A Better Winter Plan for Homeless DC Families … At Last

September 10, 2015

I’ve remarked before on promising shifts in the District of Columbia’s approach to homelessness generally and to family homelessness in particular. We see them again, I think, in the Winter Plan the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness adopted last Tuesday.

‘Bout time because we’ve witnessed a series of funding cutbacks — and worse — by the past two administrations. Some, though not all surfaced, if you knew what to look for, in the annual plans the ICH developed, as legally required, to lay the groundwork for what the District would do to keep homeless people safe during severely-cold weather.

I’ve been blogging on the plans for six years now — mainly on how they address the District’s legal responsibility to shelter or otherwise protect homeless families from freezing outdoors.

Last year’s plan for families was, in most respects, the worst. An effort initiated the prior year to estimate shelter needs on a month-to-month basis was abandoned — or shared only among the drafters.

No specifics at all for how the District would shelter or house the estimated total number of families who’d be entitled to protection during the five or so months of the winter season.

As I wrote at the time, the ICH basically threw up its hands because the homeless services budget clearly fell short of the resources needed.

The new plan doesn’t — and perhaps couldn’t — specify the number of families that won’t need shelter because help they receive kept them housed or will need it only for a short while because they get subsidized housing of one sort or another.

It does, however, make a serious effort to project shelter needs for each winter month — a more sophisticated projection than the plan for 2013-14 disclosed.

We see, on the one hand, the number of families that will qualify for shelter and, on the other hand, the number that will “exit” — not only those who’ll leave because they find some alternative, as before, but also those who receive assistance.

This may sound like a technical matter, but it isn’t because the estimates provide the basis for monitoring the in-and-out flow — and thus for action, if needed, to avert another crisis. The plan, in fact, commits the District to updating the figures.

Three other changes reflect policy shifts — all embedded in the estimates. One is the Bowser administration’s decision to shelter homeless families who’ve got no safe place to stay year round, rather than let them in only when the law says it must.

This is something that advocates have urged, for both humane and practical reasons, ever since the Department of Human Services, under the Gray administration, abandoned an unofficial, but operative year-round shelter policy dating back to some time before the Homeless Services Reform Act established a right to shelter.

The humane aspect needs no explanation. The practical, however, perhaps does. Basically, the intake center was overwhelmed with homeless families on the first freezing-cold day — and DC General, the main homeless family shelter, immediately full, if it wasn’t already.

This is one, though not the only reason that DHS had to scramble to find a place to park homeless families. Also why intake center staff may not have done the best job with needs assessments and referrals, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has suggested.

The two other changes reflect a budget that realistically anticipates the need to shelter more families than DC General can accommodate.

Would seem like a no-brainer, one might think. But the last Gray administration budget included no funds for motel rooms, even though it also left roughly 90 DC General units unfunded. This, more than anything else, accounts for the no-plan Winter Plan for homeless families last year.

Now we have not only projections for “overflow units needed,” but a subset for “contingency capacity.” This, I’m told, provides for an extra number of motel rooms DHS will contract for to ensure swift, adequate shelter if the entry estimates prove too low or the exit estimates too high.

The numbers can, of course, be adjusted as the season goes on. But the very fact that the plan expressly includes a fudge factor indicates that DHS has both the will and some confidence in resources to agree to a crisis prevention measure.

Here again, I’m struck by the difference that the Mayor has made by her choice of a new director and inferentially her commitment to support. Looking back even before the later days of the Gray administration, we see instead empty assurances that DHS will somehow muddle through.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that the DC Council also deserves credit for policies and plans that promise more enlightened, effective services for both homeless families and singles.

The ICH has long had members with the expertise and commitment to propose such policies and plans. But the Council’s decision to create what became a funded executive director position for the ICH has clearly made a difference.

I’ve already commented on the thoughtful, ambitious plan the ICH developed to make homelessness in the District “rare, brief, and non-recurring.” The budget for the upcoming fiscal year shows that the Mayor intends to jump start action on the plan.

So we’ve got grounds to hope for more effective homeless services, better tuned to the diverse needs of homeless and at-risk residents — a prospectively fewer of them, though that hinges on developments beyond the reach of DHS.

I feel similarly hopeful about the new Winter Plan — and for similar reasons.  As I learned early on, non-agency members of the ICH working group that develops the annual plans may propose, but it’s DHS that disposes so far as resources are concerned.

Not saying everything will fall nicely into place now. But the Winter Plan, so far as it goes, does seem to  reflect the “fresh start for homeless families” that the Mayor promised the ICH last Tuesday.

NOTE: Not everything the Mayor told the ICH merits as much confidence. I’ll probably have more to say about her legislative plans when I’ve got a clearer fix on 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.

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.




