A Chance To Count

January 13, 2010

Those of you who follow this blog know that I’m not a fan of the annual homeless counts that will soon be conducted. The main problem is that they’re structured to exclude large categories of homeless people. So we get a tip-of-the-iceberg view of the crisis.

Still, they’re often the only source of figures we’ve got. And so long as the definitions and methods stay constant, we can see trends over time.

The counts are important for another reason. Communities must do them to receive funds under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care programs. These support new supportive housing development, expansion of single-room occupancy units and housing and services for homeless people with disabilities and their families.

A quick Google search indicates that numerous government agencies and nonprofits are looking for volunteers to help with this year’s counts. Here in the District, the Department of Mental Health has put out a call–not online, alas.

This year’s local homeless count will be especially important because the Fenty administration still hasn’t come up with funds to support homeless services past March 31. Knowing how many people are in shelters, transitional housing and on the streets while funds are flowing will give us one measure of how bad things will be if the administration–or the City Council–doesn’t come through.

So here’s an opportunity to make a difference on an urgent issue–and learn something in the process.

You’ll need to be ready and willing to go out to places where homeless people take refuge on January 27 between 9:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Before then, you’ll need to participate in a training program. You’ll have three options for this–one daytime and two early evening.

You can sign up to help count in about a minute. Details about the training will follow.


Federal Funding For DC Homeless Housing Program At Risk

November 4, 2009

President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget included $19.2 million for the District of Columbia’s permanent supportive housing program. Whether the District actually gets this funding hinges on what happens in the Senate.

The House of Representatives adopted the President’s recommendation in its version of the Financial Services and General Administration Appropriations Act–the bill that includes federal funding for the District. The Senate Appropriation’s Committee didn’t.

I’ve been told that the appropriations bill will be folded into a more comprehensive bill comprising all the appropriations that the Congress hasn’t already sent to the President. So the hope now is that leaders of the House subcommittee for the District’s appropriation insist on the provision and their Senate counterparts agree.

SOME (So Others Might Eat) has posted a letter we can e-mail to urge these leaders to agree to the $19.2 million. It’s a quick, easy way to join our voices to those of PSH providers, their clients, advocacy organizations and other concerned citizens.

The funding would enable the District to move forward with its efforts to transition from an emergency shelter-based system to a system that provides long-term affordable housing and an array of services to those in greatest need–individuals and families who’ve been homeless for a long time or repeatedly over the years. Without the funding, the program will stall because its local funding was cut to help balance the D.C. budget.

The permanent supportive housing model is widely viewed as a cost-effective approach to helping homeless people who face complex challenges, e.g., very low (or no) income, mental illness, substance abuse, etc. The theory is that once they’re in a safe, stable environment, they’re more receptive to services that help them regain control over their lives and greater self-sufficiency. And, of course, it’s easier to coordinate these services and deliver them for however long needed.

The District has already moved more than 500 individuals and 70 families off the streets and out of emergency shelters into permanent supportive housing. The Department of Human Services says that the $19.2 million would allow it to extend the program to 400 more individuals and 150 more families. As in other communities, the investment should pay off in reduced shelter, medical care and other safety net costs.

It’s no substitute for urgently-needed funding for other homeless services. But it would reduce pressure on these services and offer chronically homeless people a better chance for a better life.

Congress Approves Free Suppers For Poor DC Children

October 9, 2009

A piece of good news in the midst of so much doom and gloom. The just-passed final version of the Fiscal Year 2010 Agriculture Appropriations bill makes the District of Columbia eligible for federally-subsidized suppers for low-income children in after-school programs.

As I wrote awhile ago, D.C. was added to the eligibility list in the bill the House of Representatives passed. But it was dropped in favor of Wisconsin in the bill passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee–maybe, just maybe because the chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Committee represents Wisconsin.

The version the House and Senate agreed to includes both D.C. and Wisconsin, plus Nevada and Connecticut, which was also in the House bill and is, not coincidentally the home state of the chair of the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

In view of the politics here, a lot of credit goes to our non-voting representative in the House and to D.C. Hunger Solutions, which worked hard behind the scenes to get the District’s need for free suppers on the radar screen.

What the Director of D.C. Hunger Solutions says is true not only for D.C. families, but for families nationwide. Parents who are working extra-long or non-traditional hours or struggling to get into (or back into) the workforce need extended after-school care for their children. These children need more than a snack, even if their parents have the time and resources to serve a nutritious evening meal at home. And many don’t.

