DC Homeless Count Shows Some Progress, Still Big Unmet Needs

May 13, 2015

On a single night late last January, nearly 7,300 people were counted as homeless in the District of Columbia, according to the Metropolitan Council of Government’s just-released report. Nearly half of them were adults and children together as families.

Both these figures are moderately lower than those reported for 2014. But over the longer haul, we see an upward trend in the homeless total, driven entirely by the sharp spike in family homelessness.

Nearly Twice as Many Homeless Families as in 2008

The count identified 1,131 homeless families, i.e. those in shelters or transitional housing. None reported on the streets, in bus stations or other places “not meant for human habitation.” And as I say virtually every time I report count figures, they don’t include nearly all families (or individuals) without a home of their own.

The latest family total is 100 fewer than in January 2014. But it’s nearly double the number counted in 2008, when the recession had just set in. Looked at another way, family homelessness has increased by well over 92%, despite the 2014 dip down.

High Percent of Homeless Families With Very Young Parents

The MCOG report includes a first-time-ever breakout of “transition age youth,” i.e., 18-24 year olds. For this we can thank the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sets the data collection rules.

Here in the District, the count identified 1,103 TAY — all but 193 of them in families, i.e., as parents who had at least one child with them, but no parent or guardian of their own in the group. This means that nearly 64% of all adults in families counted were in their late teens or early twenties.

Now, this doesn’t mean that such a large percent of all homeless young adults in the District were parents who had babies and/or toddlers to tend and, insofar as they could, protect.

Far more single, i.e., lone, TAY than counted had probably found friends or relatives to give them a temporary alternative to the streets or the nasty singles shelters. It’s obviously one thing to let a young person sleep on your couch. Quite another to bring a mom and her newborn or understandably fretful two-year-old into your home.

It’s also likely that many single TAY who had no shelter of any sort didn’t get counted because unaccompanied youth generally don’t spend their nights where they’re reasonably easy to find — and often won’t admit they’re homeless when found.

The high percent of youth-headed homeless families is nonetheless striking. The TAY count isn’t the only indicator. MCOG, relying on facts and figures from last year’s count, says the median age for homeless D.C. adults in families is 25.

Fewer Homeless Singles, But More Unsheltered

The latest count found 3,821 homeless single adults, i.e., those who didn’t have children with them and thus didn’t qualify as family members, though some undoubtedly had spouses or partners sharing their plight.

The new figure is a tad lower than last year’s, which was somewhat higher than the figure for 2013. We don’t see a clear long-term trend. The latest figure, however, represents a decrease of about 9.2%, as compared to 2008.

Though the vast majority of homeless singles were in shelters or transitional housing, 544 were exposed to the elements or spending their nights in cars, vacant buildings, stairwells and the like. The unsheltered figure is nearly 150 higher than last year’s — and even a bit higher than in 2008.

With such (happily) small numbers, it’s hard to know whether we’re seeing a real uptick or merely the results of a more effective count. The District’s chapter in the MCOG report suggests the latter.

Fewer Chronically Homeless Residents

We do see what seems a genuine downward trend in the number of homeless singles identified as chronically homeless, i.e., those who’d been homeless for quite a long time or recurrently and had at least one disabling condition.

The January count found 1,593 of these singles — only 16 fewer than in 2014. But it’s the fifth year the number dropped, making for a 27% decrease since 2008.

The count also found fewer chronically homeless families, i.e. those in which at least one adult met the HUD definition I’ve linked to above. The latest figure — 66 — represents a marked drop from 2014, but that was a marked increase over 2013.

MCOG didn’t start reporting chronically homeless families as a separate group until 2011, presumably because HUD didn’t require grantees to do so. Looking back as far as we can then, we see a decrease of roughly 51%.

More Residents Not Homeless Because of Permanent Supportive Housing

Singles and families living in permanent supportive housing are rightly not counted as homeless, though most probably would be without PSH. They are, however, accounted for in the MCOG report and its members’ reports to HUD.