DC Gets a Barely Passing Grade for Homeless Family Services

December 10, 2014

Last spring, a coalition of advocates and service providers developed a “roadmap” for preventing another wintertime homeless family crisis in the District of Columbia. Now, as a new winter season opens, it’s issued a report card, indicating how much progress the District has made toward the 10 goals the roadmap set.

Not the sort of report card you’d like to take home to your parents. Virtually all Cs, meaning the District has taken steps toward the goals, but too recently for the coalition to decide whether they’ll result in significant progress.

Two Ds, meaning no significant progress — or, one infers, much by way of promising steps. And a single B, for homelessness prevention. That seems pretty generous to me, since the progress described has thus far not resulted in an “up and running program.”

Like the original roadmap, the report card reflects a lot of effort to gather, assess and communicate information about the District’s homeless family services. Highly recommended reading for all concerned. I’ll confine myself here to the big picture, as I see it.

Not Enough Shelter Units (Again)

As you may recall, the Department of Human Services was overwhelmed last winter by homeless families it couldn’t legally turn away because they’d sought shelter during freezing-cold weather.

One, though not the only problem was that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, was nearly full when the winter season began. The roadmap recommended both a plan and additional staff to move at least 100 families a month from shelter into housing so as to open up space for more.

DHS has managed to increase the rate to 63 families a month — not enough to have significantly more vacant units at DC General when this year’s winter season began. To its credit, it has contracted for hotel rooms. But there was no money in the budget for them.

The agency plans to use funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — an estimated $8.5 million, I’m told. Hard to see how this won’t mean cutbacks in programs and/or services those TANF funds would otherwise support.

At the same time, as I’ve written before, the Gray administration has proposed a plan (of sorts) to replace DC General with smaller shelters. The total number of units would remain the same.

So there’d probably still be fewer units than homeless families entitled to shelter during the winter season — and surely too few for the District to once again keep the shelter doors open year round for families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

More Affordable Housing, But Mostly Temporary

On the upside, the District has invested funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing, including apartments big enough for larger families. And the DC Council has approved more funds for vouchers that enable homeless families to rent at market rates.

But the District’s strategy relies heavily on rapid re-housing, i.e., short-term housing subsidies, renewable for up to a year, provided that families measure up to expectations.

DHS has still not issued final rules for the program. And the theoretically temporary rules it issued in late June raise serious concerns — among them, the share of rent families have to pay, both initially and during renewal periods.

The rules are also highly ambiguous about whether families can get an extension of their subsidy if they can’t afford to pay full rent at the end of the year — a likely possibility for many, I’ve suggested.

DHS could, at the very least, enable nonprofit partners to provide some services and/or rental assistance to families that seem likely to become homeless again. But it hasn’t even explored the possibilities, the report card says.

One Small Step for Young Families

More than 40% of the families sheltered last winter were headed by parents who were, at most, 24 years old. Needless to say (I hope), they had very little, if any work experience. Many, the report card says, had neither a high school diploma or the equivalent — a high predictor of unemployment, even for older District residents.

Like as not, the young parents had never rented an apartment. Some probably had just aged out of foster care, since that’s a high risk for homelessness.

They often don’t have ongoing family support or other concerned adults to help with the challenges of housing, credit and the like. The same, of course, can be true for young mothers who were kicked out — or harassed out — of their homes when their parent(s) found out they were pregnant.

These are not the sort of families that rapid re-housing was designed for. Nor the sort of families that the needs assessment tool DHS relies on was designed for. The roadmap, therefore, called for reviews of the tool, the case management system and rapid re-housing itself to ensure they’re suitable for young families.

DHS has launched a small pilot program, which offers the fortunate participants more intensive services and potentially rental assistance for more than a year.

It’s not clear whether the agency can expand the program, the report card says. Nor is it clear whether DHS has reviewed — let alone modified — the tool or case management services.

Much Else Unclear

Families first encounter the District’s homeless system at the Virginia Williams intake center. Caseworkers there still have no written protocol to tell them how to decide whether to grant a family shelter. Nor, therefore, do we know how decisions are made — only that some indicate ignorance (or casual disregard) of the law.

That’s far from all we don’t know. For example, the District doesn’t release information on services families receive while they’re at DC General. More generally, it either doesn’t have or won’t release data that would enable us to determine how key elements of its homeless system are working — apparently more the former than the latter.

Part of the problem, the report card says, is that DHS contracts out much of homeless services to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. And the Partnership doesn’t deign — and isn’t required — to publicly report how it spends the funds it gets or what they achieve.

Thus, as the report card says, “it is impossible to determine if the District has allocated sufficient funding to meet the need and if programs are performing as well as they should be.”

Impossible for the roadmap coalition, which so clearly wants to help create a humane, effective system that prevents homelessness, when possible, affords shelter when that isn’t and then helps families move quickly to a safe, stable home.

