Aging in Place a Challenge for Low-Income Seniors, If They Still Have a Place

June 16, 2016

Looking back to Older Americans Month, I seized on one hardship that too many of the celebrated suffer — food insecurity and outright malnutrition.

That’s not the only reason why the so-called golden years aren’t so golden for a lot of seniors. Another that looms even larger is unaffordable (or no) housing.

Acute Affordable Housing Shortage

Last month brought us a new report from the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Senior Health and Housing Task Force. As you’d guess, it focuses on the urgent need for more affordable housing suitable for seniors and the implications for their health and our country’s healthcare system.

We know, of course, about the shortage of housing that the lowest-income renters can afford. There were about 11.3 million of them in 2013, including 2.6 million elderly singles or couples. The market lacked about 6.9 million units that were both affordable and available to rent.

But not all those units would suit the needs of seniors who’ve developed (or always had) difficulties moving around without walkers or wheelchairs.

Only 3.8% of all housing units in the country have design features to accommodate moderate mobility limitations, the task force co-chairs say. These, note, are not necessarily affordable for lower-income people or available for anybody to buy or rent.

Higher-income people can afford to have features in their homes modified, e.g., doors widened, ramps built. They can have doorknobs and turn-on faucets replaced with levers if their hands have weakened or stiffened.

Or they can move to an apartment that has such features — even, if they choose, an assisted living facility where they can age in place, with increasing services as they need them. About 70% ultimately will for even such basic daily tasks as bathing, dressing and taking prescribed medications.

But an estimated 1.8 million seniors paid more than half their income for rent two years ago — an upward trend that’s unlikely to turn around on its own.

They’re already short on money for food, transportation and their share of medical costs — an especially big bite of the budget, as we can see from how they boost the more accurate senior poverty rate.

Seems the crunch will worsen as more people live long enough to become seniors — and longer thereafter. An estimated 1.8 million more senior households — a total of 6.5 million — will have less than $15,000 a year to live on by 2024, the Harvard Joint Center on Housing Studies reports.

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s task force recommends more affordable housing for seniors, including a new, special form of supportive housing — supports here being in-home health care and help with those other daily tasks.

The only federal program specifically for this sort of housing has had no funds for grants to develop new units since 2012. And contracts that keep an estimated 41,900 affordable will have expired within the next eight years.

What the task force doesn’t address is the income side of the equation, beyond recommending state and local programs to defray senior homeowners’ costs.

There’d be fewer seniors struggling to pay for rent if they’d gotten paid enough while working to have had income left over for long-term savings.

There’d be fewer if Social Security retirement benefits for former low-wage workers were higher — a forward-looking policy change already teed up by leading Democrats (and predictably trashed on by the Washington Post, among others).

There’d be fewer if the Earned Income Tax Credit didn’t exclude most workers over 65 — and do so little for childless workers.

As things stand now, a very large number of seniors and prospective seniors who hope to age in place will have a hard time doing that without risks to their health.

And the risks they knowingly take to cut costs — skimping on meals or skipping doses of medication, for example — may not save enough for them continue paying for their own place.

Rising Tide of Homelessness

Homelessness is, of course, the end result of the affordable housing shortage for some seniors, as well as younger people. Recent months have brought us several articles on the aging of America’s homeless population.

Both The New York Times and ThinkProgress.org focus on seniors living on the streets or the equivalent. Many have been homeless for a long time and suffer from serious health problems, including substance abuse.

Some, however, became homeless only after a fairly recent setback — often a job loss, but sometimes other problems, e.g., a stroke that forced a woman to leave her subsidized unit because the building had no elevator.

Long-term and newly-homeless older people have shifted the profile of our country’s homeless population. Nearly a third of those counted two years ago were at least 50 years old — a 20% increase since 2007, the Times reports.

A 2010 analysis by the National Alliance to End Homelessness concluded that senior homelessness would increase by 33% within the next 10 years, assuming no significant changes in population or poverty rates.

