Better Chapter Opens for Homeless Family

August 17, 2015

My post on the homeless family that fled to keep their child out of foster care seems to have interested followers and others in the social media sphere. So I thought you’d like a brief update.

Shortly after I published the post, I got a note from “Carey,” the storyteller, who then posted it as a comment. More details in a second note, also then posted.

Carey reports that the family now has a home and employment — a full-time job for her fiance. Proof, though she doesn’t say so, that she was right about just needing more time than the Child Protective Services caseworker would allow.

The family is also receiving some form of assistance from the state they’re now living in. This, I suppose, because Carey is still staying home to care for their child. “The smartest two year old I know!”

And they haven’t been dogged by the caseworker (or higher-ups), though she thinks the agency could find them now.

“It’s a slow process regaining all that was lost,” she writes. “But we lost nothing as long as we have each other…. With love and understanding … and the hard work put in, I’m sure our family will succeed.”

So we have indeed the better next chapter I hoped for and a heart-warming reminder of why I — and those who responded to the post — did.

Better chapter notwithstanding, Carey still feels that what happened to the family was “unjustifiable.” After all, people live outdoors in Alaska. “What’s camping for a month in the summer?”

“People don’t understand the unjust power those people [at CPS] have until it’s happened with their family,” she concludes. I’d like to think that’s not altogether true.

But we do need stories to grasp how injustices in our publicly-funded programs play out in the lives of real people — and to get us riled up enough to do something about them.


Homeless Couple on the Lam to Keep Child Out of Foster Care

August 6, 2015

Sometimes foster care is the only way to keep children safe. All we know, however — and we can know a lot — tells us it should be a last resort.

Yet a mother — let’s call her Carey — had to flee her home state to avoid losing her two-year-old to the child protective services agency, though her child suffered neither abuse nor neglect, she told me. And I’ve every reason to believe her.

Her story is in some ways not unique, but in other ways it is — as, of course, is everybody’s story. I’m going to try to tease out what’s not unique from the fabric of particulars she shared.

Carey, her toddler and her fiance — let’s call him Mike — never had a home of their own. They’d been living with her mother, but had to leave because she was moving to a place where she couldn’t house them. This is a fine — and hardly unique — instance of how unstable doubled-up situations usually are.

Carey and Mike decided to live in a tent at a campground because that was so much cheaper than staying in a motel. They thought they could save enough to cover the upfront costs of renting. And perhaps they could have, since he was working.

The campground had running water, bathrooms with showers and electricity (for an extra fee). The family had enough food, thanks to a combination of food stamps and Mike’s wages. Carey was around to care for her child 24/7.

Well, someone reported them to CPS, which sent out a caseworker, as it should have. The caseworker told the couple they’d have to move to housing within two weeks. The agency — or some other source — would pay the security deposit and first month’s rent.

The couple couldn’t find an affordable place within such a tight deadline. So they decided that Carey and the child would move in with Mike’s dad, while Mike stayed at the campground. This, they thought, would placate the caseworker while giving them more time to find an apartment. It didn’t. The caseworker insisted they all had to stay together and move to housing PDQ.

Another avenue opened up long about this time. Carey had applied for a federal Housing Choice voucher and learned she’d been approved.

A new deadline then — 60 days to sign a lease. But the couple couldn’t find a landlord who’d rent to them. The problem, Carey says, is that Mike has a criminal record — not for a recent offense, however, nor one that would clearly flag him as likely to harm other tenants or property.

But private landlords can generally screen out applicants with criminal records so long as they don’t target those protected by civil rights laws. Such data as we have indicate that many do.

Carey asked for an extension of the lease-up deadline. The housing authority’s protocol apparently included this option. But CPS wouldn’t let the couple continue the search while still caring for the child.

So to keep her, the family left the state for a place far away, where they could stay with Carey’s sister. “I was pushed out of my hometown,” Carey says. And the family’s situation is more precarious now.

Mark’s out of a job — and without a car because the one he had broke down en route. He’s got a work history, of course, but also a criminal record. And we know that’s a common screen-out factor.

Meanwhile, the caseworker was bound and determined to find the family. S/he issued threats through relatives — an Amber alert, an arrest warrant.