Impossible for our policymakers as well. But they can make the egregiously opaque system more transparent. This ought to be a first order of business for the new administration and the new chair of the Council’s Human Services Committee.

DC General Closing Plan Won’t Shelter All Homeless Families at Risk of Harm

November 13, 2014

I’ve been feeling I should say something about the Gray administration’s plan for closing the DC family shelter ever since it saw the light of day a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t because I’ve had trouble getting my mind around it.

Not altogether my fault. The plan, you see, isn’t really a plan. It’s more like a working paper — or a statement of preferences perhaps. These are certainly clear enough. But whether the next administration can translate them into a reality is at the very least questionable.

And in a couple of respects, I hope it doesn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the major issues, as I see them.

Should DC General Be Closed?

A rhetorical question. No one, I venture to say, thinks that DC General is an okay place for children and their parents to live, even temporarily. It’s too big — a “small city” Councilmember Graham called it.

It was never fully converted from the hospital it used to be — apparently because no one wanted to acknowledge that it was the replacement for the then-notorious shelter the former mayor felt pressed to close in 2007.

Its basic systems are seemingly beyond redemption — frequent heat and air conditioning outages, no hot water for long periods of time, elevators that break down — or in one recent case, get flooded. And the place is persistently infested by mice, roaches, bed bugs and the like. Moldy too.

In short, it’s shameful that a child would have to go missing to get District officials serious about closing DC General.

Where Would the District Shelter Homeless Families?

The Gray administration envisions smaller shelters scattered across the city. They would have to include play spaces for children and be near to public transportation and “community amenities [undefined].”

The administration would prefer buildings leased from private landlords because, it says, this option would be quicker and cheaper than renovating publicly-owned buildings or constructing shelters on publicly-owned land.

The latter would also require the District to pay for ongoing operating costs, e.g., utilities, maintenance. The preferred option would make private landlords responsible for these, as well as security systems, furniture and whatever renovations their buildings require.

Ideally, each building would have 40-50 units, though the plan allows as how some larger shelters might be okay. For the smaller shelters, it projects a $2,000 per month cost.

Now, why would an owner of a potentially suitable building in any of our high-rent, high-demand neighborhoods agree to lease it for a minimum of 10 years at a rate this low — or anything close?

And if one did, wouldn’t the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces “come out of the woodwork,” as the Director of the General Services Department has predicted? One recalls what happened when the District considered putting a smaller shelter in soon-to-be Mayor Bowser’s ward.

So, says Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper, the “available candidates” will instead probably be “boarded-up properties” in low-income neighborhoods on “the city’s margins” — far less convenient to public transportation and “amenities” than DC General.

What Would a Unit Be?

Well, I’ll tell you what it wouldn’t necessarily be — an “apartment-style” unit, which the District’s homeless services law requires for families, except when no such unit is available.

The Gray administration interprets this limited exemption to mean that shelter units the District has yet to lease or build don’t have to include a bathroom for each family or any place to prepare a meal. They apparently may be just a single room, where parents and children must sleep together — just as they must at DC General.

How Many Homeless Families Would Have Shelter?

The Gray administration wants the replacement shelters to have, in total, the number of units currently provided at DC General — and to close the shelter in one fell swoop “so as to avoid an unplanned shelter expansion.”

It’s not altogether clear how many replacement units there’d be, since the Department of Human Services has concluded that 40 or so units at DC General don’t meet the (minimal) criteria the court established when it ordered the agency to stop “sheltering” families in recreation centers.

What is clear is that there won’t be nearly enough replacement units unless the number of families needing shelter miraculously plummets — or the homeless prevention and rapid exit strategies the Winter Plan promises miraculously work much better than they’ve done to date.

The plan isn’t short on units because providing enough to meet the need would cost more than the District could afford. It’s “a clear philosophical stance,” says the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.

And it’s based on a truly appalling ignorance — or worse — of what happens to homeless families when the District won’t provide them a safe place to stay. Senior policy advisor Sakina Thompson, who wanted even fewer units, says, “During the summertime, when shelter is not available, families find other means.”

Indeed, they do. They walk the streets looking for someone to take them in for awhile. They sleep in cars, if they have them, or at bus stops or on a church floor. They take refuge in a laundromat. Some presumably return to the abusers they’ve fled.

Whatever “other means” they find, they’re likely to have more and/or worse problems when the District must finally shelter them than they had when they become homeless.

Not so long ago, the District provided shelter year round to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will have to decide whether to move forward with a plan that would intentionally replicate the crises that Gray and his people have used to justify barring the shelter doors, except when it’s freezing outside.

I’m hoping for a more compassionate — and policy-smart — philosophical stance.


