Thankful I Live in DC

November 25, 2015

Like many of you, I suppose, I try to take some time before Thanksgiving Day to focus on what I have to be thankful for. In my case, a lot, even on this Thanksgiving, when I’ll have no one ministering to the turkey — my late husband Jesse’s traditional (and favorite) holiday task.

One thing I’m thankful for and recur to often as I browse policies that affect low-income people is the fact that I live in the District of Columbia.

As followers know, I gripe about policy choices our mayors and the DC Council make. Sometimes more than gripe.

I’m constantly reminded, however, of how relatively progressive the major choices generally are — and of how even current debates occur within a relatively progressive framework. A few examples.

Jobless Workers

The Council seems poised to increase unemployment insurance benefits for at least some jobless workers, as well as to enable some to get them for longer

A bill cosponsored by a majority of members would, among other things, increase the maximum weekly benefit — long stuck at $359 — to $430 and then adjust it annually so that it didn’t again lose purchasing power.

It would also enable recipients to work part time without losing as much of their benefits as they do now — another increase of sorts.

Meanwhile, nine states have cut UI benefits by reducing the maximum time jobless workers can receive them to fewer than the customary 26 weeks. Two states will now cut the lifeline at 12 weeks when their unemployment rates drop to 5-5.5%.

And five states have chosen not to ask for waivers of the highly-restrictive SNAP (food stamp program) eligibility maximum for able-bodied workers without dependents. One of them — Kansas — is among the states that cut eligibility weeks for UI benefits.

So ABAWDs who are jobless for as little as 16 weeks will have neither cash income nor a cash equivalent to feed themselves — unless they can get into a job training program.

Unlikely, since states don’t have to provide any training slots for them. And most don’t, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has again reported.

The District has not only preserved the waiver it’s entitled to. It’s done other things to extend SNAP benefits to as many residents as possible — and to make them as sufficient as seems possible, even to the extent of committing local funds to boost the minimal minimum.

Affordable Health Care

The District swiftly embraced the opportunities in the Affordable Care Act — both to expand its Medicaid program and to establish an online marketplace so that residents with incomes above the new maximum could purchase health insurance, in many cases subsidized.

And it promoted enrollment in a variety of ways — through advertising, partnerships with the local soccer team and largest drug store chain and funding for 35 divers organizations to support trained “assisters,” who help residents understand the ACA and navigate their way to a sign-up.

At the same time, it retained the locally-funded Healthcare Alliance so that low-income residents barred from Medicaid and the exchange — mainly undocumented immigrants — could get affordable health care too.

As a result, the District’s already low uninsured rate dropped to 5.3% last year — bested only by Massachusetts, which provided the model for the ACA.

Meanwhile, 20 states still refused to expand their Medicaid programs. And 13 of them passed laws to hobble the federally-funded navigators — one of the two types of “assisters” the District provides.

We see the results in the same Census health insurance report I linked to above. Highest uninsured rates in the non-expansion states — led by Texas, with a rate well over three times the District’s.

Not surprisingly, when Texas, among others, excludes all childless adults from its Medicaid program and covers only parents with incomes no greater than 15% of the federal poverty line — about $3,013 for a parent with two kids.

Family Planning Rights

The District would — if it could — use its own tax revenues to ensure that low-income women who live here can choose to end a pregnancy when they believe that’s best, a right they supposedly have under the Constitution.

The District can’t because Congress exercised its prerogative to meddle in the local budget in ways it can’t — and wouldn’t dare to — if the District were a state like any other.

Meanwhile, 24 states have cleverly (they think) found a way around the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which made the Constitutional right operative.

They’re using their taxpayer dollars to defend laws that effectively deny the right by requiring clinics that provide abortions to meet wholly unnecessary standards — all very costly and at least two sometimes absolutely impossible to comply with.

Texas will defend its unusually expansive rules before the Supreme Court, using tax dollars women have perforce contributed. The governor makes no bones about the intent of the rules.

