Bowser Budget Scants Needs of Homeless and Others at High Risk

April 20, 2017

Picking up where I left off, some major parts of Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget don’t link as obviously to the inclusive prosperity road its title promises as, for example, adult education and available, affordable child care.

Yet two other parts we care about do because both are virtual preconditions to earning income and having enough left over after basic needs to invest in boosting one’s marketable knowledge and skills.

But I don’t want to leave impression that I equate “prosperity” with income or wealth, as I think Bowser’s budget title does because it seems an indirect way of referring to the extraordinarily high level of income inequality in the District.

The Latin root of “prosperity” means made successful, but also made happy, according to one’s hopes. One can surely make a homeless family happy by providing it with decent, stable housing it can afford without—or before — doing whatever necessary to boost its income so that it can pay full rent.

So we need to look at the following from multiple perspectives.

Affordable Housing

No one, I suppose, needs anything further said about the acute shortage of housing in the District that its lowest-income residents can afford.

Such prosperity as they might achieve — through taking college courses, for example — is beyond their means because, if they’re not homeless, most are paying more than half their income for rent and more than half of those at least 80%.

The Mayor, to her credit, would again commit $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, plus $10 million to a new fund dedicated solely to preserving existing affordable housing.

But helping developers finance new affordable housing construction and/or renovations isn’t enough to produce units affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Those units need housing vouchers attached to cover the difference between what tenants must pay — no more than 30% of their income — and ongoing operating costs, e.g., maintenance, utilities, staff wages. The Mayor fails to propose funding to increase the number of these so-called project-based vouchers.

And as I earlier said, additional funding could be needed merely to sustain vouchers now in use because if Congress extends the current funding level for federal Housing Choice vouchers, the DC Housing Authority won’t have the money to issue any.

If the Republican majorities in Congress accede to anything like Trump’s budget plan, a larger loss, as yet unestimated at the state/District level.

Homelessness

Want of affordable housing obviously causes homelessness. But it does more than that. It’s hard to get and keep a job when you’re living in a shelter.

That’s especially true if the shelter’s for adults only because they generally have to get in line in mid-afternoon to get back in. And those who make it may not be able to wash themselves and are highly vulnerable to theft.

There goes the cell phone that’s the only way to contact them — and the photo ID they’ll need, if they have one.

All but impossible to get a job if they’re among the chronically homeless without the safety, stability and appropriate services they’d get in permanent supportive housing.

The Mayor does increase PSH funding by $2.7 million. But that would meet only 30% of what’s needed to end chronic homelessness, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. (The target year set by the strategic plan the Mayor’s embraced obviously won’t be met,)

Other single homeless people get shorted in several different ways. No additional rapid re-housing for them, though some temporarily down on their luck could pick up the full rent when their short-term subsidies end.

About 46% for less for families as in the current fiscal year. But its success in ending homelessness — or as the program’s formally titled achieving “stabilization” — is at the very least debatable.

And the District’s youngest homeless people — those under 25 who’re on their own in the city — will continue to suffer from neglect, in addition to the egregious neglect (or abuse) that caused some to leave home to begin with.

Others became homeless when they became legally adults. Various reasons for this. For example, they were either kicked out by their parents (something that can happen earlier) or reached the maximum age for foster care and didn’t have foster parents who’d foster them for free — or any one else who’d take them in.

These young people need safe, stable housing, but also education and/or training and mentoring because, as the National Network for Youth puts it, many are in a state of “extreme disconnection.”

In other words, they’re worst cases of youth commonly referred to as “disconnected” — or more hopefully, “opportunity.” They’re not only neither in school or working. They lack basic life skills, e.g., how to keep themselves healthy, look for a job, manage such money as they make.

The DC Interagency Council on Homelessness developed a five-year plan specifically for homeless youth, based on census (no link available) that’s surely an undercount. It nevertheless captured 545 youth who were either homeless or insecurely housed, e.g. couch-surfing.

The ICH developed a five-year homeless youth plan, as an amendment to the District’s basic homeless services plan requires. The Mayor’s budget invests $2.4 million — less than half what the upcoming (and first) year requires.

Homeless now — others to become so. How then will the District make not only youth, but former youth homelessness brief, rare, brief and non-recurring  — let alone enable these potential contributors to our economy and our civic life share in the prosperity the Mayor dangles before us?


