What DC Could Do About the Homeless Family Crisis

As I said a couple of days ago, the District’s homeless family crisis has reached an unprecedented — and unforeseen — level. At the end of last month, the Department of Human Services was already sheltering about 100 more newly homeless families than were projected for the entire winter season.

DHS Director David Berns seems resigned to some sort of cataclysm. “I don’t see how we can continue at this rate,” he said during the recent hearing on the crisis — but also that he didn’t have “any fresh ideas.”

Some movers and shakers on the Interagency Council on Homelessness do have fresh ideas — mainly for how DHS could do what it’s been trying to do better. They’ve produced a multi-part strategy to address the crisis. It also identifies issues that must be swiftly resolved to prevent a recurrence.

The first part consists of immediate measures to speed up the rapid re-housing placement rate, e.g., more staff and other resources to identify and inspect affordable units, perhaps some sort of incentive for landlords so they’ll rent to families with short-term, iffy housing subsidies.

A second part identifies existing homelessness prevention and subsidized housing programs that should receive more funding so as to open up space in the DC General shelter for homeless families and thus reduce — or altogether eliminate — the use of hotels as a fallback.

Roughly 80% of the families would receive rapid re-housing subsidies, plus “help in identifying a longer-term affordable unit” and services “related to housing stability” and employment.

Permanent supportive housing would be made available to about 10%. The remaining 10% or so would receive emergency rental assistance, i.e., one-time help with a security deposit and first month’s rent, plus again help finding an affordable unit.

The percent allocations are based on results of assessments that two of the service providers have been conducting, using a research-based tool designed to match homeless families to the most appropriate types of aid.

Only 15% of the families thus far assessed have sought homeless services in the District again after a term in rapid re-housing, according to testimony by the Community of Hope’s Executive Director Kelly Sweeney McShane.

The Transitional Housing Corporation, which is also using the tool for assessments, has posted similar results for its rapid re-housing program.

I still can’t help wondering how a much larger number of homeless families will manage to pick up the rent — and keep paying it — or find a longer-term affordable unit when their subsidies expire, even if someone’s scouting the market for them.

So it’s good to note that the strategy also calls for a “community conversation” about the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the District’s own version of federally-funded housing vouchers.

As Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless observed in her testimony, the District has, for some years, ignored the recommendations of the original Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force.

These included 14,600 locally-funded housing vouchers by the beginning of the next decade. The current budget will support about 2,730.

We know the Gray administration doesn’t like these vouchers — at least, not those that enable low-income residents to pay market-rate rents. And both Berns and at least some members of the strategy-development group worry that homeless families will hunker down in shelter if they think they’ll eventually get one.

But if we really want to solve the homeless family crisis, I think the so-called tenant-based vouchers have to be part of the toolbox too. The strategy drafters may agree, since they acknowledge the need for vouchers and other “affordable housing supports.”

We’re also to engage in conversation about other matters, including a return to year round services for homeless families. This is now being framed as a preventive strategy, though basic human decency alone could justify it.

One reason for the current crisis, Berensin testified, is the decision DHS made several years ago to “close the front door to shelter” during the seven months outside the official winter season.

This, she said, creates a “pent up demand” by the time the first freezing-cold day arrives. And some families may by then have more severe problems — thus be less likely to rapidly recover their ability to pay for housing, assuming they ever had it.

The strategy also calls for the creation of a new ICH committee to monitor and improve the rapid re-housing process. It’s to be a very hands-on group and to have direct access to Berns when progress hinges on decisions he must make or runs into “roadblocks” he can clear.

Ultimately, however, as the strategy says, the homeless family crisis reflects problems that DHS alone can’t solve, e.g., the acute shortage of housing that’s affordable for the District’s lowest-income residents, the divers disadvantages that keep them near or below the poverty line.

In this respect, the more than 1,000 newly homeless families DHS now projects for this winter season are canaries in the coal mine. The Mayor and his lead officials would do well to recognize this, instead of effectively blaming them for leaving doubled-up situations that they — and/or their hosts — know are untenable.

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