By 2050, more than 95,270 seniors would be homeless, according to the Alliance’s projection — unless, of course, policymakers invest significantly more in affordable housing and in cash or cash-equivalent benefits.

Even the little I’ve pulled together here shows we’ve got the tools in the toolbox. What we seemingly don’t have is the political will to make them sufficient to the needs of homeless and at-risk seniors.

Nor those who’ll have a good chance of becoming seniors, if they don’t become homeless first. So if we’re going to celebrate Older Americans Month, we ought to put more money where our mouths are.


Homeless DC Families Push Total Count to Record High

May 11, 2016

The just-released report on last January’s one-night homeless count in the Washington area may deliver a shock to even those who’ve followed the homeless family crisis in the District.

The count identified more homeless families than in any year since the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments first reported them separately.

The number of homeless individuals who had no children in their care ticked down again. But the increase in adults and children counted as family members was so large as to push the homeless total up to the highest level since the counts began.

Highest Homeless Total in Thirteen Years

The count found 8,350 homeless people in the District — 1,052 more than only a year ago. This represents an increase of 14.4%.

Looking back to 2004, when the District, like other communities that receive homeless assistance grants, first had to conduct one-night counts, the total increased by nearly 43.3%.

Far More Homeless Families

The count identified 1,491 homeless families — 360 more than in 2015, making for an increase of 31.8%. The new number is about two-and-a-half times as many as in 2008, when the recession first set in and the count reports began including the family number.

The homeless families included 1,945 adults and 2,722 children they were caring for, representing increases of 36.2% and roughly 31.9% respectively.

The total number of homeless persons in families, as the report refers to them, was thus 4,667. This is twice as many as in 2004 — and an increase of about 154.2% since 2008, the lowest count on record.

About a quarter of the persons were adults no older than twenty-four — about the same percent as last year, but a higher raw number. These so-called transition age youth account for about 60% of the increase in adult family members counted.

Count of Homeless Singles Dips Again

The number of homeless singles, i.e., those who don’t have children with them, declined from 3,821 in 2015 to 3,683 this year. The new number is also somewhat lower than the counts for 2013 and 2014, but not by much.

We clearly had more homeless singles when the Great Recession hit and in the years immediately thereafter. Since then, the numbers dropped and then rose again, though not markedly. The differences may have more to do with count conditions, e.g., weather, than the homeless population.

Continuing Downward Slide for Chronically Homeless Singles

Among the singles were 1,501 in the chronically homeless subgroup, i.e., people homeless for a long time or recurrently and with at least one disability.

The District’s goal, like that of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is to effectively end chronic homelessness by the end of 2017. It seems unlikely to achieve that. But it’s well on the way. The count identified 92 fewer chronically homeless singles than in 2015 — the fewest then since 2011, when the numbers began steadily dropping.

So we’ve got a clear downward trend, as we don’t for any other subgroup the report breaks out — except, more recently, veterans, who often have disabilities and so get counted as chronically homeless. Shows again what money can do.

Not Quite So Many Young Homeless Singles

Also among the singles were 201 transition age youth — a few more than in 2015, when communities first had to report them separately. But they’re still a small fraction of this vulnerable age group.

As is generally the case with homeless people counted as singles, some may have a spouse or other partner. Neither the count nor the homeless services system recognizes families who’ve got no children with them, as I’ve remarked before.

Perhaps Not That Many More Recently Homeless Families

The District attributes the increase in homeless families to the undeniable shortage of affordable housing in the city, but not only that.

It also cites an “increased demand for stable housing assistance that is brought to bear on the homeless system” and the recent reversion to the long-standing policy of granting shelter to homeless families year round, instead of only when they’re at risk of freezing.

What this suggests, though I doubt it means to is that the District probably under-reported homeless families in the recent past because some knew not to seek help when they needed it and so had no records in the information management system used for the counts.

That, of course, merely means that District policymakers — and everyone else concerned — has a better fix on the crisis now. But not the whole of it.

