More Homeless DC Families to Shelter, But Still Signs of Progress

September 22, 2016

I remarked last year that the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness produced a markedly better plan for how the District would full its obligation to shelter homeless families during the winter season.

This year’s plan is similar, though with different numbers. It’s interesting in a couple of ways that speak to progress in the District’s homeless services program — and to problems that it alone can’t solve.

More Homeless Families in Need of Shelter

The estimated number of families the District will have to shelter is considerably higher than last year’s. This might seem a no-brainer. Last January’s one-night count identified 1,491 of them, marking the latest high in a virtually unbroken trend.

The shelter plan doesn’t project that many for this coming January. Nor need it, since the annual counts include families in transitional housing.

It does, however, indicate a significant shortage of units at the DC General family shelter, plus the apartment-style units the Department of Human Services regularly contracts for to shelter families with special needs.

DHS, as the plan makes clear, has already acted on the expected shortage, knowing it would have a deuce of a time contracting for motel rooms in mid-winter, what with the influx of visitors drawn by the inauguration festivities.

I mention this mainly because it’s a refreshing contrast to plans issued during the former administration, especially the last, which merely assured us that DHS would use some combination of “resources” to comply with the law.

More Homeless Families in Shelter When Winter Begins

The explicit reference to motel rooms and the number already contracted for aren’t the only — or most significant — contrasts. We see, for example, more families in DC General when the winter season formally begins, in November.

This reflects the Bowser administration’s decision to let families with no safe place to stay into the shelter year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days, when it has no lawful choice.

That was the unwritten policy until the Gray administration whittled it back and then altogether abandoned it. Predictably, a crush of homeless families sought shelter when they first could, creating problems not of their making.

I’m reverting to history here because it shows that what one finds — and doesn’t — in the annual Winter Plan signals policy and other management decisions. We see two others in the monthly estimates of shelter units needed.

More Homeless Families Than Projected Units Needed

Though the new plan begins with more families in shelter, it estimates fewer total units needed than families likely to show up at the intake center. This is partly because it includes estimated exits, as the last several plans also did.

Some unspecified number are families expected to move from shelter to housing temporarily subsidized by the District’s rapid re-housing program.

DHS has had long-standing problems meeting its rapid re-housing targets for various reasons. One, which still applies, is the acute shortage of housing that homeless families could conceivably afford to rent when their subsidies expire.

Another, related, has been families’ understandable reluctance to accept rapid re-housing. That may be less common now because they know they can return to shelter whenever they must.

It’s nevertheless the case that the Winter Plan estimates considerably more monthly exits late in the season than the current rapid re-housing placement rate. That, I’m told, has improved to an average of 100 families per month.

The plan, however, projects 155 exits in March, when winter officially ends, making for a 667 total during the five months it covers. Where, one wonders, will DHS — or families themselves — find so many low-cost housing units available to rent in a city where they’re disappearing.

Such as remain are hardly all available or suitable for families that surely want to exit from DC General at least as much as DHS wants them out.

More than a third of the units that the lowest-income District households could afford are occupied by those with higher incomes, according to apparently updated figures from the Urban Institute.

Only 8% of all the units have more than three bedrooms. A special exit problem then for families with more than a couple of kids — just as it’s apparently a problem for well over 100 families who’re affordably housed now.

Families Saved (for Now) From Homelessness

There’s another reason for lower total unit estimates than families likely to ask intake center staff for help. Last year, the District launched a program to prevent family homelessness.

It’s somewhat like the long-standing (and always under-funded) Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but it’s for families only and can provide a wider range of resources, tailored to their needs.

The success rate is reportedly very high — 90% of families referred to the nonprofits the District has contracted with haven’t become homeless. Or so it seems. What we know is that they haven’t  asked for shelter.

These early results, combined with the additional $1 million the new budget will invest in the program led the working group that developed the plan to adjust last year’s monthly entrance figures down by 10%.

One can only hope that the lower estimates prove accurate — and more importantly, mean that families aided actually have safe, reasonably stable homes of their own.

 

 

 

 

 


Homeless DC Families Push Total Count to Record High

May 11, 2016

The just-released report on last January’s one-night homeless count in the Washington area may deliver a shock to even those who’ve followed the homeless family crisis in the District.

The count identified more homeless families than in any year since the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments first reported them separately.

