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.

 


Free Legal Services a Powerful Tool for Preventing Homelessness

November 19, 2015

This is National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week. I don’t suppose anyone who lives in a major metro area needs a special week to become aware of homeless people.

Here in the District of Columbia, we see them on the streets every day. And we know (or should) that we see only a relative few of the thousands who don’t have a home of their own.

The District has taken a leaf out of the strategic plan produced by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness — the goal of ending homelessness by 2020.

Or rather, it’s adopted and expanded the goal, since the nationwide plan merely “set[s] a path” for ending homelessness among adults who don’t have children in their care. The District instead aims to have homelessness be “rare, brief, and non-recurring” for all residents.

Though the goal is broader, the meaning of ending homelessness is the same. The plans recognize that some people will, at some point, have no place to live except a shelter. But optimally, they’ll be re-housed swiftly. And a relative few will need re-housing again.

Making homelessness rare and nonrecurring implies prevention. Significantly increasing the stock of housing that’s affordable for low-income residents — especially the very lowest-income — is a big part of that.

But the District has other preventive resources too. Its plan refers to emergency rental assistance, for example — one-time cash equivalent aid for certain types of people who’ve fallen behind on their rent or will if they can’t move to a cheaper place.

Beyond that, its plan focuses on several other groups at especially high risk of immediate homelessness. It envisions “prioritizing housing resources” to individuals whose mental health and/or substance abuse problems put them at greatest risk.

And it refers to plans that will help people who haven’t had to cope with housing before or for quite awhile, i.e., youth who are reaching the maximum age for foster care and people who’ll soon be released from jail, prison or the youth equivalent thereof.

Another form of assistance can prevent homelessness — free legal aid for individuals and families facing eviction or impermissible rent increases that could pave the way.

It also prevents them from having to leave their homes, with no place to go because landlords have so egregiously neglected repairs. And let’s not forget help in securing public benefits that can help pay rent.

The District has an impressive number of nonprofits that low-income residents at risk of homelessness for such reasons can turn to. And private law firms provide substantial pro bono services, both directly to individuals and as partners with nonprofits.

It’s still the case that many low-income residents stand before a judge alone and unprepared. Judges are not only aware of this, but deeply concerned.

Last year, the Chief Judge of the District Court of Appeals testified that he and his colleagues view “the growing number of litigants who are forced to seek justice without benefit of counsel” as “the principal barrier to ensuring equal access to justice.”

This is an old story. And it’s hardly unique to the District. The Legal Services Corporation, which awards grants to nonprofits that provide free legal aid, has lost federal funding — at least in real dollars — since 1981.

And restrictions Congress has imposed on what grantees can do has limited their effectiveness, prompting some nonprofits, including the D.C. Legal Aid Society to forgo the funds.

The recession has shrunk funding for nonprofit legal services too. States cut their share of funding to balance their budgets with shrunken tax revenues.

At the same time, Interest On Lawyer Trust Accounts — another source of funding for free legal services — plummeted as banks cut their interest rates in response to the Federal Reserve’s near-zero lending rate. Doubtful the recovery has spread to IOLTA, since the Fed hasn’t yet changed its policy.

We don’t, so far as I know, have current data on what LCS has termed “the justice gap.” A study it conducted about 10 years ago indicated that fewer than one in five low-income people with legal problems of a non-criminal sort had any assistance from a lawyer.

LCS-funded programs themselves turned away an estimated two-thirds of people who sought help with housing problems — the second most common type of help requested.

A District-specific report issued in 2009 warned of increasing recession-related needs for legal aid, including a rash of foreclosures. At the same time, legal services programs here had lost, on average, 25% of their funding, not counting a recent cut the District had made.

LCS funding is up in the air. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved a $10 million increase — hardly enough to restore prior cuts. The full House has voted to slash the Corporation’s funding by $75 million.

The outcome will have an impact on the Neighborhood Legal Services Program — one of the District’s major sources of free legal assistance in housing cases. Local funding for District programs has inched up over the last five years. But it’s still only about $5 million — not all of it, for good and proper reasons, for services that can prevent homelessness.

One understands why strategic plans to end homelessness don’t mention free professional legal services — and thus why they’re not included in related budget proposals.

The collaborating agencies — and in the District’s case, community organizations that have a role in housing placements — don’t want to alienate landlords, since progress toward ending homelessness hinges in part on what they choose to do (and not).

Nor, one supposes, do the agencies cotton to the notion of acknowledging that the nonprofits and pro bono partners that challenge them are preventing — or foreshortening — homelessness.

But we who aren’t so constrained can do so — and advocate for them, as we should even if homelessness were ended.