“The ideal world, ” he says, “is one without abortion. Until then, we will continue to pass laws to ensure that they are as rare as possible.” So much for the alleged concern for women’s health and safety.

Well-off women will, of course, still have abortions. They’ll travel to communities with clinics that have managed to meet the standards — or to states that haven’t enacted targeted regulations of abortion providers, so-called to produce the appropriate acronym, i.e., TRAP.

They’ll perhaps have abortions in hospitals, as well-off women with compassionate doctors sometimes did before Roe.

Meanwhile, hundreds of desperate women have already tried to-it-yourself abortions — at genuine risk to their health and safety. Who knows how many more have borne children they didn’t want and can’t care for? How many have instead done away with themselves?

Got my juices flowing here, when I should be thinking about turkey juices. But I am truly thankful that I’ve settled in the District. And I’m thankful for Jesse, without whom I probably wouldn’t have. But that’s another story.


Could DC Inclusionary Zoning Benefit Neediest Residents?

November 23, 2015

I’d never though much about the District of Columbia’s inclusionary zoning program. For one thing, it hardly made a dent in the affordable housing shortage during the first four years after the District completed final program rules.

The program’s generating more units now — 600 open and roughly 1,120 more on the way, I’ve heard. Still not a large impact in a city that’s lost roughly 31,880 units that rented for $1,000 or less in 2002.

More importantly, given my interests, such affordable housing as the program has produced isn’t affordable for the lowest-income residents — those with incomes no greater than 30% of the median for the D.C. metro area.

That’s a feature of the law, not a bug. IZ, by design, benefits households that are technically low-income, according to the definitions used by public agencies and analysts, but not really low-income at all.

Consider, for example, that the vast majority of units thus far produced are priced for households at 80% of the area median — currently $78,624 for a three-person family or nearly four times the federal poverty line.

A brief by a local coalition nevertheless makes a good case for IZ as a program that can benefit the lowest-income residents. It also recommends some rule changes the Zoning Commission could make.

How the IZ Program Works

The IZ program offers private-sector developers an incentive to include some affordable units in new or significantly renovated and expanded multi-family housing. Instead of directly subsidizing their projects, it permits them to pack in more units than zoning would otherwise allow, thus making the projects potentially more profitable.

In exchange, developers must set aside a modest percent of the residential floor for units that will rent or sell at prices those technically low-income households can afford.

The IZ units must remain affordable, according to the same income standards for as long as the building remains residential. Only recently has any other District housing program preserved affordability beyond a date certain.

Why IZ Doesn’t Mandate Units Affordable for Extremely Low-Income Residents

The story here is fairly simple. Rents affordable for the lowest-income (technically extremely low-income) households don’t cover the costs of operating and maintaining a building. Owners need ongoing subsidies in the form of vouchers to compensate for the shortfall.

That, of course, requires continuous funding. And the money would have to come out of the District’s budget because federal policymakers aren’t going to plow enough extra into so-called project-based vouchers to support a growing number of affordable units — at least, not in the foreseeable future.

Even the President’s proposed budget would merely cover the costs of vouchers already in use. This steady state funding seems to date back to at least Fiscal Year 2010 — except when the voucher program, like all programs dependent on annual appropriations got whacked by the across-the-board cuts in 2013.

We do need increasing investments in project-based vouchers. Better, the argument goes, to pair them with the financial support the shored-up Housing Production Trust Fund provides. By law, 40% of the funds spent must help finance units affordable for ELI households.

How IZ Could Benefit Extremely Low-Income Households

The very structure of IZ means its not inclusionary for ELI households. Yet it can benefit them, supporters say.

The notion here is that moderate-income families will move to the new units they can, in theory, afford. Those units will attract them because they’re more conveniently located, spiffier, close to high-performing schools and the like.

That will free up cheaper units they’re occupying now and/or make them less likely to rent or buy them when they decide to move. It’s surely the case that a goodly number live in those units now.

About a third of rental units District ELI households could have afforded roughly four years ago were occupied by higher-income households, according to an in-depth Urban Institute study.