Black Homelessness a Sign of Where History Still Needs to Go

February 14, 2017

Well, we’re still In the midst of commotions created by our President and his choices for some top-level officials.

We’re also in the midst of Black History Month — a time when we’re supposed to pay more attention than we usually do to important people and events that brought blacks in America and thus America itself to where we are now.

A worthwhile endeavor. We may even discover the up-and-coming Frederick Douglass.

I’m taking a different tack, though one that’s far from unique. Where does the black stream of American history have yet to go? That’s a much larger question than I’m prepared — or indeed, suitable — to answer.

So I’ll d return to an issue that’s still drawing people to my blog — why homeless people don’t work or do, but are homeless anyway.

My last post on the issue ended with a bare mention of race discrimination. I left it hanging because it’s one of those complex cause-effect factors.

I’ll try to disentangle some of them here, conscious that I’m over-simplifying what merits a book, but also that those factors speak to the larger question I led off with.

Black Over-Represented Among Homeless

Homelessness itself is as good a starting point as any, since it’s unusually common for blacks. They represent 39.1% of all homeless people, according to the latest breakout from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

That’s less than 10% smaller than the percent of homeless whites — and nearly three times the percent of blacks in the U.S. population as a whole.

High Black Poverty Rates

Nobody needs a post to tell them that people of all races are homeless because they can’t afford housing. That itself is over-simple. Some can afford housing, with or without a subsidy, but still may still have no safe, stable place to live.

Criminal records pose a barrier to both privately-owned and public housing. More on that below. We need here to recall that they’re not the only records that can keep people out of housing they can afford.

Merely having been poor at some time in the past can keep people out — even housing a federal voucher would subsidize — because landlords commonly check credit histories. Not out of idle curiosity, of course.

But lack of ready money accounts for a lot. And the black poverty rate, like the homeless rate is disproportionately high — and has been ever since the Census Bureau started breaking out its survey results by race.

Which takes us to work issues. Obviously, since people who have good-paying jobs can pay for housing, though not necessarily where they want it. And, as we all know, the readiest path to those jobs, is a good education.

Labor Market Disadvantages Linked to Persistent Segregation

Blacks’ disadvantages in the labor market date back to slavery, when some freed by former masters or self-liberated worked for pay, but far more, still-enslaved were denied any education.

The Jim Crow laws that replaced slavery didn’t prohibit educating blacks, but generally allowed it only in schools that were, as the Supreme Court eventually found, “separate but unequal,” inherently so, though they were also often unequal in other ways.

Federal laws notwithstanding, blacks remain segregated in many communities due in part to local housing policies, e.g., zoning, discriminatory housing practices, and vestiges of past discrimination by the federal government.

Disadvantages to living in neighborhoods — or whole communities — where policies have concentrated blacks are themselves a cause-effect tangle, reflected in the high black poverty rate.

A major, though not the only reason for the rate is lack of marketable skills — literacy, including now computer proficiency and, beyond that, a formal education credential, which employers use as a threshold sign of those skills.

Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods generally have less money than those in well-off neighborhoods and they need more to ensure that the disadvantages of poverty don’t hold children back.

This issue is far from new and hasn’t garnered much by way of consensus on solutions. I may return to it, especially now that desegregation and equal educational opportunities have again become front-page controversies.

For now, the end result will have to suffice. For too many black youth, it’s is lack of a high-school diploma or the equivalent — the minimal qualification for most jobs — and virtually all paying enough to make housing affordable.

Growing up and going to school in a high-poverty neighborhood may not altogether account for this. We’ve also got some persuasive evidence that black students don’t get a fair shake.

For example, they’re far more likely than their white peers to incur punishments that not only deter them from learning, but can tempt them into criminal behaviors — or at the very least, gain them criminal records. And so we loop back ….

Disproportionate Criminal Justice

It’s common knowledge by now that our criminal justice system sweeps in a far higher percent of blacks than whites. Police practices of various sorts put them at higher risk, according to reliable local investigations..

We’ve reasons to question whether they’re treated equally thereafter — how they’re charged, if at all, whether they’re actually sent to jail or prison, whether they’re sent back for failing to comply with parole requirements they can’t meet, including payments of court fees and fines.

Now, as I said, public housing authorities and owners of federally-subsidized housing must bar people who’ve been convicted of certain drug offenses, but some go considerably further.

