Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper reports on a big problem in the DC Department of Human Services rapid re-housing program.
As you may recall, DHS earlier gave us to understand that the program would largely solve the problems it’s faced providing shelter for homeless families when it’s legally required to. (Providing shelter for those who’ve got no safe place to stay when it isn’t was abandoned a couple of years ago.)
Well, rapid re-housing didn’t rapidly re-house as many families as DHS projected. The agency had “a terrible time getting people to accept” a housing subsidy they could count on for, at most, a year, said Director David Berns.
This, however, doesn’t fully explain why DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, is nearly full — or why DHS also has 94 families in hotel rooms.
The larger reason its plans have come a cropper is that there’s a vast gap between housing costs and the near-term income prospects of these families, most of whom are so poor as to be eligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program.
A total of 150 families — some at DC General and some in the hotels — have been deemed suitable candidates for rapid re-housing. But DHS can’t find apartments for them — and they apparently can’t find apartments for themselves either — because the rent’s too damn high.
That, at any rate, seems to be the main problem. We should also, however, factor in landlords’ understandable reluctance to rent to families with spotty credit records — a reflection of the financial problems that made them homeless to begin with — and with no assurance that DHS will pay any part of the rent after the first four months.
You’d think that DHS would have foreseen at least the rental cost problem. It’s not as if rents suddenly spiked in the last year or so. Units affordable for low-income households have been vanishing for a long time.
Yet the agency initially figured it could move a large number of homeless families into housing swiftly if it only had the authority to coerce them into accepting whatever unit it identified. Or so one infers from the largely abortive effort to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act.
In this respect, it’s refreshing that Berns now acknowledges an inherent problem in the program itself — one closely related to the problems that have driven so many families to seek help from his agency.
He understands that it would be irresponsible to place them in apartments costing thousands of dollars a month — even if, as he’s now suggesting, the rent might be subsidized for as long as two years.
Sooner or later, they’d have to pay that rent — relatively soon, no matter what. How would the mother Wiener interviewed manage that when she and her children now rely on TANF benefits?
In the meantime, how will she find the multi-bedroom apartment they need — let alone one that isn’t in poor shape and an unsafe neighborhood, as another interviewee says units she was offered were — when DHS caseworkers have decided that $1,400-$1,600 a month is too high?
Not an unreasonable decision. An apartment at the low end of this range would be affordable only if she had an income of about $4,667 a month. This is more than three times what she’d earn as a full-time minimum-wage worker.
So you see what DHS is up against.
Berns nevertheless stands by his program. Wiener reports (no direct quote, alas) that he termed “indefinite subsidies … unsustainable.” The reference here presumably is to housing assistance families may have for as long as they’re income-eligible.
But, for Berns, it’s not just a budgetary issue. The short-term vouchers “keep that sense of urgency,” he says. In other words, parents will get off their proverbials and find jobs that pay enough to cover the rent if they know their families will otherwise become homeless again.
Ah, yes. The efficacy of time limits, which have done such wonders for poor families since TANF replaced an indefinite-term cash benefit.
There surely is a sense of urgency among the parents in hotel rooms — and at DC General, as we know from a hearing Councilmember Jim Graham held there in March.
Enough are apparently willing to risk the imminent end of a housing subsidy to have created such a big backlog that DHS has closed its rapid re-housing waiting list.
Now we’re only a month away from the official opening of the winter season. When freezing cold weather kicks in again, DHS will have to shelter families who’d otherwise be exposed to the elements.
It’s already got so many in the low-cost hotels it uses that Berns worries there won’t be enough additional rooms there. He reportedly thinks he may have to put newly-homeless families up in hotels outside the District.
An allusion, presumably his, to the extra cost. Much greater costs to the families, who’d be far from their networks, any job training or other programs they’re enrolled in, their kids’ schools, etc.
“D.C. has failed to adapt its rapid rehousing program to the realities of an expensive housing market and a highly competitive population of renters,” Amber Harding at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says.
Hard to argue with that. Harder for me to see a rapid solution to the District’s homeless family crisis.