DC Labor Laws on the Books, But Weak or No Enforcement

March 23, 2015

“The law is on the books. Enforce it.” I heard my then-boss, U.S. Civil Rights Commission Chairman Arthur Flemming, say this over and over again when the Reagan administration was insisting that Congress had to change major federal civil rights laws if it wanted them enforced as they’d always been.

Even with the best will in the world, however, an agency can’t ensure laws achieve what they’re supposed to if it doesn’t have enough money for staff. This seems to be in the case in the District of Columbia, judging from several Fair Budget Coalition recommendations.

FBC is again recommending additional funds to “implement and enforce” the District’s existing worker protection laws — a total of $3 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Somewhat over half would pay for more staff and administrative law judges to enforce compliance with the District’s minimum wage increase and expanded paid sick leave laws, plus some others intended to prevent wage theft, e.g., denying earned overtime pay.

But a modest $292,000 would support steps that must be taken before enforcement can kick in. As things stand now, two laws — the Protecting Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Unemployed Workers Anti-Discrimination Act — are basically still just words in electronic files.

The former requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations for workers whose ability to perform their assigned tasks is limited by pregnancy, childbirth, related medical conditions or breastfeeding. No more denying pregnant workers enough bathroom breaks, demanding that they continue lifting heavy packages when their doctors have cautioned against that, etc.

The latter seeks to prevent jobless workers from remaining jobless just because that’s what they are.

The pregnant workers’ legislation is quite new. The timeframe for our Congressional overlords to disapprove it, which they didn’t, expired long about last Thanksgiving Day. But the prohibition against refusing to hire — or consider hiring — someone because s/he’s unemployed cleared the Congressional review period at the end of May 2012.

Yet the Office of Human Rights, which has responsibility for enforcing it, hasn’t proposed rules — let alone published final rules — to spell out what employers can and can’t do and how workers can seek remedies when they believe employers have done what they shouldn’t.

Its website doesn’t even acknowledge the law. Yet only OHR can enforce it because it denies workers the right to seek remedies through lawsuits.

Not the agency’s fault that it’s done nothing. The law conditioned implementation on “the inclusion of its fiscal effect in an approved budget and financial plan.” The Chief Financial Officer determined that the budget couldn’t cover it. That, however, was three years ago. So there’s been plenty of time to fill the gap.

This isn’t the first time the DC Council has passed progressive legislation and then neglected to make sure it was achieving its intent.

Back in 2010, the District’s auditor found that the Department of Employment Services hadn’t monitored publicly-financed projects to ensure that contractors filled at least 51% of new jobs created with District residents, as the First Source Act requires. Left to their own devices, most didn’t.

More to the point perhaps, DOES hadn’t issued final rules for the District’s Living Wage Act, which the Council passed in 2006. Nor did it get around to proposing rules for the amended law until after the auditor reported such findings as she’d been able to make — a time lag of at least a year, maybe more.

The Fenty administration told the auditor that it hadn’t moved forward because a provision in the original living wage law conditioned implementation and enforcement on annual appropriations. No appropriations forthcoming. So it’s likely that some unknown number of D.C. workers were underpaid.

Perhaps still are. The final rules provide for no enforcement unless workers or their representatives file formal complaints of violations. The burden is apparently on them, not DOES to monitor, investigate, document and so forth.

We everyday District residents read of laws the Council has passed to increase employment of our fellow residents, boost their wages and protect them from egregiously unfair treatment.

So it’s distressing that we have to learn from FBC — and ultimately from the Employment Justice Center, which proposed the labor law recommendations — that the responsible agencies aren’t fully and effectively enforcing the laws on the books.

Well, we know now. And so do the Mayor and DC Councilmembers. We have fine advocates here in the District, but I still wish we had Flemming pounding the table now.

 


Not Nearly Enough Housing Affordable for Lowest-Income Renters, Nationwide and in DC

March 16, 2015

Nearly a quarter of renter households nationwide fell into the extremely low-income category in 2013, i.e., had incomes at or below 30% of the median for the area they lived in, according to a new National Low Income Housing Coalition report.

Three quarters of these 10.3 million or so households paid at least half their income for rent and basic utilities. This is one measure of the shortage of affordable rental housing in our country — only 31 units affordable and available to rent for every 100 ELI households.

