the Operations and Logistics Committee decided that no figures were better than bad figures. And, in one respect, even reasonably good figures would be meaningless because the Winter Plan doesn’t bind DHS to anything, as members have stressed when we’ve talked about the plan.

More importantly perhaps, I’m told that at least some committee members didn’t want to put forth another plan that made the homeless family situation seem less challenging –and potentially costly — than it’s likely to be.

I know all this seems like a lot of inside baseball, but it has very real consequences for homeless families — and for individual homeless men and women as well.

The homeless services budget doesn’t expand just because DHS has to spend $40,650 a night for families at DC General when the shelter is full — or an additional $130 a night for every family it’s got to park in a motel.

If there’s a crunch at the end of the winter season, something will have to give — unless, of course, DHS or the Mayor finds extra money to sustain the inadequate system we’ve got.

That system, recall, leaves newly-homeless families to fend for themselves unless it’s freezing cold outside — and except at those times, turns homeless men and women out of shelters at the crack of dawn, with no assurance they can return at sundown.

This whole situation is ripe for reform — and the money to go with it, much of which ought to be on the long-term affordable housing side of the ledger.

But first and foremost, the Council’s Committee on Human Services should dig into the Winter Plan — and the issues that help explain what’s missing.

3 Responses to Draft Winter Plan for Homeless Families Deliberately Vague … and for Good Reasons

  1. […] And a good thing too. Because it isn’t merely lacking in specifics, like the family portion I complained about. It’s a tacit denial of a responsibility that everyone, to my knowledge, assumed the […]

  2. […] has, in the past, looked to rapid re-housing as its main tool for getting homeless families out of the DC General […]

  3. […] year, I remarked that the draft Winter Plan was notably sketchy on how the District would fulfill its legal […]

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