And here’s where we see the explanation for the relatively low chronically homeless figures, especially for singles. In January, 4,230 singles were living in PSH units in the Distric — an increase of 730 over 2014. This represents a whopping 115.5% increase since 2008.

We also find more families who’d like as not have been chronically homeless were it not for PSH. The District reported 1,128 of them, somewhat over three times as many as in 2008.

Not Just More Data Points

At this very moment, the DC Council is chewing over the Mayor’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Both the progress and the challenges the new count indicates should persuade it to support her proposed investments in both homeless services and affordable housing, including PSH — indeed, to make at least some of them bigger.

And I, getting back on my hobbyhorse, see yet further justification for her proposal to extend a lifeline, though thin to the 6,300 families who’ll otherwise lose what remains of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

If they’re not already homeless, they’re likely to be. And as things stand now, a goodly number will have to fend for themselves until the next severe cold snap because the Mayor’s budget won’t cover the costs of sheltering all with no safe place to stay when the multifarious harms they’re exposed to don’t include the risk of freezing to death.

Like I said, some bigger investments needed.

 

 

 


Two Thumbs Up for New Plan to End Homelessness in DC

March 30, 2015

The District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness recently released its draft strategic plan for the next five years. This isn’t just another of those plans that officially-established entities produce, when required. It’s truly impressive — and in a number of ways.

The plan has many pieces. And the pieces have pieces. I may have more to say about some of them. For now, I’ll confine myself to a few general observations.

Ambitious Goals, Realistically Defined

The plan establishes three major goals — one for homeless veterans, one for chronically homeless individuals and families and a third for everyone else who is or will become homeless. They differ by deadline, but the basic goal itself is the same — an end to homelessness.

This doesn’t mean, as the plan makes clear, that no District resident will ever again experience “a housing crisis,” i.e., the crisis of not having housing. The plan instead envisions an end to long-term homelessness. By 2020, it says, “homelessness in the District of Columbia will be rare, brief, and non-recurring.”

Whether the District can get there in only five years is far from certain. Much hinges, as the plan also makes clear, on the availability of more housing that’s affordable for the lowest-income residents and the success of efforts to increase their income.

This, as it says, is especially important for households that have the time-limited subsidies provided by rapid re-housing, but it’s critical for all — both for their own well-being and for the funds it would free up to meet the needs of others.

Enlightened View of Homeless People

Actually, this headline runs afoul of what seems to me an important change in thinking, both within the administration and among some service providers. “There are no ‘homeless people,'” the plan says, “but rather people who have lost their homes.”

They “deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” which we know isn’t always the way they feel they’re treated now. Nor the way they’ve been viewed by past administration spokespersons, who’ve contended that families seeking shelter just want to live in a hotel room, for free.

The redefinition of homeless people has further implications. One is that they’re all ready for housing immediately, rather than only after they’ve successfully completed programs designed to fix them, e.g., by enabling them to kick drug and/or alcohol addictions.

In short, the plan unequivocally embraces the Housing First model — and quite clearly, in several places, addresses the fact that funding, through the Housing Production Trust Fund and other sources, has supported projects inconsistent with the model.

More generally, the plan stresses economic, rather than behavioral causes of homelessness. It doesn’t by any means ignore needs for services, including those that address behavioral health problems.

But key factors it identifies — and recurs to in its strategies — are the egregious shortage of affordable housing, wages that won’t cover housing costs and public benefits that are even more inadequate.

Anyone who thinks this is just common sense should look at some of the mainstream conservative explanations of poverty — this recent piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks, for example.

Another implication of the drafters’ view of homeless people is that programming must meet their needs, rather than expecting them to adapt to what currently exists. This is one of many indications that the drafters envision a system that will continue to evolve.

It’s why they call the plan a roadmap, rather than a blueprint. They set goals. They outline “pathways” from homelessness to housing. They use these, together with data on differing homeless groups to estimate “inventory” needs over time, e.g., the number of permanent supportive housing units required, the number of rapid re-housing subsidies.

But they also stress ongoing data collection and assessments “to understand what is working and where changes are needed.”