This is one, though far from the only reason that 64% of ELI households spent at least half their income for rent in 2013. They’re disadvantaged in the competition for the low-cost units, the Institute says, because landlords tend to prefer renters with “greater financial stability,” e.g., steady, well-paying jobs, strong credit records.

IZ arguably reduces the competition by luring those renters to housing that affordable for them, but not their lower-income counterparts.

Not THE Answer, But an Answer

What I think we see here is that no one program can solve the acute and growing affordable housing problems in the District — or in many other communities. IZ shows instead how affordable housing programs are — or should be — thought of together.

As with some of our household repairs and more ambitious projects, we often need more than one tool to get the job done.

I didn’t see how IZ could help do the job for the District’s lowest-income residents. But I’m persuaded now, though I also see how the Zoning Commission could make the tool more effective.

The coalition has half a dozen recommendations, many of which would shift the program toward less well-off households — and even ultimately the ELI. Seems like a blueprint for reform to me.

Glitch in Law Leaves Former Foster Care Youth Without Health Insurance

November 5, 2015

Kaiser Health News leads off an article with the story of a young woman who’d aged out of foster care and moved to another state, where she soon came down with a bad ear infection. She went to a hospital and discovered she was no longer covered by Medicaid.

So this young adult, now on her own, had to clean out her bank account and borrow to pay for the antibiotics she needed. And all because of another drafting glitch in the Affordable Care Act — a wrong word buried deep in the 974-page text.

Limited Parity for Former Foster Care Youth

As you probably know, the ACA allows young adults to remain covered under their family’s health insurance plan until they’re twenty-six. This has protected some 5.7 million of them from the risks of insufficient health care and/or catastrophic bills.

But it’s of no help to young adults whom a state assumed responsibility for because it decided that their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill their responsibilities. The ACA tries to extend protection to these youth.

It requires states and the District of Columbia to cover them up to twenty-six under their Medicaid program if the youth had been in their foster care program when they reached the age of “emancipation” from the child welfare system.

But it doesn’t require states or the District to cover these youth if they move to another state. Nor to transfer them to their Medicaid programs when the youth move in.

This, at any rate, is how the federal agency responsible for Medicaid interprets the wording, though the drafters clearly intended to provide parity for all young adults.

No Continuous Coverage … or Perhaps Any

Former foster care youth can secure Medicaid coverage, if they’re eligible according to their new home state’s standards. But they have to go through the whole enrollment process just like any other adults.

In the best of cases, they’ll have no health insurance for awhile — perhaps longer than most because the state may insist on checking information that could be hard to verify, e.g., income, residency.

In the worst of cases, no health insurance period. That’s most likely in the 19 states that won’t expand their Medicaid programs to cover everyone (except some immigrants) with an income no higher than 133% of the federal poverty line — actually, 138% because of a technicality in the ACA.

If our former foster care youth have incomes at or above 100% of the FPL — and the savvy or assistance needed — they can purchase subsidized health insurance on the exchange for eligible residents in their new state. That too could leave them without coverage for awhile.

But some will fall between the cracks. Fifteen states exclude all childless adults from their Medicaid programs, including those too poor to buy on an exchange. An additional seven cover only those who meet criteria set by approved pilot projects.

The Letter of the Law, Not the Spirit in DC

We can generally look to the District for enlightened healthcare policies. But unlike thirteen states, it’s decided not to recognize the Medicaid eligibility of former foster care youth who become residents.

The Department of Health Care Finance says it can’t readily verify their eligibility because there’s no national database. True enough. But couldn’t the agency ask the youth’s former home states to verify? That doesn’t seem to me so “administratively burdensome” as it claims.

Couldn’t it at least develop some agreement with Maryland, where I’m told many of the District’s aged-out foster care youth move? (No agreement with Virginia would be needed because it’s one of the thirteen that’s exercised its flexibility to provide continuous Medicaid coverage.)

Health Care Finance needn’t assume any burden, however. At least one state just takes a youth’s word for his/her former foster care status and Medicaid enrollment — an option the federal administrative agency expressly allows.

