DC Gets a Barely Passing Grade for Homeless Family Services

Last spring, a coalition of advocates and service providers developed a “roadmap” for preventing another wintertime homeless family crisis in the District of Columbia. Now, as a new winter season opens, it’s issued a report card, indicating how much progress the District has made toward the 10 goals the roadmap set.

Not the sort of report card you’d like to take home to your parents. Virtually all Cs, meaning the District has taken steps toward the goals, but too recently for the coalition to decide whether they’ll result in significant progress.

Two Ds, meaning no significant progress — or, one infers, much by way of promising steps. And a single B, for homelessness prevention. That seems pretty generous to me, since the progress described has thus far not resulted in an “up and running program.”

Like the original roadmap, the report card reflects a lot of effort to gather, assess and communicate information about the District’s homeless family services. Highly recommended reading for all concerned. I’ll confine myself here to the big picture, as I see it.

Not Enough Shelter Units (Again)

As you may recall, the Department of Human Services was overwhelmed last winter by homeless families it couldn’t legally turn away because they’d sought shelter during freezing-cold weather.

One, though not the only problem was that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, was nearly full when the winter season began. The roadmap recommended both a plan and additional staff to move at least 100 families a month from shelter into housing so as to open up space for more.

DHS has managed to increase the rate to 63 families a month — not enough to have significantly more vacant units at DC General when this year’s winter season began. To its credit, it has contracted for hotel rooms. But there was no money in the budget for them.

The agency plans to use funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — an estimated $8.5 million, I’m told. Hard to see how this won’t mean cutbacks in programs and/or services those TANF funds would otherwise support.

At the same time, as I’ve written before, the Gray administration has proposed a plan (of sorts) to replace DC General with smaller shelters. The total number of units would remain the same.

So there’d probably still be fewer units than homeless families entitled to shelter during the winter season — and surely too few for the District to once again keep the shelter doors open year round for families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

More Affordable Housing, But Mostly Temporary

On the upside, the District has invested funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing, including apartments big enough for larger families. And the DC Council has approved more funds for vouchers that enable homeless families to rent at market rates.

But the District’s strategy relies heavily on rapid re-housing, i.e., short-term housing subsidies, renewable for up to a year, provided that families measure up to expectations.

DHS has still not issued final rules for the program. And the theoretically temporary rules it issued in late June raise serious concerns — among them, the share of rent families have to pay, both initially and during renewal periods.

The rules are also highly ambiguous about whether families can get an extension of their subsidy if they can’t afford to pay full rent at the end of the year — a likely possibility for many, I’ve suggested.

DHS could, at the very least, enable nonprofit partners to provide some services and/or rental assistance to families that seem likely to become homeless again. But it hasn’t even explored the possibilities, the report card says.

One Small Step for Young Families

More than 40% of the families sheltered last winter were headed by parents who were, at most, 24 years old. Needless to say (I hope), they had very little, if any work experience. Many, the report card says, had neither a high school diploma or the equivalent — a high predictor of unemployment, even for older District residents.

Like as not, the young parents had never rented an apartment. Some probably had just aged out of foster care, since that’s a high risk for homelessness.

They often don’t have ongoing family support or other concerned adults to help with the challenges of housing, credit and the like. The same, of course, can be true for young mothers who were kicked out — or harassed out — of their homes when their parent(s) found out they were pregnant.

These are not the sort of families that rapid re-housing was designed for. Nor the sort of families that the needs assessment tool DHS relies on was designed for. The roadmap, therefore, called for reviews of the tool, the case management system and rapid re-housing itself to ensure they’re suitable for young families.

DHS has launched a small pilot program, which offers the fortunate participants more intensive services and potentially rental assistance for more than a year.

It’s not clear whether the agency can expand the program, the report card says. Nor is it clear whether DHS has reviewed — let alone modified — the tool or case management services.

Much Else Unclear

Families first encounter the District’s homeless system at the Virginia Williams intake center. Caseworkers there still have no written protocol to tell them how to decide whether to grant a family shelter. Nor, therefore, do we know how decisions are made — only that some indicate ignorance (or casual disregard) of the law.

That’s far from all we don’t know. For example, the District doesn’t release information on services families receive while they’re at DC General. More generally, it either doesn’t have or won’t release data that would enable us to determine how key elements of its homeless system are working — apparently more the former than the latter.

Part of the problem, the report card says, is that DHS contracts out much of homeless services to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. And the Partnership doesn’t deign — and isn’t required — to publicly report how it spends the funds it gets or what they achieve.

Thus, as the report card says, “it is impossible to determine if the District has allocated sufficient funding to meet the need and if programs are performing as well as they should be.”

Impossible for the roadmap coalition, which so clearly wants to help create a humane, effective system that prevents homelessness, when possible, affords shelter when that isn’t and then helps families move quickly to a safe, stable home.

Impossible for our policymakers as well. But they can make the egregiously opaque system more transparent. This ought to be a first order of business for the new administration and the new chair of the Council’s Human Services Committee.

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