Always More Homeless People Than Counted

As I usually say when citing homeless figures based on counts, they understate the number of people who have no home of their own.

This is partly because the counts must used the limited definition of “homeless” that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must use for its homeless assistance grants.

So they include homeless people in shelters, transitional housing and places “not meant for human habitation,” e.g., cars, subway stations, underpasses.

But they don’t include everyone living doubled up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford housing or those making do in cheap motels, unless they’ll become homeless, according to HUD’s definition, within two weeks.

And the counters have no way of finding them or knowing that. Nor are they likely to find everyone who’s unsheltered. The count, recall, is partly a one-night search.

And homeless people don’t all cluster together in places where they’re easily found — understandably, since the District and other communities have taken to clearing out such places and taking whatever belongings the owners can’t swiftly remove.

Many homeless people don’t want to be found for other reasons — especially those who are minors, since they’d be either returned to the homes they fled or relegated to foster care. Perhaps also parents who justifiably fear losing their children.

All the more reason the DC Council should feel an even greater sense of urgency to invest more in affordable housing, including both the permanent supportive type and locally-funded housing vouchers.

And an even greater sense of urgency to change Temporary Assistance for Needy Families policy, lest even more families become homeless by next January.


How Imperfect Can the Family Shelter Plan Be and Still Be Good Enough?

April 21, 2016

We’re often cautioned not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Bowser administration’s selection of sites for new family shelters raises a question, however. How imperfect can something be for us to still say it’s good enough?

It’s a question that’s divided District residents and apparently DC Council members. They got an earful during a recent 14-hour hearing. And they have questions that remain unanswered, though the City Administrator has responded to those the Chairman earlier posed.

The biggest question is whether, as the Mayor contends, the site package is an all-or-nothing deal — one the Council must accept as good enough if it wants families more suitably sheltered.

In other words, must it approve all the contracts with the developers the administration has chosen — the sites, the designs and what they’d get paid — or face the prospect that the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter will remain open indefinitely?

We seem to have a consensus on the fundamental concept: Replace DC General with smaller shelters scattered around the city — one in almost every ward.* That’s about as far as consensus goes.

Some Councilmembers and other parties have raised concerns about the costs, for example, and what the District would actually get.

For the time being, let’s just say the District would spend a lot, mainly for shelters developers would own and could repurpose — in most cases, after 20 years. That’s what seems most troublesome to the Council.

But the groundswell of opposition centers on the administration’s choice of sites, mingled with protests over its failure to seek community input before producing its plan.

As one might expect, some of this is quite clearly a not-in-my-backyard response. Property values will drop (though the estimated value of the sites themselves will soar). Criminal activity will rise.

There will be congestion (because so many of those homeless parents own cars). They’ll loiter (though they’ll have rooms they can stay during the day, computer labs and both indoor and outdoor play spaces for the kids).

The Mayor says that people are fighting site choices out of fear, implying they fear having those homeless families as neighbors. But the facts say otherwise in one case for sure.

We see that residents in partially-gentrified Ward 5 object to the site chosen largely because it’s not in any neighborhood, properly speaking.

The site is a former industrial park, facing the largest of the transit authority’s bus depots. As many as 300 buses going in and out, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless told the Council. And while parked, they’re gassed up, tuned up, painted — all processes that emit toxic air pollutants.

Other nearby facilities — also perhaps health hazards and definitely not residential — include several auto body shops, a cement mixing facility and another where solid waste is transferred from the trucks that collected it to larger trucks.

The City Administrator discounts the health concerns. Says the Department of Health has, in essence, said that “current data shows that there are no increased health risks” for the future shelter residents.

But the department isn’t an independent agency. And whatever data it has, they’re apparently not the results of a full-fledged environmental analysis, since the Administrator would surely have provided it if they were.

Anybody who visits the site can confirm other concerns. There’s no nearby grocery store, for example, or a pharmacy. A couple of night clubs instead and a strip joint. Also family gardens of sorts — several marijuana farms.