A Collaborative Venture

The District government alone can’t end homelessness, as the plan rightly says. Service providers have to make sure their programs mesh with the revamped — and evolving — system. Donors have to align their support with the system and help fill gaps. Developers, landlords and employers obviously all have roles. Churches and other community groups likewise.

To all these, I’d add advocates, of course, and those who belong the the community just by virtue of living in D.C. We who can must be willing to pay higher taxes. The envisioned end to homelessness should save money in the long run, but achieving it won’t be cheap.

And we’ve got to willingly accept homeless shelters in our own neighborhoods, since the plan includes contracting for and actually constructing smaller, scattered shelters to replace not only the DC General family shelter, but several over-large and decrepit shelters for individuals.

We see collaboration in the plan itself. To some extent, it could hardly be otherwise, since ICH members include not only government agency heads, but representatives from service provider and advocacy organizations and homeless or formerly homeless people.

This at least partly accounts for some innovations tucked into the plan, but the public “conversation” sessions the ICH conducted may have played a role too.

The style and format of the plan invite further collaboration. The pathways, inventories and the like reflect a lot of serious number-crunching. And the plan has a lot of numbers in it. But it’s a remarkably readable document — and remarkably transparent about the data sources, the assumptions, the known unknowns, the magnitude of the challenges and the tentativeness of the specifics.

So we everyday interested residents can understand what’s really a very complex system overhaul — and over time, participate. In short, a lot to like, even at this draft stage.

 


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 Coalition Calls for Some Spending Increases, But They Could Save Money … and Lives

January 29, 2015

A new mayor in the District of Columbia. New appointments to senior administrative positions. Three new Councilmembers — and two more to come.

Unexpected challenges for them all because the current fiscal year’s budget seems likely to be short about $83.3 million. It could be considerably more if the District decides to, at along last, settle its overtime dispute with the firefighters.

And there’s a bigger potential budget gap for next fiscal year — perhaps $161.3 million, according to the Chief Financial Officer’s latest estimate of the costs of District agency operations.

Into this still-fluid environment comes the Fair Budget Coalition, with its annual recommendations for (what else?) a budget and related policies that are fair to all District residents. “Fair,” as its mission statement says, means policies, including budgets, that “address poverty and human needs.”

As I’ve remarked before, FBC’s recommendations, worthy as they all may be, tend to be difficult to wrap up in a blog post because they’re a compendium of top priorities identified by working groups that focus on diverse issue areas — housing and homelessness, workforce development and income supports, etc.

So, at least for now, just a few observations.

Everything Is Connected To Everything Else

Though FBC offers diverse recommendations, they fit together, as all speakers on the panel the coalition hosted on report release day emphasized.

For example, if you’re homeless, free health care — and prescription drugs — won’t keep you from suffering life-threatening emergencies because it’s hard to follow a doctor’s recommendations when you’re out on the streets. And impossible, of course, to keep medications refrigerated, though you know some won’t be effective if you don’t.

Thus, said panelist Maria Gomez, the founder and CEO of Mary’s Center, “Health care will not help without other investments” — in the immediate case, obviously affordable housing. Perhaps other public benefits also, e.g., nutrition assistance, transportation subsidies.

A Budget Gap Doesn’t Make Spending Recommendations Moot

FBC’s recommendations seem to involve about $45.2 million in additional spending, plus some unspecified amounts, at least one of which would add to the tab. Some of the total could be offset by a pair of tax recommendations, however.

One would make the local income tax system “more progressive,” i.e., shift more of the tax burden to high-earners. The other would raise the property tax rate on “high value” homes and homes that the owners don’t live in for most of the year.

No revenue estimates for these, however — at least, not yet. More importantly, I’m inclined to doubt that the Bowser administration and the Council would revisit tax reform at this point, since the current budget adopts key recommendations that emerged from the Tax Revision Commission’s studies, debates and ultimate compromises.

This doesn’t mean that the District simply can’t afford the spending FBC recommends, budget gap notwithstanding. For one thing, the gap, large as it may seem, is only 2.3% of the projected FY 2016 budget.