Carey feels unjustly hounded. “We are a good family in a bad situation,” she says. “My daughter is my life.” She’d be “traumatized to be taken from her mom and dad.” Children often are, the research tells us.

I couldn’t get the CPS side of the story, of course, but what Carey says seems credible. Surely CPS would have taken custody of the child forthwith if there were even inklings of imminent harm.

I’d like to think this story is a one-of-a-kind thing. Some singularly single-minded caseworker more intent on getting his/her way than on the child’s welfare.

Perhaps, though the risk of losing a child to foster care because of inadequate housing isn’t. So I think it’s worth asking what should have happened. We can look at this from two angles — finding housing and family protection.

From the first, someone — perhaps at the housing authority or the agency that administers homeless services — could have helped the couple find a low-cost apartment a landlord would rent to them. This might include actually talking with landlords or engaging faith-based organizations and other nonprofits to do that.

As part of its push to rapidly re-house more homeless families, the D.C. government has hired “navigators” to, among other things, negotiate with landlords so they’ll rent to those with poor credit and rental histories. Seem to me that criminal histories could be subject to negotiations of this sort too.

On a broader and more affirmative front, the local or state government could have prohibited landlords from discriminating on the basis of criminal records unless they could justify exclusions in particular cases.

Eighteen states, the District of Columbia and many more local governments have already taken this approach to give people with criminal records a fairer chance of employment. So far as I can tell, only one city has done the same for housing.

If any such help or legal protection were available to Carey and Mike, they obviously didn’t know it. Which brings me to the other angle. The couple should have had a lawyer — or a supervised budding lawyer.

They would, of course, have needed free services like those provided by legal aid societies, other nonprofits, law school clinics and attorneys in private practice who volunteer through a pro bono program.

Carey believes that she and Mike could have found a landlord to rent to them if they’d just been given more time. Knowing a fair number of lawyers, I’m quite confident that one could, at the very least, have gotten the caseworker to back off — or the agency to pull him/her off.

Expert legal help might also have made the housing search less challenging because Mike could perhaps have gotten his criminal record expunged, i.e., sealed from disclosure to landlords, as well as others.

So the story Carey told me could have ended very differently. One can only hope that the sequel better rewards the love, determination and resourcefulness that led to her and Mike’s exile.

 

 


Housing Vouchers Best Solution for Family Homelessness

July 30, 2015

Here in the District of Columbia — and elsewhere — we’ve had a lot of back-and-forth on rapid re-housing as a tool for ending homelessness. No one doubts that it ends homelessness for awhile, since participants get a short-term subsidy to help cover rent.

The issue is rather whether they can get their act together to the point they can pay full rent when their subsidies expire — generally, at the end of a year, though in some communities up to 18 months.

A study for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development suggests families often can’t — at least, not for very long.

The study was one of those controlled experiments. Researchers gave homeless families in twelve communities one of three types of housing assistance that moved them out of shelters. A fourth group got only the “usual care” the community offered, e.g., more time in the shelter, some supportive services.

Which form of assistance families got, if any had nothing to do with their past history or other characteristics that could affect their near-term prospects, e.g., parental employment, health.

The researchers then looked at how they were faring a year and a half later. Forty-seven percent of the rapidly re-housed reported they’d recently been homeless or living doubled up with friends or family members because they couldn’t afford rent on their own.

This is statistically no different from what families who’d gotten no housing aid reported. By contrast, only 22% of families who’d gotten regular indefinite-term housing vouchers had again been without a home of their own.

So in the simplest sense, the study, which is still ongoing, confirms what most advocates have long said. The best solution for family homelessness is affordable housing. Most wouldn’t be homeless if they just had enough help to pay rent.

Families may also benefit from services, but they generally don’t need what the researchers term “specialized homeless-specific psychosocial services” — an underlying assumption of at least some “usual care” and transitional housing programs.

The study, however, tells us more than this. Families secure in their housing because their vouchers didn’t have fixed end dates fared better on a range of well-being measures.