A Nationwide Fix

Bills in both the House and Senate would correct the drafting error so that all former foster care youth have the protection Congress intended.

All they’d do — because all that’s needed — is change “or” to “and” in one paragraph “the” to “a” in two other paragraphs of the Social Security Act that the ACA amended.

Are the bills going to go anywhere in this Congress, with Republican majorities intent on dismantling the ACA? A rhetorical question, of course.

So at least for the time being, former foster care youth must depend on state and District officials for the affordable health insurance they need. Seems to me the District should be out in front here, instead of doing the least it legally can.

What’s at Stake in the Debate Over Bathrooms for Homeless DC Families?

November 2, 2015

As I’ve written before — and as you who live in the District of Columbia have probably read elsewhere — we’re debating accommodations for families in the new, smaller shelters that will replace DC General, where many are temporarily (and horribly) housed now.

Upcoming votes on an amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act will determine whether the Bowser administration can, as it wishes, contract for new shelters that provide most families with only a private room, like what they’ve got at DC General.*

As things have played out, the hottest issue is whether all but a few — selected we don’t know how — will have to trundle down a hall, day or night, parents and children always together, to a bathroom shared with whoever happens to have a room on the same floor.

How We Came to This Pretty Pass

The HSRA requires apartment-style units in the new shelters — separate bedrooms for parents and children, bathrooms and “cooking facilities” for the family only. The Bowser administration contends that’s too costly. So it wants the law amended to permit what’s essentially a dormitory-style design.

Advocates would like all families to have apartment-style units — as would we if we became homeless and had children in our care. But they’ve tried to forge some compromise.

The Mayor kicked the issue to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, telling it to establish a special committee for shelter design guidelines and setting a very tight deadline for “feedback” — only three weeks from the date of her order.

The committee dutifully produced a report. “Bathrooms were the largest source of concern for stakeholders,” it said. No firm recommendations, but options and how members voted.

Many, it seems, were convinced that providing private bathrooms for all families would delay the process of closing DC General, as the Bowser administration claims. But only two of the eighteen members supported its plan to have just one unit with a private bathroom per floor.

What Homeless Families Say

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, with cooperation from the refreshingly collaborative Department of Human Services, recently did what the Bowser administration arguably should have done early on. It asked families the District is sheltering which features they thought shelters should have.

The report it’s produced includes interesting numerical results. Families have somewhat different views on critical features — both generally and according to the length of time a family would have to remain in a shelter before it found housing, with or without help from DHS.

Large majorities of families said shelters had to have private bathrooms, with showers — 77% no matter how short the stay and a somewhat higher percent for stays as long as a year. Only one family surveyed considered a bathroom shared with four or more families acceptable.

The figures seem to me telling. But the personal stories Clinic staff heard are downright compelling.

A mother who was taking a medication that caused her to have to go several times a night, which meant she had to wake her children and take them with her because parents in shelters aren’t allowed to leave their children untended — even if briefly and in their rooms.

Another mom who somehow dressed her young children “in the air” because the bathroom floor was filthy. Still another who couldn’t toilet train her toddler because the communal bathroom terrified him.

And parents with children of the opposite sex constantly forced to choose between bad options inherent in the nature of communal bathrooms, even the cleanest. For example, a mother with a twelve-year-old son who didn’t want him going to the men’s room alone, but couldn’t see taking him into the women’s room either.

The Lesson and the Issue

The debate over bathrooms, kitchenettes and the like has larger implications for how we, through our elected officials, make choices that will affect the lives of community members, especially those who’ve got no choice but to live with them. Likewise, how we, as advocates, choose our causes.

The lesson is to ask the real experts — the people who’ve experienced the programs and services we provide (or don’t) for the poor and near-poor among us. And then to listen with open minds to what they say and take account of it in decision-making.

The debate also raises a much broader issue than shelter features and other conditions — specifically, whether we will offer programs and services that would meet our needs, decently and respectfully, if we should fall on hard times.