For another, it’s far from certain that everything the District now spends money on is the best investment of our taxpayer dollars.

Take, for example, the Film Incentive Fund, beloved by Councilmember Vincent Orange. We’ve got research showing that the tax subsidies and other incentives used to entice TV and movie companies to film in the District don’t even pay for themselves, let alone generate additional revenues.

Nor, according to studies elsewhere, do they create steady, full-time work for residents. Not much work at all, in fact.

Just an example of where one might look for funds to, say, actually improve employment prospects for low-income residents. The modest investment FBC recommends to create career pathways for D.C. adults without basic literacy and math skills probably would.

Connections Have Budget Implications

The Mayor and Council don’t need to short worthwhile programs in order to shore up others because investing more in some yields high returns in savings and/or revenue increases. Here’s a pair of related examples — often cited.

FBC recommends an additional $12 million to expand permanent supportive housing for people with disabilities who’ve been homeless for a long time or recurrently. Studies in other communities have found that PSH not only prolongs and improves lives, but usually costs less than leaving chronically homeless people on the streets or sheltering them overnight.

Likewise, vouchers that enable homeless and at-risk families to afford market-rate housing and other vouchers that help cover the operating costs of affordable housing not only provide families with a safe, stable place to live — and thus a healthier environment and a secure platform for working or preparing for work.

These indefinite-term vouchers also cost less than a third of what the District spends, per family, on shelter at the notoriously awful DC General — or the hotels that it’s again constrained to use as shelter because there’s no room left at DCG.

No room left because the Department of Human Services can’t move enough families out fast enough to make room for all the newly-homeless families entitled to shelter. While DHS had reportedly achieved a so-called exit rate of 64 families per month, only 37 families exited the emergency shelter system during the last four weeks we’ve got (unpublished) reports on.

More locally-funded housing vouchers, especially the kind families can use in the private market as long as they have to would swiftly free up shelter space and/or keep families from needing it.

Cost-savings include not only shelter, but the collateral costs of harms associated with homelessness, especially for children. These include, but are not limited to health, behavioral and academic problems that can ultimately diminish earning power — and thus tax revenues. More immediate costs — some justified, some perhaps not — include interventions by the child welfare agency.

By these lights, FBC’s recommendation for an additional $10 million in locally-funded housing vouchers, split evenly between the first and second type, makes sense from a fiscal, as well as a moral — or if you prefer, humanitarian — perspective.

 


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.


How Should We Make Sure That Homeless People Don’t Go Hungry?

November 17, 2014

This is National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week, an annual event scheduled to take advantage of the fact that we’re thinking about what we’re thankful for — and about food.

I’m going to take advantage of it here by pondering an issue that the National Coalition for the Homeless, which cosponsors the week, raises in its latest report on the “criminalization of food sharing.”

“Food sharing” refers to distributing food to homeless people, usually outdoors. A growing number of local laws “criminalize” it, NCH says, by imposing restrictions of several major sorts. They’re based on “unjust stereotypes and biases that victimize people experiencing homelessness,” it contends.

Perhaps or perhaps not, as I’ll attempt to show further on. But first a look at the number and types of restrictions NCH finds so objectionable.

Cities That Restrict Food Sharing

NCH doesn’t actually tell us how many cities restrict food sharing. It instead identifies 17 that adopted such restrictions in the last year and a half and lists 12 more that it found too late to fold into the report. Fort Lauderdale recently joined them — and promptly became notorious for acting against the 90-year-old head of a street ministry.

Community pressures “have pushed food-sharing out of populated areas,” e.g., public spaces, in at least four other cities, NCH says. So that makes a minimum of 34 cities that, in its view, have recently engaged in new hostile acts against food sharing.

Types of Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH identifies two major types of food-sharing restrictions, not counting community pressures that programs have felt constrained to respond to.

The first type limits uses of public property, mostly by requiring permits. Some of them are dauntingly costly for individuals and groups who want to share food on a regular basis. Lots of red tape too.

