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.


Jobless, Homeless, Despair: A Downward Spiral That Needn’t Be

January 4, 2016

The tool I use for this blog gives me a running account of my most-viewed posts. The list almost always includes one or both of two I wrote long ago on homeless people and work.

This seems as good a time as any to return to the issues. I’ve several in mind that I haven’t yet focused on. But they’re relatively abstract, while the reasons homeless people don’t work or do work and remain homeless are ultimately unique, notwithstanding the broad-brush treatment in the earlier posts I’ve just linked to.

Let me instead share the gist of a personal story I heard during a recent webinar sponsored by the Coalition on Human Needs and partners. Then a handful of reflections on the story and others like it.

What Happened to Sharon

Sharon had a steady job and earned enough to pay rent. Then came a layoff during the Great Recession. At first, she thought that daily jobs searches and applications would soon have her working again.

But nothing panned out. She felt “despair,” she said, “and a little bit of self-hate.” She thinks her negative feelings about herself made interviews less successful, since employers want upbeat, can-do workers.

Eventually, she used her last unemployment benefits check to pay her rent. She then faced eviction. So she called 211 — the number Boston residents are supposed to call for referrals to health and human services.

She was told how to sleep in her car. Which she did for 40 days. Then the car got towed and she had no money to retrieve it.

So she went to a homeless shelter. Like many homeless people without children, she had no assurance of a bed. She had to be in the waiting area by 1:00 each afternoon or risk spending the night on the street. This alone, of course, would have cramped the job search.

But the time constraint wasn’t the worst of it. “I had no address, no telephone,” she said, and no place to do her laundry. “All the stuff from the past caught up with me,” she added, referring to some unnamed traumas that resurfaced to haunt her.

But someone from the Department of Mental Health visited the shelter and enabled her to move to one that gave her stability and services.

She can’t hope for another job now because those services included a medical exam that found cancer. This, rather than the “toxic stress” she thinks may account for it is probably why she qualified for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

The benefits have lifted her out of deep poverty. But, she says, she’s still determined to support herself, so far as she can. She creates greeting cards at Rosie’s Place — a nonprofit source of services for homeless and other poor women. And she’s working on an illustrated book for children.

What Stories Can Tell Us

Stories like Sharon’s have three primary values, I think. First, they remind us that homeless people are as different from one another as thee and me — in both their personal characteristics and the events that paved the way to where they are now.

Second, they nevertheless give us inklings of what public policies and programs could do to prevent hardships like homelessness, even when the storyteller doesn’t say.

Consider only Sharon’s story and the issue of work. We see that she might well have found a job and never become homeless if she’d received swift, sufficient help with her rent — enough not only to keep her housed, but to cover her phone bills.

We see that the typical shelter for homeless singles makes finding work singularly difficult — and indeed, working itself. What sort of job could Sharon have landed when the shelter couldn’t serve as an address?

When she’d have had to quit for the day not long after noon — not to mention show up for work with unclean clothes? Surely first-come-first-served isn’t the only viable shelter model for childless, work-capable adults.

We also see that a publicly-funded program could have served as a bridge from the job she lost to another that offered as much security and opportunity as one can hope for these days.

The Recovery Act provided states with funds they could use to subsidize employment in public agencies and/or private businesses. The subsidies could help cover the costs of wages, benefits, supervision and training. So they could serve as not only a bridge, but a doorway to longer-term gainful employment.

And indeed, they did, story snippets tell us, though only for parents and youth, not childless adults because the funds came through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But a subsidized job program could also keep people like Sharon from plunging into deep poverty and homelessness.

Third — and following from all of the above — the stories show that people who’ve experienced hardships like homelessness have unique insights about needs, barriers and potential solutions. They are, as Witnesses to Hunger says of its members, “the real experts.”

So our policymaking process should make room for them. Professor Kathryn Edin, coauthor of the groundbreaking book that inspired the webinar, captured one of the big things our decision-makers could learn, if they listened with open minds.

Speaking of the poorer than poor families whom she and her colleague spoke with at length, she said, “They are American to the core. They hate handouts. They want to work.”

Notwithstanding what I said about uniqueness, we should, I think, proceed from the assumption that this is as true for homeless adults in this country as for those of us stably — at least, for the time being — housed.

Our policies and programs would look quite different if we did. And there’d be fewer homeless people too.

 


When Is a Hard-Up Family a Family?

December 14, 2015

Not long before Jesse died, we were chatting, as we often did, about issues I was working on — in this case, the District of Columbia’s homeless shelters.

I had to explain to him that if we became homeless and had no place to stay, we would have to live on the streets or spend our nights in separate sex-segregated shelters, then meet up some place or other when they turned us out at daybreak.

He was dumbfounded. It apparently had never occurred to him that we weren’t a family, according to the District’s homeless services policies.

I recalled the moment as I read reports of interviews with the homeless people the District is sweeping out of the campsites they’ve set up. The Department of Human Services, to its credit, has placed some of them in housing units. It wants most of them, however, to go into the shelters — at least, for awhile.

A fair number, it seems, don’t want to go — understandably, given conditions in what are called shelters for singles. Repeated references to bedbugs. Fears of having their belonging stolen. Fights. Bad food.

But it’s not only such shelter conditions. “They split you and your husband up,” said one woman interviewed. “We prefer to have privacy.”

None in the shelter for either — let alone privacy for the two together so they could comfort each other, talk about next steps and, well, do what couples do only when alone in a room with a door.

The problem, you see, is that they don’t have children in their care, just as Jesse and I wouldn’t have if we’d had to throw ourselves on the mercies of DHS.

This isn’t a singular safety net policy. We see it, for example, in states’ Medicaid policies. Twenty-two exclude all childless adults who don’t have disabilities, except pregnant women. All cover parents, though some only those far below the poverty line.

These are state choices, as the variations indicate. But the federal government itself doesn’t view childless couples as families — or for that matter, couples whose children are grown ups.

The only nationwide source of cash income for poor people who aren’t severely disabled is Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But couples who have no children living with them don’t qualify.

So-called general assistance programs could fill this gap in the safety net. But the federal government provides no funds for them. So states that had GA programs have exercised their unlimited flexibility to get rid of them or scale them back in various ways, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.

Only 11 provide cash benefits to childless adults who aren’t demonstrably unemployable — because they’re elderly, for example, or disabled, but haven’t yet (and perhaps can’t) surmount the hurdles to gaining Supplemental Security Income.

SNAP (the food stamp program) does provide cash-equivalent aid for childless couples. But as I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can generally get benefits for only three months in any three-year period unless they’re working or participating in a job training program at least half-time.

This restriction applies to childless couples if both spouses or partners have no disabilities unless they’re caring for someone in the household who’s disabled or have a child on the way. And the chances that both can get into — and remain in — certified job training programs are, in many states, virtually nil.

The time limit originated in the same law that brought us TANF — the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.

I mention this because it perversely disadvantages couples who’ve chosen not to have children unless and until they can afford to provide for their basic needs, plus the time, attention and opportunities that support healthy, well-rounded development. Seems like personal responsibility to me.

The federal Earned Income Tax Credit also disadvantages childless couples, even when lawfully wed. And it altogether denies the credit — and thus the potential refund — to young childless workers.

Far be it from me to say our safety net programs shouldn’t put a high priority on the well-being of the next generation. But we don’t have to choose between children and working-age adults who don’t have any.

And we surely don’t have to treat homeless couples who don’t have children with them as if they weren’t families.

 


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