This apparently is how Council Chairman Mendelson sees the shelter design issue — up to a point. It “boils down to cost vs. ‘general dignity,'” the Washington Post reports his saying. But also that he hasn’t decided where he’ll net out.

The Legal Clinic contends that private bathrooms wouldn’t cost so much as to rule them out. Figures supplied by the Council’s Budget Director indicate that the square footage required would actually be somewhat less than for communal bathrooms — thus, one infers, also the cost of land to build on and/or buildings to renovate.

But the Clinic makes a more important point. The Mayor recently asked the Council to approve her plan for reallocating $60 million — mostly funds agencies didn’t spend last fiscal year.

Earlier figures DHS presented indicate that this would more than cover the additional cost of apartment-style units for all families in the new shelters. But the plan doesn’t put a penny more into even bathrooms.

So it’s not truly cost versus dignity. It’s rather the value the administration places on a modicum of dignity in living conditions for homeless families versus other projects, e.g., a nice park at an elementary school in a well-off part of town, economic development of some sort in one of the best-off.

This is the basic value question Councilmembers will face when they vote on the HSRA amendment.

* A vote on the amendment is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3. The Council will have to vote on it again, as it must for most legislation.

Interim Shelter Plan for Homeless DC Families a Plus, But Lacks Protections

October 8, 2015

I dealt last week with one of two changes in the Homeless Services Reform Act that Mayor Bowser wants the DC Council to approve — a license to open new dormitory-style shelters for families.

The other change relates to interim shelter placements that the Department of Human Services plans to institute. It doesn’t need new legal authority for them. The administration does, however, need a change in the law to authorize an extra-speedy appeals process for families denied shelter for a longer term.

What Families Must Do to Gain Shelter

Parents who seek publicly-funded shelter in the District must meet three criteria for eligibility. They must be District residents, have children in their care and no safe place to stay. They’ve got to prove all three to the satisfaction of a caseworker.

As things stand now, staff at the intake center decide whether they’re eligible when they apply for shelter — unless it’s freezing-cold outside. In that case, they may have three days to come up with the residency proof.

Ordinarily, however, they either prove they’re eligible or are turned away to fend for themselves as best they can. If they have further proof, they must go back to the intake center and start the process all over again.

What DHS Wants to Do

DHS wants to place families in shelter for up to twelve days if they’re not clearly eligible (or ineligible) or if some alternative to shelter might afford them a safe place to stay.

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, Wait a minute. Isn’t this what the Council, encouraged by advocates, rejected during the Gray administration? Not exactly.

First off, DHS has contracted with nonprofits to handle diversions from shelter. They’re to consult with the families and try to work out an alternative when they think that might be possible. A contractor might, for example, try to resolve — at least, for the time being — a conflict between a parent and a relative the family was staying with.

It might come up with some financial aid or the equivalent that would persuade a friend or relative to host — or continuing hosting — a family. Or it might link the family to resources that would make doubling up unnecessary, e.g., help in finding affordable housing.

The interim placement scheme recognizes that exploring such alternatives and then actually trying to negotiate them can take awhile. In the meantime, as DHS has emphasized, the family is safe.

The agency has referred to other features that would distinguish its plan from the Gray administration’s provisional placement proposal.

For example, the Director has said that a family could get into shelter without going through the whole intake process again if the alternative the nonprofit negotiated didn’t pan out. This, however, is not part of the bill the administration wants passed. It instead allows as how the Mayor may allow the family to bypass a second application process.

DHS also, I understand, spoke of a minimum time limit for so-called community placements, i.e., doubled-up arrangements. This too, however, didn’t make its way into the bill.

So a family could be told it could either spend a weekend with an aunt who’d said that was all she could manage or have no shelter at all. Then back to the nonprofit — or perhaps the intake center — for what could prove another extremely brief placement.

Even less bouncing around than families could experience poses problems for both parents and kids. That’s just the nature of housing instability.

How the Administration Wants the Law Changed

The HSRA establishes a process by which homeless people denied shelter may appeal. They may appeal both initial decisions that they’re ineligible and later decisions to turn them out.