The second type requires food sharers to comply with food safety regulations, e.g., to get a food handler’s certification or to prepare hot meals only in approved locations (presumably those that have passed some sort of inspection).

Arguments Against Food-Sharing Restrictions

NCH and the volunteers it quotes clearly believe that anyone should be able to feed homeless people pretty much wherever and whenever they choose. After all, homeless people need to eat. And a free meal served where they tend to congregate is a whole lot safer and healthier than dumpster diving.

Some faith-based organizations view food-sharing restrictions as a violation of their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious duty to feed the hungry. Two courts have agreed.

Professor Baylen Linnekin, who’s also executive director of the libertarian Keep Food Legal Foundation, argues that food-sharing restrictions are discriminatory, as well as unconstitutional on other grounds because they apply only to sharing food with people who don’t sleep with a roof over their heads.

Arguments for (Some) Food-Sharing Restrictions

Cities regulate uses of public spaces for all sorts of reasons — safety, equal access, sanitation, etc. It’s not clear why food-sharing programs should get a free pass when the result can be blocked sidewalks or a park that’s littered with garbage, which serves as a feeding program of sorts for rats.

Property use rules can, of course, be targeted specifically to deter food sharing. The new Fort Lauderdale ordinance, for example, requires outdoor feeding programs to provide portable toilets and hand-washing stations. But it seems a stretch to label every new rule that affects a food-sharing program as an effort to criminalize its activities.

Ditto for requiring programs that feed homeless people to observe basic food safety precautions. Mark Horvath, the genius behind Invisible People and a formerly homeless person, argues that homeless people should have the same assurance of food that’s “healthy and inspected” as the rest of us do.

Beyond this, Horvath believes that feeding homeless people on the streets or in a park can discourage them from going to a nonprofit that will not only feed them, but provide or connect them to other services — and thus end their homelessness. He’s not the only one.

NCH calls the notion that food sharing enables homeless people to remain homeless a myth. They’re homeless, it says, for reasons that have nothing to do with choice, e.g., mental health problems, physical disabilities, lack of affordable housing and/or job opportunities.

But they’re not going to get help with any of these from an outdoor food-sharing program that’s not coordinated with anything else.

Beyond Food Sharing

Horvath suggests that those of us who want homeless people to have enough to eat should donate our time and/or money to a local service provider, though he’s willing to allow that we can feed people in a park so long as we’re also doing something to get them out of it — not, of course, by advocating for local laws that “criminalize” their being there.

NCH itself recognizes that the sort of food-sharing programs it believes local authorities are unjustly targeting don’t solve the problems of hunger and homelessness — or even hunger among homeless people.

It recommends outreach and caseworker support to help homeless people enroll in federal nutrition programs like SNAP (the food stamp program). It recommends more federal funding for them, as well as for food sharing and for organizations that provide food for homeless people in other ways (lots of luck!).

It also recommends changes in federal law to eliminate barriers to SNAP participation, i.e., work requirements, the lifetime bans some states still impose on people who’ve been convicted of drug-related felonies (lots of luck, again).

Setting aside the high improbability of friendlier federal nutrition policies, an approach that coordinates feeding with other forms of help does seem preferable to free-standing, outdoor food-sharing programs.

Yet not all homeless people want to go someplace where they can eat indoors, as NCH Director of Community Organizing Michael Stoops says. Nor apparently do they all respond to caseworkers who go to where they are.

DC Central Kitchen, whose mobile breakfast program NCH approvingly cited in its previous food-sharing report, says it’s piloting something different because “the vast majority of our clients were content to receive a free daily meal without engaging in any meaningful way with our outreach workers.”

But it hopes some other nonprofit will fill the gap. Better fed than dead of malnutrition, one might say — or than driven to desperate acts.

Hard, I think, to decide where we who worry about both hunger and homelessness should net out.

UPDATE: Shortly after I posted this, I discovered another significant voice in the food-sharing debate. It’s a fierce response by the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless to an NPR interview with a prominent consultant who opposes outdoor feeding programs. The coalition focuses specifically on church groups, but most of the issues it raises are more generally applicable.

 

 


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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