One nearby bus stop, but no subway station. The closest is nearly two miles away — quite a long walk for anybody who’s not in the best shape and needs to get someplace quickly. Even more challenging for a parent who’s carrying or shepherding a child or lugging an armload of packages.

Children and adults alike would have to cross railroad tracks to get any place behind the site — another potential hazard, since trains will go barreling by.

Vocal Ward 5 residents and their representative on the Council — Kevin McDuffie — have yet another objection. The family shelter, they say, would be near two other shelters and five hotels the District is using to shelter families it can’t fit into DC General.

This may seem a variation on NIMBY — call it “we already have enough in our backyard.” And that surely seems the sentiment of one Ward 5 resident, who says that her ward and another “have had enough of these so-called help thy neighbor programs.”

But perhaps having so many shelters, permanent and otherwise, plus related social services all in one part of one ward could create a sort of ghetto, contrary to the vision of integrating the shelters — and thus the families — into the community.

The Mayor says that, in some cases, she and her team “had a very hard time finding locations.” They think the sites chosen “are the best” — presumably the best that bidders for the contracts proposed.

Ward 5 residents, among others, have identified alternatives. The City Administrator says none will do, for this reason or that. Also says the city initially rejected two other sites, both because too small.

One, he says, would have required a seven story building — the same as the shelter planned for another ward, as he doesn’t say.

In short, the Bowser administration has dug in its heels, fearing that if it budges, residents in every ward and their Councilmembers will pile on. Or so one gathers from the Mayor’s preemptive remarks.

But where there’s a will, there’s generally a way. And in view of all we know, the Council should create that will by telling the Mayor that her plan might be good enough if — and only if — she and her people find a safer, more residential and conveniently located site in Ward 5.

*  The administration’s plan would place family shelters in every ward, but Ward 2, which will get a shelter for women who don’t have children they’re caring for instead.

 

 


President Has Bold, New Plans for Homeless and At-Risk Families

February 16, 2016

The Obama administration has turned its attention to family homelessness — a big problem even now, years after the recession officially ended. We find the focus in the President’s proposed budget — and not only in the groundbreaking investment the White House overview flags.

We could, of course, find it in all sorts of places, especially if we took a long-range view. We see, for example, diverse investments that will enable current and future workers to qualify for higher paying jobs.

But I’ll confine myself here to a handful of proposals that would house homeless families and prevent some from losing their homes. A partial summary even so.

Assistance for Homeless Families

The proposed budget would dedicate $11 billion over 10 years to housing assistance earmarked for homeless families. An estimated 80% would fund Housing Choice vouchers — those that families can generally have so long as their incomes don’t rise above 30% of the median for the area they live in.

The other 20% would support rapid re-housing, which generally subsidizes housing for a year or less, plus services intended to enable families to then pay the full costs.

The budget for the upcoming year would essentially make a down payment, providing funds for 10,000 new vouchers for families with children and 8,000 more units to rapidly re-house others.

An interesting policy shift here, since the federal Interagency Council on Homelessness has tilted toward rapid re-housing as the tool for ending family homelessness.

We can, I think, credit the shift to the findings of a recently-completed study conducted for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The White House summary, in fact, suggests as much.

Shift in Budget Too

The homeless family piece of the proposed budget is notable for another reason. The $11 billion would be so-called mandatory spending. In other words, the federal government would have the authority to make the investment unless Congress changed or repealed it.

Up to this point, homeless assistance, vouchers and other such programs have depended on discretionary spending, i.e., the choices Congress annually makes. This would still be true for the down payment.

But the larger shift to the mandatory side will permit further investments without effectively taking funds from other non-defense programs, as they would if they added to discretionary spending, which the Budget Control Act caps.

Though subsequent deals temporarily eased the caps, public housing authorities are still shy roughly 67,000 housing vouchers lost due to the across-the-board cuts the BCA required for 2013.