Private-sector landlords generally may pick and choose tenants, though with a recently-announced constraint that may not remain a federal fair housing enforcement policy.

The weeding out helps account for the high black homeless rate. Whether sheltered or living in some place “not meant for human habitation,” homeless people are likely to be on the streets most of each day.

That in itself can lead to a criminal record, even for such harmless behaviors as resting on a park bench or sleeping under a bridge because there’s no room in a shelter—or the shelter’s too unsafe.

And so we’ve got a loop-closer, though hardly one that accounts for either the high black homeless rate or the closely-related poverty rate.

Like the other factors I’ve cited, these are more or less systemic. We mustn’t, however, levy the whole blame on systems. Every one of the factors I’ve cited affords evidence of out-and-out discrimination.

Another piece of the puzzle I’ll have to leave for another day. But even this much means, of course, that we’ve every reason to recognize the many millions who overcame — and did so much to make many of our worst policies past history.

But it also reminds us that we’ve got a long way to go — and right now, urgent needs to preserve the progress we’ve made.


No Government Shutdown Isn’t Good Enough

October 13, 2016

As I’m sure you know, the federal government doesn’t have a budget for this fiscal year. Congress narrowly averted a shutdown with a continuing resolution. So programs that depend on annual spending choices can keep operating at their current funding levels until December 10.

Then what? Well, the government almost surely won’t have a new budget to replace the CR. Nothing unusual about this. Congress has relied on at least one CR in all but four budget seasons since 1977.

Speaker Paul Ryan said the House would return to “regular order” under his leadership, i.e., pass each of the dozen appropriations bills that make up the budget. So did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

But they’re not even close. The Senate has passed only three appropriations bills and the House five. They haven’t negotiated final versions of any, though one got folded into the CR.

So we’re likely to have another — either that or a package containing some newly-passed appropriations bills and an extension of current funding levels for the rest.

One way or the other we’re unlikely to have a government shutdown. So why should we care whether we’ve got a bona fide budget or not?

We shouldn’t, I think, care much if Congress decides to punt again — and only once more. But a longer-term CR would leave critical programs under-funded, including some especially important for low-income people.

Consider affordable housing. The Housing Choice voucher program needs more funding annually merely to sustain the number of vouchers in current use because, as you’ve probably noticed, rents rise — and with them, the amount the vouchers must usually cover.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development needs roughly $765 million more for that, according to the President’s proposed budget. A somewhat similar program administered by the Agriculture Department needs an additional 18 million.

And steady state isn’t good enough. Fewer than one in four low-income households that qualify for housing assistance have it. Three quarters of those who don’t pay at least half their income for rent.

And, of course, some can’t. We don’t know yet how many people nationwide the latest homeless counts found. But we do know that last year’s identified about 564,700, including nearly 127,790 children who were with parents or other caregivers.

Yet the current budget is still shy about 59,000 vouchers left unfunded by the across-the-board cuts the Budget Control Act required and choices Congress made to comply with its (modified) spending caps.

These are indefinite-term vouchers. HUD’s homeless assistance grants fund, among other things, the time-limited vouchers local agencies provide through their rapid re-housing programs.

They also help fund permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless people — not necessarily permanent, but subsidized for as long as occupants need it.

As with other types of housing, per-unit costs steadily rise. Just renewing current contracts would cost roughly $2 billion, HUD estimates.

This is barely less than the total current funding level for homeless assistance grants, which also help cover costs of shelters, diverse services and short-shot aid to prevent homelessness. Costs for these rise too.

A long-term CR would obviously tighten the squeeze — and so put progress toward ending homelessness even further behind what’s needed to achieve the goals that federal agencies collectively set in 2010.  Likewise the goals that local communities have embraced, including the District of Columbia.

All such efforts require ramped-up investments in housing that poor and near-poor people can afford, as well as the subsidies and services funded in part through HUD’s homeless assistance grants.

The federal partner would need to do considerably more than the majorities in Congress seem inclined to. Both the House and Senate have, however, passed bills that would provide somewhat more funding for both regular housing vouchers and homeless assistance.

But not identical bills. So even slight increases might not reach state and local agencies — and if not them, then not the people who are homeless or paying so much for rent that they’re short on money for food, medical care, shoes for the kids, etc.

These slices of the HUD budget are, of course, only examples of what prolonged level funding would mean.