So, at the risk of sounding ungrateful, I hope Congress will go on to consider the unmet needs of poor children in the 37 states that still aren’t eligible for the subsidized supper program.

That’s only part of the unfinished agenda. Congress needs to change the program eligibility requirements because poor children can’t get even a subsidized snack, let alone supper, in an after-school program, except one operated by a school, unless they happen to live in an area where at least 50% of school-age children are poor. That may not be much of a problem in D.C., but it certainly is elsewhere.

And surely Congress should do something about the reimbursement rates too. Hard to see how an after-school program can serve tasty, nutritious suppers when the maximum reimbursement rate is, as for lunches, just $2.85 per meal.

What Do We Mean By Affordable Housing?

June 1, 2009

It’s come to me that my recent posting on President Obama’s affordable housing budget skirted the heart of the issue: What do we mean by affordable housing?

When I talk about affordable housing I generally mean housing that’s affordable for poor people. These are the people that federal housing programs classify as “extremely low-income”–those with household incomes at or below 30% of area median income.

But there are also “very low-income” households–those with incomes at or below 50% of the AMI. And then there are just plain low-income households, whose incomes can be as high as 80% of AMI.

There’s obviously a wide spread here. To illustrate, in the District of Columbia, an extremely low-income family of three has an annual income not exceeding $27,700. The maximum for a low-income family of three is more than twice that–$57,600.

Affordable housing programs can be exclusively for extremely and very low-income people. Housing Choice vouchers, for example, are only for them, and 75% of the vouchers must go to the former.

But affordable housing programs also extend to just plain low-income people. For example, homeownership assistance under HOME Investment Partnerships grants is available to anyone with an income no greater than 80% of AMI.

And then there are programs folded into the dialogue that are intended to make home ownership more affordable for moderate, as well as low-income households–FHA home loans, for example.

So it’s easy to see that policymakers and advocates can be talking at cross purposes. We’re all for affordable housing. But affordable for whom?

The National Low Income Housing Coalition has addressed this issue by spearheading an open letter to Congress and the Administration. “What we mean by housing,” it says, “is enough homes renting at affordable rates so that our nation’s lowest income families and individuals are assured of safe and decent places to live.”

That will require funding commitments that are not in the Fiscal Year 2010 budget. But I think I understand how the Administration can claim leadership on affordable housing anyway.

What’s In the President’s Budget for Affordable Housing?

May 11, 2009

A couple of months ago, I noted that affordable housing wasn’t on President Obama’s reform agenda. His just-released budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development confirms this in dollars and cents.

True, the budget proposes $1 billion to put the Housing Trust Fund in business. This first-time infusion of funds would help finance the development, rehabilitation and preservation of affordable housing for low-income families.

Proponents have estimated that the proposed appropriation would support the construction of about 10,000 units or the rehabilitation of a somewhat larger number. The initial goal of the Trust Fund was 1.5 million units over 10 years.

The HOME Investment Partnerships Program also supports activities that increase the stock of affordable housing. It provides grants to state and local governments that they can use to help fund the purchase, construction or rehabilitation of affordable housing and/or direct rental assistance.

The proposed HOME appropriation for Fiscal Year 2010 is $1.8 billion. This apparently would allow HUD to spend an estimated $684,000 more than in the current fiscal year.

The HUD budget says that the FY 2010 funding for HOME “is estimated to result over time in the production of almost 78,000 units of affordable housing,” plus an expected 17,000 plus units made affordable by tenant-based rental assistance.

If you crunch the numbers, it’s pretty clear that most of the funding for these units would have to come from other sources. And, of course, “over time” implies that the units won’t be available next year or maybe even the year after. No guarantee that any will be affordable for the neediest families.

So let’s look at programs that could deliver immediate relief to low-income people. The biggest is Housing Choice. This is the program that funds tenant-based vouchers–the kind that enables low-income individuals and families to rent apartments at market rates.

For FY 2010, the administration proposes $17.8 billion for Housing Choice. This, it says, will support all the vouchers effective as of the end of FY 2009. Apparently no funding here for more tenant-based vouchers in FY 2010.

Steady state is also the word for project-based rental assistance–contracts between HUD and private owners to provide affordable housing for low-income families. The proposed FY 2010 would cover the renewal of all existing contracts. Period.