Mandatory funding at the proposed level would provide 20,000 new vouchers a year, a HUD director told those of us on a budget briefing call. The Secretary put the total number of families housed at 550,000 during an in-person briefing.

And they’d be secure from the vagaries of annual spending choices.

Short-Shot Homelessness Prevention

Not all families need ongoing assistance to cover their housing costs, of course. Some can remain housed if they merely get a swift infusion of cash or the equivalent — enough, for example, to repair a car needed to get to work or to defray lost wages when an injury sidelines the breadwinner.

The President proposes $2 billion for grants to test ways of providing emergency aid and services. This too is a sort of down payment because the aim is to learn what works best — and so pave the way for a future initiative.

This isn’t the only preventive measure the President proposes. We find also two for insurance. One would tackle state restrictions on unemployment insurance benefits that left barely more than a quarter of laid-off workers with any wage replacement in 2014.

The other measure would create a wage insurance program for workers who lose their jobs and have to settle for one paying less. They’d get half the wages they lost for two years, though no more than $10,000 total. Still, a bit of a cushion for families while they try to adjust.

More Hope Than Change?

Republican House leaders bashed the proposed budget before they even saw it. “[A] progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans,” Speaker Paul Ryan opined.

That doesn’t mean it’s altogether irrelevant, however. For one thing, it presents reasonable solutions to problems that affect hardworking Americans, as well as those who can’t work — homeless children, for example.

How many of them is anybody’s guess. We do know, however, that the latest reported one-night count found nearly 128,000 who met HUD’s restrictive definition of “homeless.” That’s a lot of kids to shrug off as just cost items in a left-wing agenda.

The proposed budget is also relevant because its homeless family initiatives — and many others that would benefit lower-income people — don’t drive up the deficit. On the contrary. The projected deficit would drop by $2.9 trillion over the next 10 years.

I can’t account specifically for the budget changes that would pay for the President’s initiatives. I do note, however, a suite of tax reforms that would raise more revenues from corporations and well-off individuals.

Doubt Congressional Republicans will accept the pay-fors to give homeless families a modicum of security — or in other ways, help poor and near-poor people, as the President proposes.

But the offsets show what’s possible within tight fiscal constraints. And they could be back on the table, a hopeful budget expert has suggested. A lotta hope there. but who knows?

Better to let hope fuel our efforts, as it has at the White House, than to leave change to “the worst,” who surely are “full of passionate intensity” these days.

UPDATE: Due to a typographical error, this post originally understated the estimated number of families that would have housing vouchers. I have corrected the figure.

 


When Personal Responsibility Paves the Way to Homelessness

January 21, 2016

Many accounts of homelessness focus on personal financial crises — a job loss, for example, a serious illness or injury that results in huge medical bills, an eruption of domestic violence that impels a spouse or partner to flee the breadwinner.

Others cite less sudden crises due to mental illness and/or substance abuse, both ultimately leading to lack of money for housing. Still others take a different tack — rising housing costs, with no commensurate wage increases to cover them.

But sometimes families become homeless for altogether other reasons. Here’s a still-unfinished true story and some untruths it exposes.

I’ve written before about Peter,* who does occasional work for me. Now he and his daughters are homeless, though not (yet) eligible for federally-funded assistance as such.

Peter must depend on earnings from short-term jobs with flexible hours because he often must drop everything to tend to his chronically ill younger daughter. But between what he makes and her Supplemental Security Income benefits, he’s had enough to cover the family’s housing costs.

Seems his landlord didn’t have enough for the mortgage payments, however. So the lender repossessed the building and evicted the tenants.

Shortly before and after, a series of untoward events diminished Peter’s earnings and, at the same time, forced him to come up with extra money. His daughter’s new medication caused drastic side-effects. So he had to stay home with her for some days.

