DC Attorneys Oppose Legal Services Cut, But Some Don’t Want To Chip In

May 15, 2010

Yesterday’s Washington Post reports on a breakfast meeting DC Councilmember Michael Brown hosted to discuss the proposed new income tax brackets with residents who would be affected. Also to give them a clearer view of what the tax reform would mean for them personally.

Another aim, it seems, was to test the notion that wealthy residents would flee to the suburbs if their taxes increases. The Post article indicates that some of Brown’s guests debunked it. But “younger residents–mostly attorneys–were opposed” to the tax increase.

Meanwhile, more than half the practice sessions of the D.C. Bar have issued a public statement calling on the Council to reject the proposed cut in funding for the Access to Justice Program.

This is the program that provides free legal services for low-income District residents. It also supports a bank of interpreters for those who aren’t fluent in English and/or have a hearing disability. And it helps attorneys employed by nonprofit legal services organizations pay off their student loans, thus enabling them to work for relatively little pay.

Mayor Fenty has proposed a $1.8 million cut for the program–this on top of the $700,000 cut for the current fiscal year. Together, these would leave the program with only half the D.C. funds it had in 2009.

As I’ve written before, local legal services organizations have been hard hit by reduced funding from other sources. They’ve cut back on both full-time attorneys and staff that support the quantity and quality of legal services they provide. This at a time when even more people need their help.

So the attorneys in a broad spectrum of the D.C. Bar sections understandably want at least level-funding for the Access to Justice Program. Where do the attorneys who oppose a tax increase think the money’s going to come from?

Or maybe I’m seeing a paradox where none exists. Perhaps the up-and-comers at Brown’s breakfast voted against the Bar’s statement, feeling that a couple of hundred dollars of their handsome incomes were more important than equal access to justice.

Fortunately, there are partners at a number of our biggest law firms who are ready to invest in D.C. If you’re a lawyer, you can join your voice to theirs.

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Revised Winter Shelter Plan Still Iffy For Homeless DC Families

October 3, 2009

The Interagency Council on Homelessness met last month to consider the District’s plan for sheltering homeless individuals and families during the winter months ahead. The plan before the Council indicated considerably more shelter capacity for families than the draft I wrote about awhile ago.

What we see now proposes a total of 228 family shelter units, plus 73 new units of permanent supportive housing. Of the shelter units, 128 are open year round. (These weren’t reflected in the prior draft.) An additional 75 units are designated as winter-only, and up to 25 more would open if these were full.

Last year, the plan says, a total of 210 family units were available during the hypothermia season. The District’s 2009 homeless count report says there were 237 units. So capacity for the upcoming season would be increased by either 30% or 21%. That’s a lot, by either measure. Is it enough? Who knows?

What we do know is that:

  • As many as 37 of the family units the plan designates as winter-only have been used this summer because all the year-round units have been full. So they’re not all really additional seasonal capacity, as the winter plan says.
  • All family units currently available have been full virtually every night since at least the beginning of September.
  • As of the latest published report, there were 382 families on the shelter waiting list–81 more than the total number of shelter units, plus PSH units in the winter plan.
  • Only 16 more PSH units are scheduled to open before November. The remainder included in the winter plan are already occupied and thus not additional space.
  • The Fenty administration has just cut the homeless services budget by $20 million. Advocates say that families now in emergency shelter units included in the winter plan are at immediate risk of eviction.

The committee charged with developing the winter plan faces a difficult challenge. One truly can’t know how many homeless people will need shelter on any given night. But for individual men and women, the committee projected need as 110% of the maximum number of beds used last winter.

I’ve been told the same can’t be done for families. I’ve tried hard to find out why. One reason, it seems, is that the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, which handles intake and placement for all homeless D.C. families, sends some to accommodations that aren’t part of the daily reports used for the winter plan. I gather they’re not in these reports because the providers serve only certain types of homeless families, e.g., victims of domestic violence. Why figures from the FRC records couldn’t be used to project need is an open question.

A further stumbling block for the winter plan is the District’s intent to make better use of transitional housing. But there’s no plan that indicates how many families could be diverted from the shelter system, in part because transitional housing providers have various eligibility requirements. And the new homeless services budget cut may impact them too.

The District also expects to ramp up its services to prevent homelessness, thanks to the $7.4 million for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing that  it received under the federal economic recovery act. But here again, no numbers to indicate how this will affect needs for emergency shelter.

ICH didn’t adopt the proposed winter plan, as expected. A majority of advocates on the Council wouldn’t vote for it–for reasons having nothing to do with the family numbers. The City Administrator, Neal Albert, and Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, were clearly frustrated.

Carter kept repeating that what really matters is the administration’s commitment to protect homeless people from cold weather. If there’s not enough capacity, he said, “we’ll bring more on.” Let’s assume that’s true, notwithstanding the huge budget cut.

We’re still left with a serious issue about the projections that will be used for the winter plan. After all, the District won’t be able to contract for more family shelter space overnight.

And if a mere assurance that the administration will fulfill its legal obligations is good enough, then what do we need a winter plan–or a multi-stakeholder Council–for anyway?