For example:

  • Fewer children in the securely-housed families had been placed in foster care or sent to live with a relative.
  • Fewer parents reported psychological distress or showed measurable signs of substance abuse.
  • Half as many experienced violence by an “intimate partner,” presumably what most of us refer to as domestic violence.
  • Fewer families suffered from food insecurity, i.e., couldn’t always afford enough for everyone to eat enough (or perhaps anything).

Turning — as of course, one must — to cost issues, we learn that housing vouchers were cheaper than either rapid re-housing or transitional housing.

These are direct costs only. Families with housing vouchers cost, on average, a tad more than those in rapid re-housing once the services they received because they sought them out are factored in — roughly $136.50 more per month.

Emergency shelter, plus “usual care” services cost far more. And interestingly, the services accounted for 63% of the total. Not a great ROI on that investment, it seems.

The president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness says it’s misleading to compare voucher costs to those of “crisis interventions.” This seems reasonable on its face because voucher costs were — and will be — ongoing.

And it’s just the sort of thing one would expect from the head of an organization that’s heavily invested in promoting rapid re-housing. But rapid re-housing has been sold as an effective strategy for ending homelessness, not a short-term solution, as she now says.

Followers may recall questions I raised about the rapid re-housing success rate that the District’s prime homeless services contractor reported — and the former head of the Department of Human Services cited.

That rate reflected only the percent of rapidly re-housed families that hadn’t again sought shelter through the District’s intake system, as Marta Berensin and other attorneys at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless have noted.

Most other reported success rates have a similar limit.

Things look quite different when we factor in families who started couch-surfing when their short-term housing subsidies expired — and others who became homeless, but didn’t return to the “system” that had failed to solve their problem before.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness and the District’s local equivalent envision a time when homelessness will be “rare, brief and non-recurring.” For some families, rapid re-housing may, by this definition, end homelessness.

But for most, subsidies that make housing affordable for the long term seem the answer — at least, among the options the HUD study assessed. Other measures to rebuild and preserve the dwindling stock of affordable housing belong in the mix too.

Because high housing costs, plus low wages and even lower publicly-funded benefits are the main problem, not personal “psychosocial” problems that need fixing.


Homeless Hard to Find, Hard to Help in Rural Areas

July 13, 2015

We who live in major urban areas have some awareness of homelessness in our midst, even if we’re not actively involved in related services or advocacy. Here in the District of Columbia, for example, we’re likely to see homeless people on the streets or huddled at Metro stations.

And we’ve got two daily newspapers that regularly report on homelessness, not to mention blogs (ahem). We can also know something about homelessness in other large urban areas. Fellow New York Times subscribers, for example, will frequently come upon relevant facts and figures, as well as personal profiles.

But what about homelessness in and around the small towns tucked up in the mountains and dotting the flatlands we see when we drive the interstates?

We know, I suppose, that there’s some desperate poverty there. But for most of us, that’s probably about it — even those who live in states with large or many rural areas.

The issue here isn’t just what we know, but what policymakers and government agencies know and what, assuming they care, they can do.

The Pew Charitable Trust’s Stateline takes up rural homelessness, which, it says, states struggle with. I’m not persuaded all do, though they surely should. Yet the challenges they face are formidable.

To begin with, it’s unusually hard to get a fix on how many homeless people live in rural areas. I’ve written before about flaws in the one-night counts that Continuums of Care must make as a condition of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants they coordinate.

But there are volunteers out there counting. And COCs in major metro areas don’t have all that much turf to cover. They also have an easier time because they have networks of shelters and, in some cases, transitional housing, i.e., limited-term housing with services.

They’re required to keep — and regularly report — data on homeless people in these, as well as others that projects within their ambit serve. So no one has to actually tour every shelter and transitional housing facility for the one-night count.

States allocate the homeless assistance funds they get from HUD based on population, Stateline says. So there are fewer COCs in rural communities. One may have responsibility for coordinating such programs and services as exist in a broad swath of their state.

And for the same reason, as well as others, homeless people are harder to find because the undercounts translate into under-funding for shelters and housing specifically for homeless people. Which, of course, translates into further undercounts.

Rural areas pose other challenges for homeless people and the organizations that could serve them — transportation, for example.