And We Thought DC Had a Homeless Family Crisis Last Winter

September 4, 2014

Last year, I remarked that the draft Winter Plan was notably sketchy on how the District would fulfill its legal obligation to protect families from exposure to “severe weather conditions.”

The Operations and Logistics Committee, which drafts the annual plans for the Interagency Council on Homelessness, decided against specifics that would minimize the foreseeable challenges.

And challenges there surely were — even greater than most think could have been foreseen. The Department of Human Services was caught off guard. Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper recaps the results, as of mid-March.

Now we have another Winter Plan. And my heart sinks. Because it’s as clear as day — acknowledged, in fact — that we’ve got another crisis looming.

Like as not, a bigger crisis than last year’s and one that DHS is by no means prepared to cope with — at least, not in a way that would ensure homeless families a modicum of safety and stability. Here are the lowlights.

More homeless families expected. DHS will need to make an estimated 840 shelter and/or housing placements during the upcoming winter season. This represents a 16% increase over the number of placements made during the 2013-14 season.

Yet it’s 10% lower than the increase in the number of homeless families who sought help at the intake center between May and August. They couldn’t get into shelter then, but at least some will return as soon as the weather turns freezing-cold.

Not enough shelter units. The Operations and Logistics Committee again foresees that all — or nearly all — units at the DC General family shelter and those in smaller shelters around the city will be occupied when the winter season opens.

DHS will need “overflow capacity” by December, the plan says. This would probably be true in any case. But about 40 units at DC General may have to remain vacant because they fail to comply with the criteria the court established when it ordered DHS to stop warehousing families in recreation centers.

No plan for the overflow. The ICH has, for good and proper reasons, decided against any semblance of a shelter plan for families.

It instead recommends, among other things, that the Department of General Services prepare “an options analysis that considers different solutions,” e.g., use of District-owned buildings, short-term leases from private landlords, motels.

Not much time for General Services to do this — let alone for DHS to choose solutions and make the necessary arrangements, even if one of them isn’t re-purposing buildings.

Not enough money. The plan calls on the District government to acknowledge that “meeting the anticipated need for shelter will exceed currently available resources.”

The District should further acknowledge, it says, that additional resources will be needed to prevent adverse effects on other homeless services programs, especially those “designed to move families out of shelter.”

This was altogether foreseeable — and in fact, was foreseen by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. Mayor Gray’s proposed budget included funds for only 150 units at DC General, rather than the 280 or so then available — and no funds at all for motel rooms. The DC Council went along.

Trust in performance improvements. “A major emphasis,” the plan says, “will be on enhancing system performance to both decrease the number of entries into the system … and accelerate exits out of shelter.”

As I (and others) have said before, DHS has had a hard time moving enough families out of shelter fast enough to free up anything close to the number of units needed. Various reasons for this — some of the agency’s own making, some not.

Resources committed to the Mayor’s 500 in 100 initiative may have speeded up the rate somewhat. But we’ve no assurance families will leave shelter even sooner this winter. “It is expected,” the plan says, “that placements from shelter will continue or exceed” the current monthly average.

Perhaps we should be at least as concerned about the other half of the emphasis — decreasing entries, i.e., keeping families out of the shelters.

The plan specifies two approaches. One is “strategic targeting of resources to prevent housing loss.” This presumably is a reference to the one-time funds some District residents may receive as emergency rental assistance. No problem here, except limited funds.

The other approach is casework and “housing stabilization support” for families who’ve been “diverted” from shelter. Translated into everyday English, the latter refers to resources that may enable families to stay where they are for awhile — mainly, if not exclusively in doubled-up arrangements.

The resources include cash or cash equivalents to give friends and relatives incentives for hosting homeless families, e.g., help with utility bills and/or food costs. DHS already provides such incentives and will have funds for more.

But the cost burdens of having extra people in the home are hardly the only reason doubled-up situations tend to be temporary. So diversion of this sort may, in many cases, merely delay “entries into the system.”

Looking beyond the the no-plan plan. The Homeless Services Reform Act charges the ICH to develop an annual plan “consistent with the right of clients to shelter in severe weather conditions, describing how member agencies will coordinate to provide hypothermia shelter and identifying the specific sites that will be used.”

The ICH has, in effect, said, “We can’t do that for homeless families. The money is not there.” This, to my mind, is altogether better than putting forth a plan that glosses over the acute problems the District’s homeless services programs will face.

“We face an enormous challenge,” said Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless attorney and long-time ICH member Scott McNeilly. “If we don’t rise to the occasion, the consequences could be catastrophic.”

But ultimately “we” isn’t the ICH. It has no control over the budget or how available funds are used. It’s the Mayor and the DC Council who must “rise to the occasion.” And they’d better do it PDQ.



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