What’s at Stake in the Debate Over Bathrooms for Homeless DC Families?

November 2, 2015

As I’ve written before — and as you who live in the District of Columbia have probably read elsewhere — we’re debating accommodations for families in the new, smaller shelters that will replace DC General, where many are temporarily (and horribly) housed now.

Upcoming votes on an amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act will determine whether the Bowser administration can, as it wishes, contract for new shelters that provide most families with only a private room, like what they’ve got at DC General.*

As things have played out, the hottest issue is whether all but a few — selected we don’t know how — will have to trundle down a hall, day or night, parents and children always together, to a bathroom shared with whoever happens to have a room on the same floor.

How We Came to This Pretty Pass

The HSRA requires apartment-style units in the new shelters — separate bedrooms for parents and children, bathrooms and “cooking facilities” for the family only. The Bowser administration contends that’s too costly. So it wants the law amended to permit what’s essentially a dormitory-style design.

Advocates would like all families to have apartment-style units — as would we if we became homeless and had children in our care. But they’ve tried to forge some compromise.

The Mayor kicked the issue to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, telling it to establish a special committee for shelter design guidelines and setting a very tight deadline for “feedback” — only three weeks from the date of her order.

The committee dutifully produced a report. “Bathrooms were the largest source of concern for stakeholders,” it said. No firm recommendations, but options and how members voted.

Many, it seems, were convinced that providing private bathrooms for all families would delay the process of closing DC General, as the Bowser administration claims. But only two of the eighteen members supported its plan to have just one unit with a private bathroom per floor.

What Homeless Families Say

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, with cooperation from the refreshingly collaborative Department of Human Services, recently did what the Bowser administration arguably should have done early on. It asked families the District is sheltering which features they thought shelters should have.

The report it’s produced includes interesting numerical results. Families have somewhat different views on critical features — both generally and according to the length of time a family would have to remain in a shelter before it found housing, with or without help from DHS.

Large majorities of families said shelters had to have private bathrooms, with showers — 77% no matter how short the stay and a somewhat higher percent for stays as long as a year. Only one family surveyed considered a bathroom shared with four or more families acceptable.

The figures seem to me telling. But the personal stories Clinic staff heard are downright compelling.

A mother who was taking a medication that caused her to have to go several times a night, which meant she had to wake her children and take them with her because parents in shelters aren’t allowed to leave their children untended — even if briefly and in their rooms.

Another mom who somehow dressed her young children “in the air” because the bathroom floor was filthy. Still another who couldn’t toilet train her toddler because the communal bathroom terrified him.

And parents with children of the opposite sex constantly forced to choose between bad options inherent in the nature of communal bathrooms, even the cleanest. For example, a mother with a twelve-year-old son who didn’t want him going to the men’s room alone, but couldn’t see taking him into the women’s room either.

The Lesson and the Issue

The debate over bathrooms, kitchenettes and the like has larger implications for how we, through our elected officials, make choices that will affect the lives of community members, especially those who’ve got no choice but to live with them. Likewise, how we, as advocates, choose our causes.

The lesson is to ask the real experts — the people who’ve experienced the programs and services we provide (or don’t) for the poor and near-poor among us. And then to listen with open minds to what they say and take account of it in decision-making.

The debate also raises a much broader issue than shelter features and other conditions — specifically, whether we will offer programs and services that would meet our needs, decently and respectfully, if we should fall on hard times.

This apparently is how Council Chairman Mendelson sees the shelter design issue — up to a point. It “boils down to cost vs. ‘general dignity,'” the Washington Post reports his saying. But also that he hasn’t decided where he’ll net out.

The Legal Clinic contends that private bathrooms wouldn’t cost so much as to rule them out. Figures supplied by the Council’s Budget Director indicate that the square footage required would actually be somewhat less than for communal bathrooms — thus, one infers, also the cost of land to build on and/or buildings to renovate.

But the Clinic makes a more important point. The Mayor recently asked the Council to approve her plan for reallocating $60 million — mostly funds agencies didn’t spend last fiscal year.

Earlier figures DHS presented indicate that this would more than cover the additional cost of apartment-style units for all families in the new shelters. But the plan doesn’t put a penny more into even bathrooms.

So it’s not truly cost versus dignity. It’s rather the value the administration places on a modicum of dignity in living conditions for homeless families versus other projects, e.g., a nice park at an elementary school in a well-off part of town, economic development of some sort in one of the best-off.

This is the basic value question Councilmembers will face when they vote on the HSRA amendment.

* A vote on the amendment is scheduled for Tuesday, November 3. The Council will have to vote on it again, as it must for most legislation.


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