Then his car got towed because he’d parked it illegally, seeing no other way he could sell the newspapers he’d already purchased, as all vendors of our local homelessness paper do. No way for Peter to get to other jobs unless he paid the fine and the hefty towing-storage fee.

His sister then borrowed the car and got arrested for drunk driving. Immediately thrown in jail because it was her second such offense. Peter felt he had to bail her out, which, of course, meant a fee to a bail bondsman. And he had to bail the car out too because the authorities had impounded it.

Now, none of these things or even all in combination would have left Peter with nothing to spend except what he could earn day by day if he’d had the emergency savings that financial experts advise. But he could just get by when everything went smoothly.

So at this point, he, his daughters and his sister are holed up in a cheap motel while he waits for the tax refund that will cover the upfront costs of a new apartment lease — or so he hopes.

He’s thus far found no apartment he can afford. In the family’s home county, a two-bedroom apartment — very snug for them — costs, on average, $1,625 a month. And he sure won’t get help from the local housing authority. He’s been on its waiting list for some considerable time.

As I put together the pieces of this story, I recalled part of Tolstoy’s frame for Anna Karenina. “[E]ach unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But the story has other, more pertinent lessons.

Right-wing policymakers and the gurus they listen to often trace poverty to a failure of personal responsibility. Well, who exercises more personal responsibility than Peter, who could have left his daughters with their egregiously negligent mother — and his sister miserable in jail and then alone to struggle against her alcoholism?

More specifically, the Republican Presidential candidates at the recent “expanding opportunity” forum seemingly concurred on three ways our public policies and programs could reduce poverty.

First, they have to do a better job of promoting marriage — not only of getting people (of opposite sexes) to marry, but of inducing them to stay married and in the same home. Hard to see how persisting in a failed marriage to a persistent substance abuser would have made life better for Peter and his kids.

Second, public policies have to get people working for enough pay so they can support themselves and their dependents. Peter could do that if his younger daughter had neither a chronic illness nor developmental disabilities. He has in-demand technical skills and an entrepreneurial spirit.

As things stand now, however, he can’t responsibly delegate care for the daughter to a home healthcare aide or anyone else. Too many emergencies. Too many judgment calls only a parent can make. And too much time needed for his role in the education she’s receiving to develop independent living skills.

Third, our major federal safety net programs should get rolled into block grants that states can spend pretty much however they see fit. I’ll leave it to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein to explain (again) why this is such a bad idea.

I’ll merely note that the programs Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and forum moderator Paul Ryan would replace with super-block grants expressly include major federal housing assistance programs.

If Peter’s got problems getting back into an affordable apartment now, imagine how he and his family would fare if states had no obligation to provide vouchers or public housing — and had less in real dollars to fund any of the block-granted programs that now serve low-income people’s needs.

And imagine what would happen if he couldn’t rely on Medicaid for the services that keep his daughter alive — a distinct possibility if the program were block-granted, as Ryan and his House Republican colleagues intend.

* As before, I’ve changed his name to protect his and his family’s privacy.


Recent Report Misreports Homelessness and Hunger in DC

January 14, 2016

Each year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reports the results of a hunger and homelessness survey it takes of a subset of its member cities. Twenty-two responded last year, including the District of Columbia.

Past experience has made me wary of figures reported for the District. At least one key hunger figure got mangled several years ago, as I belatedly learned.

This time, I found key homelessness figures downright perplexing because they bore no resemblance to what the one-night count found — or for that matter, to anything else I’d read or heard about.

So I checked the figures with the Department of Human Services, which files the survey responses, based on what it receives from the Community Partnership to End Homelessness and the Capital Area Food Bank. Also checked directly with CAFB.

And sure ‘nough, something(s) got lost in translation, to put it kindly. Niggling about the figures may seem just a wonkish gotcha. But the USCM report does get cited by reporters, columnists and us social media types.

So I’m going to set the record straight, best as I can.

More Recorded As Served, Not Necessarily More Homeless

The USCM reports that the number of homeless families in the District increased by 60% between 2014 and 2015 and the number of homeless individuals by 11%.