The gap was much greater for the subset of households NLIHC classifies as deeply low-income, i.e. those with incomes no greater than 15% of their area’s median. Only 17 affordable, available units for every 100 of them, making for a shortage of 3.4 million units.

All but 5% of the DLI households paid more than half their income for rent, plus utilities. These, recall, are households that somehow scraped up the money. We don’t have a reliable figure for those who were homeless because they couldn’t.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the figures for the District are somewhat better. But they still confirm the need for more affordable housing, especially for the very lowest-income residents.

And perhaps the figures are overly rosy because, as I’ve written before, the area the District belongs to for affordability calculations includes some very well-off nearby communities.

With that caveat, here’s what NLIHC reports. In 2013:

  • The District had 40 affordable, available units for every 100 ELI households, making for a total shortage 32,752.
  • For every 100 DLI households, only 34 units were affordable and available — a shortage of 21,038.
  • All but 35% of ELI households and 26% of DLI households paid at least half their income for rent, plus utilities.

These figures, recall, are more than a year old. We’ve had condo conversions, out-in-out apartment house demolitions and subsidized housing losses since. Rents have risen, sometimes quite a lot, even for tenants supposedly protected by the District’s rent control laws.

The figures are nevertheless timely because the Mayor and her people are deep into developing the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports, they’ve got to close a $200 million gap between projected revenues and the funds needed to sustain existing programs and services.

Any significantly larger investment to create and preserve affordable housing would widen the gap the Mayor would have to close because the District’s budget must, by law, balance every year.

A wider gap likewise if she — or alternatively, the DC Council — opts for greater investments in housing vouchers — either those that subsidize affordable housing operations or those that enable ELI/DLI households to rent at market rates or both, as the Fair Budget Coalition has recommended.

And again a wider gap if our policymakers boost funding for short-shot assistance that would enable some of those households to catch up on overdue rent or move to a cheaper place, if they can find it.

DCFPI recommends that the Mayor use some of the funds left over from last fiscal year, but they can’t be used for investments that involve multi-year commitments. So it also recommends that she “find ways to raise revenues.” This, I take it, is a tactful way to broach the subject of tax increases.

It’s hard to see how the District will significantly reduce homelessness without them. Because, however complex and diverse the root causes, homelessness for each individual and family reflects their inability to pay for rent, plus the bills for lighting, heating and the like.

Every one of the ELI and DLI households that’s paying over half its income for rent, plus utilities is at high risk of homelessness. Investments in affordable housing for them will pay off in lower costs in other areas — including, but not limited to shelter.

That’s not the only reason the Mayor and Council should make affordable housing a priority — preservation, first and foremost, but creation to replace lost units too.

We have the diversity of our community to consider. We’ve got the well-being and future prospects of children who suffer not only from homelessness, but from unstable housing — and from the stresses their parents experience as they try to earn enough and juggle the bills to keep them somehow housed.

If tax increases are needed, I’ll willingly pay my share. I’d like to think that others whose incomes are well above the ELI/DLI maximums will do so too.

NOTE: As I put the finishing touches on this post, DCFPI issued its own meaty report on “DC’s vanishing affordable housing.” The report includes a number of recommendations for policies to reverse the trends it documents. Highly recommended.


Homeless Single Adults in DC Speak Out

March 9, 2015

We’ve had ample opportunity to learn about homeless families here in the District. We’ve read about the increasing number, about the District’s struggles to shelter them when it must, about its struggles to move them out of shelter into housing they may not be able to pay for when their short-term subsidies expire.

We know — and have known for some time — that conditions at DC General, the main family shelter, are awful.

But as of the latest official count, there were somewhat more homeless single men and women, i.e., those who had no children with them, than adults and children together as families. And there have been considerably more in years past. What about the singles?

A briefing last Monday provided some answers. Nothing definitive, but more than I knew before. You too perhaps.

Here then, briefly, is what we learn from the experts — the homeless men and women who spend (or formerly spent) their nights in shelters and from a social worker for Catholic Charities, which operates five shelters for singles under contract to the District.

Also, briefly, the conclusion I reached and a brand-new development that should point the way forward.

Awful physical conditions. Like DC General, most of the shelters for singles are “aged buildings,” as a former shelter resident called them. Sometimes the electricity works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s heat and hot water. Sometimes not.