The Bowser administration proposes some unusually tight timeframes when families granted shelter on an interim basis want to appeal decisions to deny it for a longer term. Attorneys who’ve often represented homeless families generally like the concept, but see some bugs in the bill.

The most significant is that it fails to guarantee families shelter until they get a final decision on their appeals — a protection homeless people otherwise have, under the law.

Both the bill as drafted and the Mayor’s cover letter provide for continuing shelter only until DHS renders its opinion on their appeals — the first official decision in the two-stage process.

What the Bill Fails to Do

Most of the concerns raised, however, relate to missing protections in the interim placement process itself. I’ve already cited a couple — a right to shelter if the community placement doesn’t work out and a minimum time length for such a placement.

There are others. For example, the bill doesn’t ensure that families will be diverted only to doubled-up arrangements that pose no predicable risk to their “health, safety, or welfare” — the standard the HSRA sets for quasi-permanent housing.

So, at least in theory, a family could be sent to live with someone whose electricity and/or water had been turned off. More likely perhaps, a family could be told to go to a home where the parent knows an abuser lives — or drops in for more than quick sec every once in awhile.

And like the provisional placement proposal, the bill fails to ensure that someone a family is sent to stay with doesn’t wind up homeless because hosting extra people violates the terms of the lease.

Virtually all the problems I’ve cited stem from omissions. So they seem readily fixable — and less contentious — than the administration’s proposal to shelter most homeless families in private rooms, rather than apartment-style units or anything in between.

Proof of the pudding, of course, is how the Mayor and her people respond to recommended revisions in the bill.

DC Mayor Wants Law Changed to Allow New Dorm-Style Family Shelters

October 1, 2015

Mayor Bowser has formally asked the DC Council to approve two changes to the Homeless Services Reform Act — the law that establishes the framework for the District’s policies and programs for homeless people.

One would allow the administration to open new family shelters without apartment-style units. The other would alter the regular appeals process in cases where the Department of Human Services shelters families temporarily and then denies them shelter for a longer term.

The administration links the changes to the recently revived policy of sheltering homeless families with no safe place to stay year round, rather than admitting them only in freezing-cold weather, when the law says it must.

Seems the Council — and the rest of us — are to view the changes as an “all or nothing at all” package, though the bill itself would leave in place the current, much more restrictive right to shelter.

I want to give the issues the space I think they deserve. So I’ll confine myself here to the shelter units. Still a lot to grapple with, as you’ll see.

Why the New Shelter Plan Hinges on an Amendment

The HSRA generally requires the District to provide apartment-style shelter units for homeless families — separate bedrooms for parents and children, plus bathrooms, “cooking facilities” and related equipment for only the family. This has been honored more in the breach than the observance for a long time.

Families at DC General, the main family shelter, are in single rooms, barely converted from what were once hospital rooms. The motel rooms DHS puts homeless families in when DC General is full are just that — not suites with kitchenettes. The legal out in both cases is that the HSRA permits private rooms if no apartment-style units are available.

The administration plans to replace DC General with smaller shelters scattered around the city, picking up on the plan of sorts issued late in the Gray administration. It too wants only private rooms in the shelters.

No legal out in this case, since a shortage of apartment-style units wouldn’t apply. So the administration wants a change in the law that would allow it to choose either apartment-style or what’s essentially dormitory-style.

Why the Administration Has Opted for Private Rooms

The bottom line is the bottom line, as DHS Director Laura Zeilinger’s presentation to a “listening session” made clear. The choice, in other words, is cost-driven — in two ways.

The first is what the administration would have to pay for shelters built from the ground up or created by renovation. They’d obviously cost more if all the units were apartment-style, as the HSRA defines it.

Yet a slide in a series Zeilinger used at the session indicates that the extra cost wouldn’t be all that great. We see estimates for 200 units, equally divided into four new shelters. Apartment-style units for all of them would cost roughly $16.6 million more.