Well, the increases actually reflect numbers served by programs funded at least partly by DHS — this courtesy of Dora Taylor, the agency’s public information officer, who herself seemed rather taken aback.

“Served” here means people generally got some form of assistance — not necessarily what they asked for or needed, but something that caused an intake worker to enter a record for them in the homeless information management system that the Community Partnership maintains to comply with federal requirements.

As Taylor suggested, the misreported homeless family increase may in part reflect the administration’s decision to open shelter doors to newly-homeless families year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days.

They didn’t all gain shelter, however. Services recorded include, for example, what’s referred to as “diversion” — usually an intake worker’s finding a friend or relative the family could stay with, however briefly.

Whatever the services, the reported increase seems far greater than what the welcome policy change can account for. Recall that it was intended partly to ease the annual crush at the intake center when winter set in.

I got nothing from DHS to help explain the reported uptick in homeless individuals. So I’ll just tee up two related hypotheses.

The HIMS probably had more records for singles because DHS and nonprofit partners had become convenient one-stop-shops of sorts — and still are. Caseworkers assess and then link singles to some form(s) of aid. All those assessed become part of the system, if they’re not in it already.

It’s also possible that more homeless singles chose to seek help because they’d heard that they had a better chance of getting affordable housing — time-limited for some and permanent, i.e., indefinite-term, with supportive services for those deemed chronically homeless.

More Requests for Help in Finding Free Food, Not Necessarily Increased Need

The USCM reports that requests for food assistance in the District increased, though not by how much. Still disturbing if requests reflect need.

They don’t. CAFB has no way to track the number of people who seek free groceries and/or meals. So it supplied a figure reflecting the increase in calls to its hotline, which makes referrals to nonprofits it helps supply.

As my CAFB contact remarks, the increase may reflect, at least in part the fact that more people in need know about the hotline. Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of residents who can’t afford to feed themselves and family members — only that we don’t know whether we’ve got more (or fewer).

Unmet Food Demand (If Any) Still a Mystery

The USCM reports that an estimated 24% of the demand for food assistance in the District went unmet in 2015. “Demand” here presumably refers to requests for groceries and/or meals provided by local nonprofits.

Not necessarily all, however, since CAFB would have no information from any nonprofit it didn’t help supply. It does, however, have data for the 444 nonprofits in its distribution network, thanks to a periodic survey Feeding American conducts.

But the latest survey results are for 2014. And the data CAFB can readily access are for all the Washington metro area programs in its network, not just those in the District. So we’ve got a flawed unmet demand estimate — and for the same reason as before.

Flawed Survey, But Not the Whole Story

What I’ve just said about the food assistance figures doesn’t reflect badly on CAFB. The USCM survey clearly asks questions that public agencies it contacts can’t answer, either from their own records or from what other sources can supply.

And respondents don’t get clear instructions on how to come up with such numbers as they can, my CAFB contact says.

There is, however, guidance for the homelessness questions. Cities are told that their best source will be their HIMS. This presumably opened the door to the misleading figures reported for the District. Door open doesn’t mean the Community Partnership — and ultimately DHS — had to walk through it, however.

We know we’ve got a serious homelessness problem in the District. We know that some residents at least sometimes don’t have enough to eat. But the figures should have raised red flags, I think.

Better to have gone back to the sources before responding. And better to have taken a pass on the survey — or at least some questions — than to have USCM report such faulty figures, however well-meaning its attempt to document urban needs.

 

 


Back to Bathrooms for Homeless DC Residents

January 11, 2016

The People for Fairness Coalition, an advocacy organization for homeless District of Columbia residents, is campaigning for public restrooms in the downtown area.

A spokesperson says they’re not only for the homeless. True enough. Tourists, shoppers, street vendors and people betwixt business meetings could benefit too. But there’s a difference.

I recall a time when I was near a small park where homeless people hang out and felt an urgent need to relieve myself. So I walked into a hotel and strolled through the lobby to the women’s room. Nobody said boo.