And, as at DC General, the singles’ shelters are reportedly infested with vermin — bed bugs in the mattresses, rats and roaches scuttling about, etc.

Bad food. Shelter residents complain of spoiled food, just as they do at DC General. There seems to be something to this. The social worker reported that staff examine the food delivered by the District’s contractor to decide whether it can be served. Sometimes not, one infers, since he spoke of going to other sources.

Not enough help getting out. Singles in the shelters say they can’t see the caseworkers who are supposed to help them develop and carry out plans to become job-ready and/or find paying work.

Some back-and-forth at the briefing about whether the caseworkers are on duty when the shelter is open — and allegations that they won’t always see clients when they are. What seems beyond dispute is that there aren’t enough of them.

Catholic Charities has one caseworker for every 100 clients. And the ratio would be higher if it didn’t use donor money to supplement the staff covered under its contract. No way that a caseworker, however diligent, could effectively assess, refer and guide that many clients.

Uncaring treatment. For the homeless and formerly homeless singles who spoke, both on the panel and from the audience, none of the above triggered as much outrage as the way shelter staff treated them.

There’s a “disconnect” about weather, one said. Shelter residents are turned out onto the streets when it’s raining. If they try to remain, someone calls the police. If it’s raining — or even snowing — when they’re lined up waiting to get in, staff still keep the doors shut until official opening time.

When it’s bitter cold, residents have a right to remain in shelter during the day — and apparently are allowed to. But they may have to sit in some sort of outer room, on uncomfortable chairs, for many hours because their regular rest areas don’t get promptly clean.

One resident spoke of waiting for eight hours — not only he, but people in wheelchairs. Desperate offers to clean their own rest areas were curtly dismissed.

It’s not only such particulars that make sheltered singles feel they’re treated like lesser beings. Staff  have a “drill sergeant mentality,” one woman said. They “bark.” She further objected to their assumption that every resident — obviously herself included — is a drug addict, an alcoholic or mentally ill.

“They need to put humanity behind what they are doing,” she concluded. “We are individuals.” One hears a plea for recognition that homeless people are as different from one another as shelter staff members know they themselves are.

Beyond that, however, a recognition of common humanity. Panelist Carol Doster, formerly homeless and now a poignant advocate, put it well. “In practice, we do not consistently afford our homeless neighbors with the level of respect, dignity … or human rights that we Americans and D.C. residents indicate we stand for.”

Or, I would add, that we would expect — and be shocked not to find — if we became homeless and had no friends or family to turn to.

Management issues. Several of the speakers called for better staff training. The remedy, I think, must be broader. The District has contracted out responsibility for the single adult shelters — ultimately to the Community Partnership to End Homelessness, which lets and manages contracts with the nonprofits that operate them, as well as with the food service providers.

Manifold problems at DC General have prompted some advocates to say that the Partnership should be replaced — at least, in its capacity as the shelter manager. Seems to me someone needs to look carefully at how it’s managing the rest of the homeless services system it’s responsible for too.

We now have the results of an audit, thanks to an inquiry from Councilmember Mary Cheh. These, at the very least, cast doubts on the Partnership’s financial practices — and controls over at the Department of Human Services.

But the issues our homeless singles experts raised call for another sort of investigation. Who, if anybody, is visiting the shelters (unannounced), examining the meals delivered, finding out how staff are trained and supervised, etc.? And who, with clout, is raising holy hell about the building systems and maintenance?

“I had an instinct that no one was minding the store sufficiently,” Cheh says. She was referring to the money matters, but we’ve got more than instinct to tell us it’s true for shelter operations as well.

 


DC Gets a Barely Passing Grade for Homeless Family Services

December 10, 2014

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.


DC TANF Families Face Benefits Cut-Offs With Dim Prospects for Steady Work

December 8, 2014

In early 2012, the D.C. Department of Human Services launched a redesigned Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. As with TANF programs nationwide, it aimed to move very poor parents with children toward self-sufficiency, i.e., work that pays enough to support the family — or at the very least, too much to make them still eligible for TANF.

Now we have an in-depth, though partial view of the results. A recently-completed review of the TANF employment component found, among other things, that fewer than half the target group of parents who, with help, had found jobs were still employed.

But even this finding overstates the self-sufficiency prospects for the more than 6,000 families who may soon have no cash income whatever because the DC Council set a retroactive 60-month lifetime limit on benefits in late 2010 and a phase-out schedule ending in total cut-offs next October.