Not chump change, but hardly beyond the pale, since the capital budget — the source of the new shelter funds — is about $72.3 million. On the other hand, the Mayor can’t just dip into that budget for anything she chooses.

Cost estimates, of course, reflect not only the type of units, but the number. DHS claims it would need more if they were apartment-style because they wouldn’t turn over as fast. It’s got several slides showing that families stay longer in them.

The only local data presented do seem to support this. But they don’t necessarily indicate that families feel so at home that they don’t try to find housing — or accept it when offered.

The data could instead reflect where DHS has focused its housing placement efforts and/or the fact that families got apartment-style units for reasons that make affordable housing for them unusually difficult to find.

“I’m not saying we want to make shelter uncomfortable,” Zeilinger told us at the listening session. But it’s hard to come to any other conclusion.

What Troubles Advocates

Attorney Amber Harding, speaking for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says they’re concerned about “lowering the floor for health and safety.” Health because germs spread — endangering all, but especially parents and children with conditions that compromise their immune systems.

Also because families would have to eat whatever DHS provides. Parents at DC General have long complained that they or their children can’t eat what the agency has trucked in for them, in part because of food sensitivities or special dietary needs.

Safety refers partly to the fact that children would have to share bathrooms with adults who may have perverse sexual proclivities and/or uncontrolled tendencies to violence. Unreasonable to expect them to use a bathroom only when a same-sex parent can chaperone.

Beyond the issue of actual physical danger, we should consider what Tamaso Johnson at the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence referred to as “acute concerns for safety.” These are understandably common among victims of domestic violence, as well as people, including children who’ve experienced other traumas.

For them, strangers in the bathrooms they’d have to use and in other “intimate settings,” as Johnson called them, could trigger anxieties they wouldn’t experience in apartment-style units — or at the very least, less communal arrangements.

What Standards Would Apply

Zeilinger says we need to look at the bigger picture. The flexibility the administration wants if part of “a larger plan to improve resources for struggling families,” including “better quality rooms” than what they have at DC General.

This seems to me a very low bar. And, in fact, the amendment the administration seeks would license another warehouse for homeless families because it sets no minimal standards.

DHS has shared two possible layouts, reflecting “principles” or “prototypical design elements” of a new shelter. These include several types of bathrooms, including at least one unit per floor with its own.

But all the administration would have to comply with is the “private room” definition the Council set after the Gray administration contended that screened-off spaces in recreation centers qualified — four permanent walls, a ceiling, a door that locks, lights that can be turned on an off from inside the cubicle and access to a hot shower.

The heart of the debate, I think, is how much more flexibility the DC Council should build into the HSRA. The Mayor and her lead officials may have all the best intentions. They may tweak the design principles to accommodate some concerns.

But who knows that will happen to them, tweaked or otherwise, if officials can’t contract for enough replacement units without compromising them?

The proposed amendment does require the administration to maintain apartment-style units. But there’s nothing to ensure it will lease up enough for all the families that would suffer harm during even a brief stay in a single room. Zeilinger’s focus on lengths of stay could make one queasy.

In short, it seems prudent for the Council to balance relief from the apartment-style unit mandate with some legally-binding constraints.

Alternatively, it could find the funds for apartment-style units or, at least, some compromise. What about rooms with private bathrooms, plus some food storage and prep equipment, for example?


Will We Have DC Families Living on Less Than $2 a Day?

September 28, 2015

Short answer to the question the title poses is we already do, as the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. And about a year from now, we could have well over 6,000, including about 13,000 children with no cash income whatever unless Mayor Bowser comes up with a lifeline that the DC Council approves.

“This is the single most important moment for poverty in D.C.” since the birth of DCFPI in 2001, Executive Director Ed Lazere told a group of us meeting to discuss the crisis those families may face.

What Has Driven So Many Families Into Such Deep Poverty

Families who’ve participated in the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for a lifetime total of 60 months or more have exceeded the time limit District law now sets. It provides for a benefits phase-out leading to zero in October 2016.

The Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut, but then let it resume. So a three-person TANF family now receives a benefit equivalent to 9% (not a typo) of the federal poverty line.

What Federal Law Has to Do With the Time Limit

No state or the District must have a time limit. We can trace the reason virtually all do to the law that established TANF. It generally prohibits states from using their federal block grant funds for cash assistance to adults or minor heads-of-household after they’ve been in the program for 60 months. Exceptions allowed, however (of which more below).

What We Know About TANF and Work

Parents do, by and large, seem to have a sense of urgency about finding work. Extremely low benefits, as well as imminent cut-offs help account for this, though we shouldn’t ignore aspirations and values they share with the great majority of Americans.

Staying in the workforce — and in a job that pays more than the very low maximum for TANF eligibility — is another matter.

We know from past research that adults who leave TANF for work or because work they had began to pay more often return to the program — about one in five during the late 1990s, when the labor market was considerably more favorable than it is now.

A more recent audit of the District’s longest-term participants casts severe doubts on their employment and earnings prospects. Fewer than half the parents who’d received job training and/or placement help got a job of any sort. And only a tiny fraction still had those jobs six months later.

These dismal results probably reflect, among other things, reasons they’ve come up against the time limit. A deplorable lack of current research here.

But we know from a 2002 study of the District’s TANF caseload that most parents who’d remained in the program for three years faced multiple barriers to work, e.g., less than a high school education, little (or no) work experience, mental health problems, recent and severe domestic violence, sick children or other family members they had to care for.

These findings generally conform to others. An evaluation of a Minnesota TANF employment program, for example, found, among other things, that about two-thirds of participants had a physical or learning disability, a mental health problem and/or responsibility for an incapacitated family member.

What the District Could Do

The District had no time limit until 2011, after soon-to-be Mayor Gray pushed through a bill during his last days as Council Chairman — a license for him to revert to his earlier benefits phase-out plan.

And indeed, he did, but with none of the relief options federal rules allow. For example, the District could extend benefits beyond the time limit for up to 20% of its average caseload and still use federal funds to pay for them so long as the families met criteria for “hardship,” however it chose to define that, or had a member who’d been “battered or subjected to extreme cruelty.”

Most states extend benefits when parents, for various reasons, can’t be expected to immediately find work — because they’re victims of domestic violence, for example, sick or incapacitated or caring for family member who is.

As of mid-2013, 14 states provided extensions when parents were “cooperating,” i.e., doing what their plans said they should, but couldn’t find work. This would seem especially relevant to the District’s at-risk families.

Though we don’t know how many of the parents have less than a high school diploma or the equivalent, we do know that working-age residents (25-64 years old) without the credential have very high unemployment rates — nearly 14.6% last year, according to the American Community Survey. Probably even higher for younger residents.

We also know that parents in the District’s TANF program are still on waiting lists for job training and placement services — about 300, the new head of the agency responsible for TANF told us at the meeting.

More to the point perhaps, parents waited, on average, 11 months for such services last year. But the clock kept ticking toward the time limit.

And some of them were pretty far along before the Department of Human Services rolled out improvements in both the training component and the assessments used to decide which services would best prepare parents for work. Time in the old problem-riddled program still counts.

What Will Happen Next

The budget for the upcoming fiscal year pushes back the benefits cut-off that was originally set for October 2015 in part because the Mayor wanted DHS to have some time to develop an extension policy — something it should have done four years ago.

One can hope the policy recognizes the fact that the vast majority of TANF parents aren’t to blame for remaining unemployed — or so egregiously under-employed as to still be income-eligible.

Nor to blame if some unforeseeable barrier arises after they’ve passed the time limit, e.g., an eruption of domestic violence or stalking, a debilitating illness. Needless to say, children aren’t to blame, no matter what.

All this calls for not only liberal extensions, but a rollback of the benefits cuts that have caused such dire hardships for the 60-month families.

Yet even the best extension policy and fully restored benefits can’t make up for flaws in the basic structure of the federal TANF law — the main reason some 1.5 million families have had to get by on, at most, $2 a day.


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