Next Round In the DC Homeless Services Crisis

October 13, 2009

This Wednesday at noon, the DC Council Committee on Human Services will hold a roundtable hearing on the District’s winter plan. Or at least that’s the formal topic for the hearing. The dialogue will undoubtedly be broader because, at this point, what’s at stake is the longer-term future of homeless services in D.C.

Since the hearing was scheduled:

  • Homeless service providers have been told that their contracts will be reduced by an average of 30%. Five shelter providers have warned that their clients are at immediate risk. One has said her organization will have to close a housing program for families.
  • Interested parties have locked horns on the size of the homeless services budget cut. We’ve now learned that it’s apparently somewhat over $12 million. Most of this cut represents funds in the federal block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These were formerly used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation but have been diverted to other programs.
  • Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, has issued a statement committing only to funding for the shelter capacity and other services identified in the winter plan, capped at the Fiscal Year 2009 level. No assurance that any funds will be available for the rest of the year.
  • Some Councilmembers, including Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, have expressed dismay at this turn of events.

So the hearing promises to be lively and potentially consequential.

A coalition of homeless service providers, advocates and homeless people has scheduled a press conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, at 11:00 a.m. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about what’s happening and likely to happen if the Council or administration higher-ups don’t step in to restore the homeless services budget.

You can influence the outcome of this crisis by calling or e-mailing Mayor Fenty, the City Administrator and members of the Human Services Committee. Contact information for committee members is in the Council directory.

Also attend the press conference and/or hearing if you can. A big turnout will show Councilmembers that their constituents care about the safety and well-being of their homeless neighbors.


No Clear Answers on DC Shelter Cutbacks

October 7, 2009

Last Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the Fenty administration had cut funding for homeless services by $20 million. The source for that figure was Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee. He says the cuts took him by surprise–that the budget he asked the Council to vote on included no cuts in homeless services.

That takes me by surprise. The expenditure reductions table that blogger and budget “insider” Susie Cambria got from reliable sources certainly indicates cuts for homeless services, though nowhere near $20 million.

In any event, Wells changed the agenda for a scheduled hearing so that he could look into the issue. As the Post reports, Clarence Carter, head of the Department of Human Services, testified that Wells was “dead wrong.” The actual cut was more like $900,000.

Moreover, he said, funding for the Community Partnership for Homelessness Prevention, which manages homeless services for the District, is about the same as last year’s, though he also referred to a budget reduction of $11.5 million. Wells and homeless advocates insisted the cut was larger–about 30%.

One would think the amount of funding available for homeless services would be beyond dispute. But the Budget Request Act–the appropriations the Council approved–has no separate line item for homeless services. So DHS can allocate funding for these services as it sees fit and move money around in response to changing priorities and pressures.

Whatever the figure, a fact sheet issued by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says that at least five emergency shelter and transitional housing providers were notified on September 28 that their contracts would be cut by an average of 30%, effective October 1. This much apparently is not in dispute.

We’re given to understand that a lot of people who now have shelter will be out on the streets unless the mandated cuts are rescinded. And we know there are now 385 families on the waiting list for shelter or other housing.

The official start of the hypothermia season is just weeks away. And the winter plan, which is supposed to be a blueprint for how the District will provide shelter for every individual and family who needs protection from the cold, assumes more capacity than apparently will be available.

So we obviously have a crisis–and, what’s worse, no clear view of its dimensions or potential solutions. The roots of the problem go back to the over-broad budget allocation and what certainly seems to be a lack of transparency on the part of the Fenty administration.

Whatever Carter told the Community Partnership and/or the providers, he testified that his department had the funds to cope as recently as mid-July. And he said not a word to the contrary when the Interagency Council on Homelessness met in early September.

But I’d be sorry to see all the blame heaped on DHS. After all, the Council voted to cut the department’s budget. What did they expect? That somehow homeless and other poor people wouldn’t be hurt?

CORRECTION: The version of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget submitted for Congressional approval on September 28 has a separate line item for homeless services. The budget was restructured this year to put these in the family services account.

DC Cuts Back On Emergency Shelter Space

April 13, 2009

Every year, the District contracts for extra emergency shelter space during the hypothermia season. The idea here is to provide more beds for the extra-cold nights when people who ordinarily sleep outdoors seek refuge or are taken to shelters by rescue teams.

The contracts for extra bed space expired on March 31, as they do every year, when the hypothermia season officially ends. (Mother Nature apparently doesn’t respect this timeframe. I understand a hypothermia alert was called on April 7.)

Still, the cutback in bed space would make sense if the shelters were–and could be expected to remain–below capacity. Why pay for beds that aren’t needed? But they are.

On March 31, the shelter summary reports produced by the Community Partnership for Homeless Prevention show that the shelters for women were just about full, and the shelters for families were slightly over capacity. We don’t know how many families were turned away because the shelters just couldn’t cram them in.

What we do know, thanks to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, is that on April 1 at least 355 D.C. residents had no place to stay. A week later, on the hypothermia night, shelters for men, as well as women and families, were over capacity. And, again, we don’t know how many people were turned away.

The District hasn’t eliminated the winter-only space for families yet, but says it will do so soon. It seems not to understand that these aren’t ordinary times–perhaps especially for families.

Preliminary data from the D.C. Metro area homeless count show a 15% increase in homeless people in families since last year. That’s 5,098 parents and children. We’ll need to wait till next month to find out how many of them were in D.C. Last year, it was about 40% of the total for the region–587 families.

Since then, the unemployment rate has risen. Comments by the city’s Chief Financial Officer suggest he expects it to go even higher. Foreclosures are still leaving renters, as well as homeowners, with no place to live. About 26,000 families are already on the waiting list for affordable housing, and the proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget won’t support any more housing vouchers.

Given all this, it seems reasonable to assume that the 128 family shelter units that will still be available after the seasonal cutback won’t meet the need. Indeed, as recently as last Friday, D.C. General, where the family units will close, was four families over capacity.

Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless urges us to raise concerns with the Mayor and Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the Human Services Committee. The number for the Mayor’s call center is 202-727-2980. His e-mail address is Contact information for Councilmember Wells is on his website.

We’re likely to be told that money is tight. No question about that. But surely leaving homeless people on the street is no way to balance the budget.