About the Review

The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor analyzed data and other information that DHS provided, with a view toward providing the basis for some conclusions about the outcome of what it refers to as the TANF Employment Program.

The program consists of two related types of services — work readiness and job placement. Both are provided by contractors. Work readiness contractors, as the term suggests, are supposed to help parents strengthen their qualifications for paying work.

But they are responsible for helping the parents find jobs as well. This is the only thing the job placement contracts are supposed to do because the parents assigned to them have been deemed ready to work.

The auditors focused only on parents who had received TANF benefits for more than 60 months because these were the parents whom DC Council Human Services Committee Chairman Jim Graham asked about.

They looked at data collected over about 32 months — from the time the new employment program began, in February 2012, to October 24, 2014. Graham wanted results by early November.

So the auditors were up against a tight timeframe. As a result, they’re careful to say, they didn’t verify what they got from DHS, as they ordinarily would.

Jobs of Any Sort for Fewer Than Half

Though the two types of employment services differ in scope, they’re both intended to get TANF  parents into — or back into — the workforce and earning enough to no longer qualify for TANF. For a family of three, that would have been anything over $588 a month in 2012-13, assuming no other income.

The auditors report that about 49% of parents referred to an employment services contractor got a job — 6,145 out of 12,463. Only about 38% got jobs that could have provided steady, full-time work.

The rest got placed in jobs that were either part-time or “temporary/seasonal” — the latter presumably referring to temporary or on-and-off jobs during periods of high-volume business like the holiday shopping season.

Wide Pay Range, Including Less Than Minimum Wage

While working, the parents got paid an average of $10.58 an hour — more than the District’s minimum wage, but less than its living wage, which is now $13.60 an hour and was less during the two prior years the audit covered.

The average masks a wide disparity in pay rates. A relative few jobs paid in the $21-$50 an hour range. A far greater number — nearly 1,590 — reportedly paid less than the District’s minimum wage.

The auditors suggested (not in the report) that contractors may have reported the minimum cash wage parents got when placed in jobs that employers chose to pay at the tip-credit wage rate.

But the District’s tip credit wage is lower than most of the subminimum wages indicated. DHS perhaps could explain, but hasn’t, though I asked.

Steady Work for Very Few

As of mid-October, 2,976 TANF parents were employed — about 48% of those who’d been placed. Only 770 remained in the jobs were they’d been placed for more than six months.

We see a drop-off beginning at the end of the first month. (The auditors don’t report a figure for parents who lost their jobs or quit sooner.) Their figures do, however, show that 835 parents didn’t have their jobs any more by the time the fourth month rolled round.

Whether they’d been placed in other jobs is an open question. Indeed, the job tenure figures may not tell the whole story.

DHS informed the auditors that an estimated 3,076 “customers” in the 60-month-and-over group had left the program — a majority, it said, because they began earning too much to remain eligible. No supporting data provided.

And the agency doesn’t know whether “customers” who did earn more than the minimal maximum for eligibility remained employed — let alone how gainfully — because it doesn’t track families once they leave the program.

More Knowns and Unknowns

First off, we should recall that the auditors focused solely on parents who’d been in the District’s TANF program for quite a long time — or had cycled in and out for even longer. Results for parents who had recourse to TANF because of some singular, temporary setback might be different.

On the other hand, the parents in the sample didn’t include those whom DHS had identified as having significant, ongoing health and/or personal barriers to work, e.g., alcoholism or drug addiction, PTSD due to domestic violence.

About 60% of the rest weren’t immediately work-ready, according to the agency’s assessments. It assigned them to contractors for further education and/or development of marketable skills. Fewer than 10% completed their programs.

Does this mean they were hustled into jobs they couldn’t keep because contractors get a bonus for placements? Or did they themselves get desperate because their very low benefits had shrunk — and were soon to disappear?

Did the fact they had to scramble every day to find a place for their family to spend the night — or some used clothing for their kids — make it just too hard to satisfy the work readiness requirements and, more importantly, their employers’ expectations?

Do we need a thoroughgoing, independent assessment of the TANF employment program? Sure does seem that way.