There are two big reasons why more rental assistance is needed.

  • Large numbers of households are paying far more for rent than they can afford. As I recently wrote, figures from the National Low Income Housing Coalition show that this was a major problem even before the economy went into a free fall.
  • Many more households need–or will soon need–housing assistance. A jobs update from the Economic Policy Institute presents a dire picture of the unemployment situation. EPI doesn’t foresee a return to the pre-recession level any time soon. And look at the prospects for unemployed people who do find jobs. Even before the recession began, only 45% of those who’d been in their previous jobs for at least three years were earning as much as they did before.

“Over time” investments in affordable housing development will make a difference–even, I suppose, a modest $1 billion or so from the fed. But low-income households that have been paying 80% or more for rent can’t wait. Households that have plunged into the low (or no)-income category can’t wait.

HUD’s summary says that the FY 2010 budget “will restore federal leadership on promoting affordable rental housing.” I say, show me the money.

What’s In the Proposed DC Budget

April 6, 2009

DC Fiscal Policy Institute has once again stepped up to make the DC budget transparent. At last, we can find out exactly what the Mayor proposes to spend next year and how he plans to pay for it.

The just-posted DCFPI budget toolkit includes a summary of the entire proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget, plus more detailed analyses for a range of key issues that affect homeless and other low-income District residents. And that’s only part of it. There are also links to key budget documents, backgrounders on the budget gap, a spreadsheet that tracks funding for major budget areas since 2004 and more.

As my recent rant suggests, I’ve looked forward to the toolkit to shed light on prospects for critical safety net programs. I know other advocates have too. But the toolkit isn’t just for those who advocate on a regular basis. It’s for all D.C. residents who care how our tax dollars are spent–and what those taxes may be.

So check out the toolkit. Then think about weighing in as the City Council shapes the final budget. DCFPI provides a timeline, hearing schedule and tips from other groups to help you do this.

For a quick and easy way to get involved, you can join the So Others Might Eat Advocacy Network. You’ll receive alerts at key moments in the decision-making process and suggested messages you can send with just a few keystrokes and a mouse click.

DC Council Committee Questions TANF Budget Proposal

April 2, 2009

Bread for the City has an interesting blog posting on the recent City Council Human Services Committee hearing on the proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.

As the Bread posting indicates, Councilmember Wells expressed concern that the Fenty administration isn’t proposing an increase in TANF cash assistance benefits. The current maximum benefit for a family of three is just $428 per month–the same as it was two years ago. Wells seems to think it’s time for an increase, since the Council “proposed … to hold off on,” i.e., eliminated, the increase it approved for this fiscal year.

However, Clarence Carter, the Director of the Department of Human Services, says that his agency prefers to focus on “growing [families’] capacity beyond their need”–in other words, job-related training, plus “connections” to other “goods and services.”

Wells doesn’t think this is a substitute for an increase, especially now, when jobs are so scarce. So perhaps there’s hope for struggling TANF families.

The Fair Budget Coalition has recommended a $2.7 million increase for the TANF program. This would fund a very modest (Carter calls it “meager”) increase in cash benefits–an average of $19 per month for a family of three. Both Wells and the FBC members who testified referred to it as a “cost of living increase.”

And I guess it is in a sense. The cost of living has gone up and so would the benefit. But let’s be clear about one thing. The recommended increase wouldn’t give TANF participants as much purchasing power as they had last year.

Look at the cost of living adjustment for Social Security benefits. This COLA reflects the past year’s average quarterly increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers–the same index that a number of states use to adjust their minimum wage rates for inflation. For calendar year 2009, which spans part of the District’s Fiscal Year 2010, the COLA is 5.8%.

If the FBC recommendation is adopted, the TANF benefit for the family of three will increase, on average, by 4.3%. So the family would still lose purchasing power, though less than under the Mayor’s proposal.

To understand what’s at stake here, we need to consider that, even with the increase, a family of three that depends solely on TANF for cash income will be at just 35.5% of the federal poverty level. And that is very poor indeed.

In fact, figures in the FBC FY 2010 budget report indicate that the extra $19 would give the family about 10.5% of what it needs for the basic costs of living in D.C.

Growing capacity is a fine thing. But how can a person focus on developing job-related capacities and/or looking for a job when so much time and energy must be spent on the challenges of day-to-day survival. I’d like to see Mr. Carter try it.