The nearest shelter may be many miles from the field where a homeless family is camping out. A public agency that could connect the family to a source of housing assistance or other benefits that would improve its financial situation may also be many miles away — and nowhere near the shelter.

Needless to say (I hope), no caseworkers can do outreach so extensive as to find them. The family may not know it could get help. It might need persuasion to seek it. Many homeless people in rural areas are ashamed, Stateline says, citing advocates.

Such shame is hardly unique to poor people in non-metro areas, but perhaps it’s more common. I can think of reasons why that might be, e.g., isolation, deeply-ingrained values like self-reliance.

Stateline highlights three state-level efforts to address rural homelessness. The two that are actually state initiatives focus — or focused — on increasing the stock of affordable housing. This, of course, is the prime solution advocated for homelessness generally.

Developing new affordable housing shouldn’t pose special problems in some rural areas. Fredricksburg, Virginia, for example, where Stateline found individuals to profile, is a small town only an hour or so drive from the state capital in one direction and the nation’s capital in another.

Out in the hinterlands, however, developers don’t have much interest in constructing housing, a rural expert at a national affordable housing advocacy nonprofit says. They’d face problems due to inadequate (or no) “municipal infrastructure,” e.g., sewers, water lines, roads their heavy equipment could traverse to sites.

Yet new affordable housing would have to be widely dispersed to help end homelessness among people living in our country’s vast farmlands.

Many homeless people are employed, Stateline says. Doubtful they’d move to gain affordable housing at the risk of having no work. This, I think, would be an extraordinarily high risk for farmworkers. Yet homeless many are — if not officially, then by any reasonable standard.

Some years ago, The New York Times reported eight migrant farmworkers spending nights in a single motel room. As many as a dozen packed into a trailer. These workers don’t qualify as homeless, according to the definition COCs must use.

Nor do somewhat better-off people in rural areas. They’ve got housing, but it’s very old — and in some cases, apparently not all that well-built to begin with. It’s in constant need of major repairs.

Eventually, it can become so dilapidated that people can’t live in it any more — and become homeless, the head of the National Low Income Housing Coalition says.

What’s true for homeowners is also true for farmworkers. A third of the housing for them is “either moderately or severely substandard,” e.g., without hot water, a functional heating system and/or a roof that keeps the rain out, the National Rural Housing Coalition reports.

Yet they’re in places meant for human habitation and so not homeless. Other farmworkers officially are. The New York Times reporter found some sleeping in garages, tool sheds, caves and in the fields.

In short, homelessness and egregiously inadequate housing are a problem in rural areas. Public agencies and nonprofits face some unique challenges there.

Neither our policies nor the related funding streams seem altogether suitable. And it’s doubtful they will be so long as the problem remains at best half-hidden. Remedies for that are a challenge in themselves.

Note: I’m indebted to friend and former guest blogger Matt McKillop, now a research officer at Pew, for alerting me to the Stateline article. I invite any and all of you to contribute grist for my mill. It would not only educate me, but let me know what you find interesting — something I ponder.

 


Homeless Youth Who’ve Beaten the Odds Speak Out

July 2, 2015

Such an enlightening — and in some ways, disturbing — panel discussion among homeless and formerly homeless youth.

There were ten of them, brought together by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, which had awarded them scholarships. So they were hardly a representative sample.

Not only had they graduated from high school, though homeless kids are 87% more likely to drop out. They’d gotten grades good enough to get them into college. And the upbeat invitation to the event suggests they were chosen not only for that, but for “resilience.”

Their stories were nonetheless worth hearing — and, I believe, sharing, though the best I can do is highlight major themes that emerged.

I hesitate to do even this because some of those themes play into the nastiest stereotypes of poor parents. And for the most part, they seem beyond the reach of policy solutions. However, ignorance is a bliss we shouldn’t enjoy. So without further ado ….

Shocking Cases of Abuse and Neglect

One might expect, I suppose, a story of how a child who was or became homeless suffered from neglect due to a parent’s depression, distraction by the daily challenges of poverty and/or the need to juggle multiple part-time jobs.