DC TANF Families Far Below Poverty Line, Even With Uncut Benefits

November 20, 2014

Shortly before the election, Washington Post reporter Rachel Weiner observed that none of the mayoral candidates had even mentioned “a dramatic change in the city’s welfare program that could drag many poor families into further distress.”

She was referring to the District’s decision to phase out Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to families who’ve received them for a lifetime total of five years. The DC Council suspended the phase-out after the first cut — and for good reasons, as Weiner indicates.

But the cuts have gone forward again. They’re likely to leave more than 6,000 families with no cash assistance whatever come next September — unless the Council and soon-to-be Mayor Bowser agree to change the law.

But what about families whose benefits haven’t been cut? Not much of a safety net for them, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ recent state-by-state update on the benefits shows.

CBPP looks at the maximum cash benefit a single parent with two children can receive. That was $428 in the District when the Center did its analysis.

A provision in the latest Budget Control Act, i.e., the package of legislation that’s paired with the budget proper, provides for a cost-of-living adjustment this fiscal year, based on the Consumer Price Index.

That, I’m told, will boost benefits by 1.5% — just making up for what our three-person family’s benefit lost in value due to inflation during the July 2013-14 period.

The family will still have an income at about 26% of the federal poverty line. And it will be considerably worse off than three-person families were when TANF began.

Adjusting for inflation, the maximum benefit for our D.C. family has lost about a third of its real-dollar value. Losses were smaller in more than half the states.

And, as we all know, the cost of living here is higher than in most places. CBPP provides just one measure — the gap between the maximum TANF benefit for three-person families and the fair market rents the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set for a modest two-bedroom apartment.

The pre-COLA maximum benefit for our D.C. family is 29.1% of the FMR for the apartment. In other words, the family couldn’t come anywhere near to paying for it, even if it spent its entire benefit on rent.

This is true for families in every state, but the rent shortfall is greater than the District’s in only two — Mississippi and Tennessee. Not, I suppose, states the District would choose as benchmarks.

Rankings of this sort aren’t nearly as relevant as the measures of how woefully inadequate TANF benefits are — and how more woefully in adequate they’ve become over time.

So far as housing is concerned, the maximum for our D.C. family would have covered nearly 44% of the FMR in 2000 — still a very large shortfall, but smaller because the benefit was worth more and rents in our area hadn’t skyrocketed.

Now, it’s true that some TANF families in the District have more cash income than the maximum benefit indicates because our local program exempts a fair amount of earned income when setting benefit levels.

Also true, however, as indicated above, that many families are receiving far less than the maximum. The phase-out alone has left some three-person families with as little as $152 a month.

Most, if not all of the families, however, receive a separate cash-equivalent benefit from SNAP (the food stamp program). Yet the cash value of SNAP benefits still leaves TANF families far below the poverty line.

CBPP shows this by combining the average monthly SNAP benefit for TANF families with the maximum the three-person family can get from TANF. With the two benefits, so defined, our D.C. TANF family was at 54.4% of the FPL in July.

But, says CBPP, this is probably an overstatement for many families because the average SNAP benefit it calculated assumes housing, plus utility costs high enough to qualify families for the maximum.

No such costs for the families in the DC General shelter, most of whom depend on TANF benefits. And lower costs, if any that families can claim if they’re doubled-up with accommodating friends or relatives.

There could be fewer homeless families if the District substantially increased TANF benefits now, as originally proposed, and modified the phase-out to preserve benefits for families who’d otherwise become destitute, even though the parents had done everything they were told to.

These could include families with a parent who’s working, but not able to earn enough to support herself and her kids and those with a parent who isn’t working because jobs she could qualify for are just too scarce.

And then perhaps there are parents who didn’t do everything they were told to because they couldn’t, e.g., those with certain intellectual disabilities or PTSD that caseworkers had failed to identify.

But such exemptions would still leave some families subject to phased-out benefits that would sink them even deeper in poverty than they already are — and less likely to achieve the self-sufficiency that TANF is supposed to promote.

How can you focus on preparing for — or seeking — work when you’re trying to figure out where you and your kids will spend the night or how you’ll feed them now that you’ve run through your monthly SNAP benefit?

Problems even for parents who are still within the rigid time limit now.

 


DC General Closing Plan Won’t Shelter All Homeless Families at Risk of Harm

November 13, 2014

I’ve been feeling I should say something about the Gray administration’s plan for closing the DC family shelter ever since it saw the light of day a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t because I’ve had trouble getting my mind around it.