The number of homeless individuals who had no children in their care ticked down again. But the increase in adults and children counted as family members was so large as to push the homeless total up to the highest level since the counts began.

Highest Homeless Total in Thirteen Years

The count found 8,350 homeless people in the District — 1,052 more than only a year ago. This represents an increase of 14.4%.

Looking back to 2004, when the District, like other communities that receive homeless assistance grants, first had to conduct one-night counts, the total increased by nearly 43.3%.

Far More Homeless Families

The count identified 1,491 homeless families — 360 more than in 2015, making for an increase of 31.8%. The new number is about two-and-a-half times as many as in 2008, when the recession first set in and the count reports began including the family number.

The homeless families included 1,945 adults and 2,722 children they were caring for, representing increases of 36.2% and roughly 31.9% respectively.

The total number of homeless persons in families, as the report refers to them, was thus 4,667. This is twice as many as in 2004 — and an increase of about 154.2% since 2008, the lowest count on record.

About a quarter of the persons were adults no older than twenty-four — about the same percent as last year, but a higher raw number. These so-called transition age youth account for about 60% of the increase in adult family members counted.

Count of Homeless Singles Dips Again

The number of homeless singles, i.e., those who don’t have children with them, declined from 3,821 in 2015 to 3,683 this year. The new number is also somewhat lower than the counts for 2013 and 2014, but not by much.

We clearly had more homeless singles when the Great Recession hit and in the years immediately thereafter. Since then, the numbers dropped and then rose again, though not markedly. The differences may have more to do with count conditions, e.g., weather, than the homeless population.

Continuing Downward Slide for Chronically Homeless Singles

Among the singles were 1,501 in the chronically homeless subgroup, i.e., people homeless for a long time or recurrently and with at least one disability.

The District’s goal, like that of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, is to effectively end chronic homelessness by the end of 2017. It seems unlikely to achieve that. But it’s well on the way. The count identified 92 fewer chronically homeless singles than in 2015 — the fewest then since 2011, when the numbers began steadily dropping.

So we’ve got a clear downward trend, as we don’t for any other subgroup the report breaks out — except, more recently, veterans, who often have disabilities and so get counted as chronically homeless. Shows again what money can do.

Not Quite So Many Young Homeless Singles

Also among the singles were 201 transition age youth — a few more than in 2015, when communities first had to report them separately. But they’re still a small fraction of this vulnerable age group.

As is generally the case with homeless people counted as singles, some may have a spouse or other partner. Neither the count nor the homeless services system recognizes families who’ve got no children with them, as I’ve remarked before.

Perhaps Not That Many More Recently Homeless Families

The District attributes the increase in homeless families to the undeniable shortage of affordable housing in the city, but not only that.

It also cites an “increased demand for stable housing assistance that is brought to bear on the homeless system” and the recent reversion to the long-standing policy of granting shelter to homeless families year round, instead of only when they’re at risk of freezing.

What this suggests, though I doubt it means to is that the District probably under-reported homeless families in the recent past because some knew not to seek help when they needed it and so had no records in the information management system used for the counts.

That, of course, merely means that District policymakers — and everyone else concerned — has a better fix on the crisis now. But not the whole of it.

Always More Homeless People Than Counted

As I usually say when citing homeless figures based on counts, they understate the number of people who have no home of their own.

This is partly because the counts must used the limited definition of “homeless” that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development must use for its homeless assistance grants.

So they include homeless people in shelters, transitional housing and places “not meant for human habitation,” e.g., cars, subway stations, underpasses.

But they don’t include everyone living doubled up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford housing or those making do in cheap motels, unless they’ll become homeless, according to HUD’s definition, within two weeks.

And the counters have no way of finding them or knowing that. Nor are they likely to find everyone who’s unsheltered. The count, recall, is partly a one-night search.

And homeless people don’t all cluster together in places where they’re easily found — understandably, since the District and other communities have taken to clearing out such places and taking whatever belongings the owners can’t swiftly remove.

Many homeless people don’t want to be found for other reasons — especially those who are minors, since they’d be either returned to the homes they fled or relegated to foster care. Perhaps also parents who justifiably fear losing their children.

All the more reason the DC Council should feel an even greater sense of urgency to invest more in affordable housing, including both the permanent supportive type and locally-funded housing vouchers.

And an even greater sense of urgency to change Temporary Assistance for Needy Families policy, lest even more families become homeless by next January.


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.