But we heard several stories of sexual abuse — by a mother’s boyfriend, by a father with whom the then-young child was forced to “nap” by her grandmother, who knew what was going on.

Stories also of violence in the home — a boyfriend who beat her mother “half to death,” a grown-up sister who beat her because she moped around after their mother’s death.

And we heard of egregious neglect — in one case, the result of substance abuse, in another severe mental illnesses, in a third an absent father ‘s belief that he had no responsibility for child support.

Now, not all parents were like that. One mother made sure her child was always clean for school, though that meant bathing in a river and washing his clothes there too. Parents of another panelist clearly shielded her from the reason they were living in a motel. “I didn’t know I was homeless,” she said, until the bedbugs attacked.

Lost Childhoods

“I was caretaker for my mother,” said the young woman whose mom was too afflicted with mental illnesses to care for her.

Virtually the same phrase from another panelist, whose mother often came home “shit-faced” drunk and vomiting. She’d clean her up and put her to bed. “I was the mother…. I feel I never had a childhood,” she said.

Still another visited food pantries, took a job at fifteen and a second at sixteen to earn money for food because her father wouldn’t apply for government benefits. “I was so tired,” she said. But “I had to worry. They are my family too.”

Hardships From Doubling Up

Most of the panelists were never homeless, according to the definition most of our data reflect. In other words, they hadn’t lived in a shelter, transitional housing or on the streets. The majority, as one said, had “bounced around.”

Some of those doubled-up situations were unsafe. Recall the grandmother. Another panelist referred to “sleazy relatives” he and his family had to rely on for a place to stay.

The bouncing around itself caused problems, both academic and emotional. “The biggest hardship,” one panelist said, “was going to eight elementary schools, four in the second grade.” So lessons repeated and others missed.

Another panelist had great difficulties gaining admission to a new school because the family couldn’t prove residency. He — now an aspiring lawyer — finally prevailed, but he lost months of school in the interim.

At the same time, the doubled-up arrangements apparently fostered a sense of insecurity. “You have a roof over your head,” a panelist said. “But it’s not yours. You can get kicked out at any time.” “You never know what you have till it’s gone — peace of mind,” said another.

School a Respite From Troubles

We’ve got scholarship winners here. So it’s not surprising that they viewed school as their “ticket out,” as one put it. What struck me more was how many spoke of school as a counterbalance to the rest of their lives.

It “was pretty much the only stability I had,” one panelist said. “I would go to not think about homelessness…. I’d work hard because it was the only control I had.” “Breakfast and lunch were a guarantee,” another said. “I felt safe.”

Still another spoke of the structure and support provided by extra-curricular activities — sports and the school band, in her case. “There were rules, times and community.”

Now, school wasn’t an altogether welcoming place for all the panelists. One, for example, was sometimes turned away because she wasn’t wearing a uniform. Or she was chastised because it wasn’t clean. “We didn’t have money for a laundromat,” she explained. And apparently no one at the school had bothered to find this out.

What Helps

The panel discussion was held in the Capitol building — obviously to relay messages to members of Congress. None was there. Nor expected, I think. But junior staffers packed the room. One asked what Congress could do.

Panelists didn’t have much of an answer, though several mentioned increased funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

That could mean, among other things, more money for homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, i.e., temporary rental assistance, and permanent supportive housing — seemingly the right solution for several panelists’ families.

It could also mean more money for the homeless liaisons that schools districts are supposed to have — enough so they’d have the time, training and resources to do what the law envisions.

Homeless students could then get consistent, appropriate help with enrollment. More already enrolled might be identified. And they’d get what they need for equal educational opportunity, e.g., school supplies, transportation, tutoring, links to healthcare and other services, perhaps even access to a washing machine.

Panelists provided a fuller answer when asked what had helped them personally. After-school programs, as I’ve already mentioned. Nonprofits that offer not only some of these programs, but others. And through them –but not them only –ongoing relationships with responsible, caring adults.

You can see, I think, why I flag these. “I don’t trust people,” one panelist said. But someone was always there for her, “not lying, not leaving.” And eventually she accepted help that gave her safety and stability — and enough trust to share her hurts with strangers.

 


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.

 


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