CLASP cites several others. These would further limit job prospects for youth and older adults who lack the education and skills our labor market demands — and for affordable, high-quality child care.

Experts in other areas could undoubtedly name a host of others that a long-term CR would significantly shortchange. Not only low-income people would suffer, but they’d get hit from more directions.


More Homeless DC Families to Shelter, But Still Signs of Progress

September 22, 2016

I remarked last year that the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness produced a markedly better plan for how the District would full its obligation to shelter homeless families during the winter season.

This year’s plan is similar, though with different numbers. It’s interesting in a couple of ways that speak to progress in the District’s homeless services program — and to problems that it alone can’t solve.

More Homeless Families in Need of Shelter

The estimated number of families the District will have to shelter is considerably higher than last year’s. This might seem a no-brainer. Last January’s one-night count identified 1,491 of them, marking the latest high in a virtually unbroken trend.

The shelter plan doesn’t project that many for this coming January. Nor need it, since the annual counts include families in transitional housing.

It does, however, indicate a significant shortage of units at the DC General family shelter, plus the apartment-style units the Department of Human Services regularly contracts for to shelter families with special needs.

DHS, as the plan makes clear, has already acted on the expected shortage, knowing it would have a deuce of a time contracting for motel rooms in mid-winter, what with the influx of visitors drawn by the inauguration festivities.

I mention this mainly because it’s a refreshing contrast to plans issued during the former administration, especially the last, which merely assured us that DHS would use some combination of “resources” to comply with the law.

More Homeless Families in Shelter When Winter Begins

The explicit reference to motel rooms and the number already contracted for aren’t the only — or most significant — contrasts. We see, for example, more families in DC General when the winter season formally begins, in November.

This reflects the Bowser administration’s decision to let families with no safe place to stay into the shelter year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days, when it has no lawful choice.

That was the unwritten policy until the Gray administration whittled it back and then altogether abandoned it. Predictably, a crush of homeless families sought shelter when they first could, creating problems not of their making.

I’m reverting to history here because it shows that what one finds — and doesn’t — in the annual Winter Plan signals policy and other management decisions. We see two others in the monthly estimates of shelter units needed.

More Homeless Families Than Projected Units Needed

Though the new plan begins with more families in shelter, it estimates fewer total units needed than families likely to show up at the intake center. This is partly because it includes estimated exits, as the last several plans also did.

Some unspecified number are families expected to move from shelter to housing temporarily subsidized by the District’s rapid re-housing program.

DHS has had long-standing problems meeting its rapid re-housing targets for various reasons. One, which still applies, is the acute shortage of housing that homeless families could conceivably afford to rent when their subsidies expire.

Another, related, has been families’ understandable reluctance to accept rapid re-housing. That may be less common now because they know they can return to shelter whenever they must.

It’s nevertheless the case that the Winter Plan estimates considerably more monthly exits late in the season than the current rapid re-housing placement rate. That, I’m told, has improved to an average of 100 families per month.

The plan, however, projects 155 exits in March, when winter officially ends, making for a 667 total during the five months it covers. Where, one wonders, will DHS — or families themselves — find so many low-cost housing units available to rent in a city where they’re disappearing.

Such as remain are hardly all available or suitable for families that surely want to exit from DC General at least as much as DHS wants them out.

More than a third of the units that the lowest-income District households could afford are occupied by those with higher incomes, according to apparently updated figures from the Urban Institute.

Only 8% of all the units have more than three bedrooms. A special exit problem then for families with more than a couple of kids — just as it’s apparently a problem for well over 100 families who’re affordably housed now.

Families Saved (for Now) From Homelessness

There’s another reason for lower total unit estimates than families likely to ask intake center staff for help. Last year, the District launched a program to prevent family homelessness.

It’s somewhat like the long-standing (and always under-funded) Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but it’s for families only and can provide a wider range of resources, tailored to their needs.

The success rate is reportedly very high — 90% of families referred to the nonprofits the District has contracted with haven’t become homeless. Or so it seems. What we know is that they haven’t  asked for shelter.

These early results, combined with the additional $1 million the new budget will invest in the program led the working group that developed the plan to adjust last year’s monthly entrance figures down by 10%.

One can only hope that the lower estimates prove accurate — and more importantly, mean that families aided actually have safe, reasonably stable homes of their own.