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.

Interim Shelter Plan for Homeless DC Families a Plus, But Lacks Protections

October 8, 2015

I dealt last week with one of two changes in the Homeless Services Reform Act that Mayor Bowser wants the DC Council to approve — a license to open new dormitory-style shelters for families.

The other change relates to interim shelter placements that the Department of Human Services plans to institute. It doesn’t need new legal authority for them. The administration does, however, need a change in the law to authorize an extra-speedy appeals process for families denied shelter for a longer term.

What Families Must Do to Gain Shelter

Parents who seek publicly-funded shelter in the District must meet three criteria for eligibility. They must be District residents, have children in their care and no safe place to stay. They’ve got to prove all three to the satisfaction of a caseworker.

As things stand now, staff at the intake center decide whether they’re eligible when they apply for shelter — unless it’s freezing-cold outside. In that case, they may have three days to come up with the residency proof.

Ordinarily, however, they either prove they’re eligible or are turned away to fend for themselves as best they can. If they have further proof, they must go back to the intake center and start the process all over again.

What DHS Wants to Do

DHS wants to place families in shelter for up to twelve days if they’re not clearly eligible (or ineligible) or if some alternative to shelter might afford them a safe place to stay.

Some of you may be saying to yourselves, Wait a minute. Isn’t this what the Council, encouraged by advocates, rejected during the Gray administration? Not exactly.

First off, DHS has contracted with nonprofits to handle diversions from shelter. They’re to consult with the families and try to work out an alternative when they think that might be possible. A contractor might, for example, try to resolve — at least, for the time being — a conflict between a parent and a relative the family was staying with.

It might come up with some financial aid or the equivalent that would persuade a friend or relative to host — or continuing hosting — a family. Or it might link the family to resources that would make doubling up unnecessary, e.g., help in finding affordable housing.

The interim placement scheme recognizes that exploring such alternatives and then actually trying to negotiate them can take awhile. In the meantime, as DHS has emphasized, the family is safe.

The agency has referred to other features that would distinguish its plan from the Gray administration’s provisional placement proposal.

For example, the Director has said that a family could get into shelter without going through the whole intake process again if the alternative the nonprofit negotiated didn’t pan out. This, however, is not part of the bill the administration wants passed. It instead allows as how the Mayor may allow the family to bypass a second application process.

DHS also, I understand, spoke of a minimum time limit for so-called community placements, i.e., doubled-up arrangements. This too, however, didn’t make its way into the bill.

So a family could be told it could either spend a weekend with an aunt who’d said that was all she could manage or have no shelter at all. Then back to the nonprofit — or perhaps the intake center — for what could prove another extremely brief placement.

Even less bouncing around than families could experience poses problems for both parents and kids. That’s just the nature of housing instability.

How the Administration Wants the Law Changed

The HSRA establishes a process by which homeless people denied shelter may appeal. They may appeal both initial decisions that they’re ineligible and later decisions to turn them out.

The Bowser administration proposes some unusually tight timeframes when families granted shelter on an interim basis want to appeal decisions to deny it for a longer term. Attorneys who’ve often represented homeless families generally like the concept, but see some bugs in the bill.

The most significant is that it fails to guarantee families shelter until they get a final decision on their appeals — a protection homeless people otherwise have, under the law.

Both the bill as drafted and the Mayor’s cover letter provide for continuing shelter only until DHS renders its opinion on their appeals — the first official decision in the two-stage process.

What the Bill Fails to Do

Most of the concerns raised, however, relate to missing protections in the interim placement process itself. I’ve already cited a couple — a right to shelter if the community placement doesn’t work out and a minimum time length for such a placement.

There are others. For example, the bill doesn’t ensure that families will be diverted only to doubled-up arrangements that pose no predicable risk to their “health, safety, or welfare” — the standard the HSRA sets for quasi-permanent housing.

So, at least in theory, a family could be sent to live with someone whose electricity and/or water had been turned off. More likely perhaps, a family could be told to go to a home where the parent knows an abuser lives — or drops in for more than quick sec every once in awhile.

And like the provisional placement proposal, the bill fails to ensure that someone a family is sent to stay with doesn’t wind up homeless because hosting extra people violates the terms of the lease.

Virtually all the problems I’ve cited stem from omissions. So they seem readily fixable — and less contentious — than the administration’s proposal to shelter most homeless families in private rooms, rather than apartment-style units or anything in between.

Proof of the pudding, of course, is how the Mayor and her people respond to recommended revisions in the bill.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 220 other followers