I’ve also on occasion ducked into a restaurant. Again, no one working there looked at me askance. This would hardly have been the case if I’d been wearing a tattered sweater and lugging bundles of all the belongings I still had.

Having clean, conveniently located public bathrooms anyone can use at any time seems to me merely the mark of a civilized city.

Those of us fortunate enough to have traveled abroad know they’re easy to find in Paris and in at least parts of other cities American tourists are likely to visit. Several U.S. cities now have them too, though not necessarily enough or open long enough.

Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human — an international advocacy group cleverly named to produce the acronym PHLUSH — argues that “toilet availability is a human right,” citing the broad right to sanitation the United Nations formally declared in 2010.

PHLUSH cites practical benefits too — and not only for health. Public toilets, it says, support downtown revitalization because people will stroll, window shop, etc. when they know they can find them. And businesses gain a positive imagine when they’re in neighborhoods that make a good first impression.

Such talking points could interest the downtown BID, which has invested in efforts to move homeless people off the streets — one of those cases where self-interest and public interest mesh.

The talking points (or something like) seem already to have influenced Councilmember Vincent Orange, since he’s introduced a bill to launch and evaluate a “mobile hygiene unit” — a bus converted to a bathroom with showers, as well as toilets.

We know he’s live to local business interests — his business, so to speak, as chair of the Business, Consumer Affairs and Regulatory Committee.

PFFC doesn’t seem much concerned about the motives. Nor should it be, if buses traveling around the city would meet the need they’re concerned with.

They wouldn’t, so far as I can see, do anything for homeless people — or for tourists, shoppers, etc. — who just need a toilet PDQ. And the pilot Councilmember Orange proposes would fund only one bus. No prospects of more until the two-year pilot ends.

Honolulu, which perhaps inspired the mobile unit solution, will soon have a fleet, including some buses with sleeping quarters. San Francisco, another model, also apparently has multiple buses.

PFFC members have thus far delivered mixed messages about the Orange bill. One says it’s “a great idea” — at least in part because of the showers. Another would prefer a restroom with a permanent location.

We shouldn’t let the forest get lost in these trees. The fact that PFFC is advocating for public restrooms speaks to a larger problem homeless people have in the District — and most other cities, I gather.

Shelters for those who don’t have children with them — those commonly termed single individuals, though they may be family members — generally insist that residents leave first thing in the morning and won’t let them back in before dinnertime or thereabouts.

So they wander the streets or take refuge in a McDonald’s, until they’re kicked out, or in a public library, if District rules don’t exclude them, e.g., by banning large bags. One way or the other, they’re on the streets a goodly part of the day — if for no other reason than to get to a shelter and stand in line because otherwise they’ll have no bed for the night.

No place then to pee, except in an alley or behind a bush, assuming they can persuade another homeless person to let them back in line afterwards. But we’ve got laws against heeding the call of nature in a public place — as indeed do a great many cities.

They don’t affect only homeless singles who rely on shelters, of course. Some, as I (and others) have written before, won’t go to a shelter. Last January’s one-night count found 544 on the streets or some other place “not meant for human habitation.”

Both they and the sheltered singles have no assured, 24-hour home base. This poses high risks to their mental and/or physical health, even if they’re not (yet) officially disabled. It makes finding — and keeping — a job extraordinarily difficult, as the story I recently recounted shows.

Kurt Runge, the Advocacy Director at Miriam’s Kitchen, says the mobile unit plan “could help address some very important basic needs in the short term.” But “[p]eople need a home of their own to take care of their personal needs.”

Housing surely is, as he says, “the solution to homelessness.” And it’s one the District should make a top priority in the upcoming budget cycle and beyond. But as the Executive Director of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness has said, “we will always need shelter.”

So I would hope that this upsurge of interest in public bathrooms doesn’t divert attention from policies that make them a more pressing need than for anyone else in our community.


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