Not altogether my fault. The plan, you see, isn’t really a plan. It’s more like a working paper — or a statement of preferences perhaps. These are certainly clear enough. But whether the next administration can translate them into a reality is at the very least questionable.

And in a couple of respects, I hope it doesn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the major issues, as I see them.

Should DC General Be Closed?

A rhetorical question. No one, I venture to say, thinks that DC General is an okay place for children and their parents to live, even temporarily. It’s too big — a “small city” Councilmember Graham called it.

It was never fully converted from the hospital it used to be — apparently because no one wanted to acknowledge that it was the replacement for the then-notorious shelter the former mayor felt pressed to close in 2007.

Its basic systems are seemingly beyond redemption — frequent heat and air conditioning outages, no hot water for long periods of time, elevators that break down — or in one recent case, get flooded. And the place is persistently infested by mice, roaches, bed bugs and the like. Moldy too.

In short, it’s shameful that a child would have to go missing to get District officials serious about closing DC General.

Where Would the District Shelter Homeless Families?

The Gray administration envisions smaller shelters scattered across the city. They would have to include play spaces for children and be near to public transportation and “community amenities [undefined].”

The administration would prefer buildings leased from private landlords because, it says, this option would be quicker and cheaper than renovating publicly-owned buildings or constructing shelters on publicly-owned land.

The latter would also require the District to pay for ongoing operating costs, e.g., utilities, maintenance. The preferred option would make private landlords responsible for these, as well as security systems, furniture and whatever renovations their buildings require.

Ideally, each building would have 40-50 units, though the plan allows as how some larger shelters might be okay. For the smaller shelters, it projects a $2,000 per month cost.

Now, why would an owner of a potentially suitable building in any of our high-rent, high-demand neighborhoods agree to lease it for a minimum of 10 years at a rate this low — or anything close?

And if one did, wouldn’t the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces “come out of the woodwork,” as the Director of the General Services Department has predicted? One recalls what happened when the District considered putting a smaller shelter in soon-to-be Mayor Bowser’s ward.

So, says Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper, the “available candidates” will instead probably be “boarded-up properties” in low-income neighborhoods on “the city’s margins” — far less convenient to public transportation and “amenities” than DC General.

What Would a Unit Be?

Well, I’ll tell you what it wouldn’t necessarily be — an “apartment-style” unit, which the District’s homeless services law requires for families, except when no such unit is available.

The Gray administration interprets this limited exemption to mean that shelter units the District has yet to lease or build don’t have to include a bathroom for each family or any place to prepare a meal. They apparently may be just a single room, where parents and children must sleep together — just as they must at DC General.

How Many Homeless Families Would Have Shelter?

The Gray administration wants the replacement shelters to have, in total, the number of units currently provided at DC General — and to close the shelter in one fell swoop “so as to avoid an unplanned shelter expansion.”

It’s not altogether clear how many replacement units there’d be, since the Department of Human Services has concluded that 40 or so units at DC General don’t meet the (minimal) criteria the court established when it ordered the agency to stop “sheltering” families in recreation centers.

What is clear is that there won’t be nearly enough replacement units unless the number of families needing shelter miraculously plummets — or the homeless prevention and rapid exit strategies the Winter Plan promises miraculously work much better than they’ve done to date.

The plan isn’t short on units because providing enough to meet the need would cost more than the District could afford. It’s “a clear philosophical stance,” says the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.

And it’s based on a truly appalling ignorance — or worse — of what happens to homeless families when the District won’t provide them a safe place to stay. Senior policy advisor Sakina Thompson, who wanted even fewer units, says, “During the summertime, when shelter is not available, families find other means.”

Indeed, they do. They walk the streets looking for someone to take them in for awhile. They sleep in cars, if they have them, or at bus stops or on a church floor. They take refuge in a laundromat. Some presumably return to the abusers they’ve fled.

Whatever “other means” they find, they’re likely to have more and/or worse problems when the District must finally shelter them than they had when they become homeless.

Not so long ago, the District provided shelter year round to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will have to decide whether to move forward with a plan that would intentionally replicate the crises that Gray and his people have used to justify barring the shelter doors, except when it’s freezing outside.

I’m hoping for a more compassionate — and policy-smart — philosophical stance.

 


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