Dreaming of a Freezing Cold Christmas

December 22, 2012

Jesse, my husband, hopes for a white Christmas, as he always does. I, a California child, like the Christmas card prettiness of a fresh snowfall. But I hate cold weather. Always have.

I find myself hoping for another cold snap nonetheless — preferably with snow, for my husband’s sake, but without if that’s the best the weather gods can do.

Because unless the forecast calls for freezing temperatures — 32 degrees or less, including wind chill factor — some homeless families in the District of Columbia may have no safe place to bed down tomorrow night.

Nor any night thereafter until we get that arctic blast.

Time was not so long ago when the District’s shelter doors were always open to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay, i.e., those the intake system ranked as Priority One.

Then came a significant increase in family homelessness — an acute symptom of recession-related job losses, stagnant (or reduced) wages for those still working and rising rental costs.

What didn’t come were increases in funding for housing vouchers beyond what was needed to pay for those already in use.

So once homeless families were admitted to DC General — the main shelter for them — they tended to stay there longer than they had in the past.

A whole series of failures to fully come to grips with this problem.

Insufficient funding — both local and federal — to support services for the growing number of homeless families.

Formal plans for sheltering homeless families during the winter season that attempted to make everything look okay, funding constraints notwithstanding.

Large costs incurred for motel rooms and related needs because the plans really weren’t okay.

A sharp drop in funds to support the development and preservation of affordable housing. First, because the designated revenue stream shrank when the real estate market went south.

Then because the Mayor, with the Council’s consent, tapped the recovering revenue stream to cover the costs of locally-funded housing vouchers. But only those already issued.

For homeless families, the District had some Recovery Act funds for short-term housing vouchers. But for a variety of reasons, including the terms, they proved only a limited substitute.

So, at some point, the Family Services Administration, which administers the District’s homeless services program, changed the policy for Priority One families.

Henceforward, they’d gain shelter only when they were legally entitled to it, i.e., when the effective temperature was expected to drop to 32 degrees before the following morning.

Now, I’m told, it will also shelter them in less frigid weather if there’s room for them at DC General. Midweek, units were filling up fast. So I don’t know whether any will be vacant by the time you read this.

Jesse and I don’t see homeless families when we take our pre-dinner strolls around the neighborhood. I doubt residents in most other parts of the District do either.

The families are scattered in the safest, warmest places they can find — in their cars, if they’re fortunate enough to have them, in hospital waiting rooms, bus stations, stairwells, etc.

So they probably don’t weigh heavy on our consciences as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of someone whose mother was given shelter when there was no room at the inn.

But I think of them now and hope the forecast for the upcoming week is wrong.


DC Interim Disability Assistance Funds Go Missing

March 22, 2011

Funding for programs operated by the DC Department of Human Services has been something of a shell game.

In October 2009, we learned — months after the budget was passed — that funds in the federal block grant for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program wouldn’t be used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation, as they had been in the past. About $12 million had silently been allocated to other priorities.

Then $8.4 million of the funding DHS received from the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund was shifted to cover a cost overrun in last year’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

Now we learn that funds to sustain the Interim Disabilities Assistance program have been used to fill budget gaps somewhere else.

The funds shifted this time came from the Social Security Administration as partial reimbursement for the local funds IDA had spent to tide disabled District residents over while their applications for Supplemental Security Income were pending.

IDA is one of those relatively small programs that makes a big difference in the lives of low-income residents who are too severely disabled to work — thus potentially eligible for SSI.

The process of getting an SSI claim approved is notoriously lengthy — often several years, due to frequent needs to appeal. So, as its name suggests, IDA provides temporary assistance.

The maximum stipend is $270 per month — hardly enough to live on. But as Stacy Braverman at Bread for the City testified last year, it can help recipients cover essential expenses that actually save the District money, e.g., co-pays for prescription drugs, rent.

SSA reimburses the District for benefits it provides to claimants who are ultimately successful. IDA thus recovers about 40% of the local funds spent. Plowed back into the program, the recovered funds have been used to provide stipends for people on the waiting list.

Because, ironically, there’s a waiting list at IDA for people who are already, in a manner of speaking, on the waiting list for SSI. Has been since Fiscal Year 2008, when the DC Council used the program’s unspent carryover funds to help close a budget gap.

From that time forward, IDA has been subject to a series of cuts.

As the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s budget brief shows, the total budget originally approved for this fiscal year was $6 million less, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the original Fiscal Year 2010 total. Totals here include the on-hand and projected SSA reimbursements, as well as the approved local funding.

The Fiscal Year 2010 gap-closing measure took away $2.8 million. The latest gap-closer, passed in December, took another $1.2 million.

This left the program with just $3.2 million and a waiting list of more than 500 residents too disabled to work and ineligible for TANF — the District’s other major source of cash assistance for poor adults.

Enrollment has been capped at 1,500 residents — this based on the assumption that all the SSA reimbursement funds would be available.

Now we hear that no one on the waiting list will get benefits until the caseload shrinks to 600. That could be a very long time — long enough to make the temporary lifeline IDA is supposed to provide meaningless.

So it seems to me that Mayor Gray should do a couple of things.

One is to make the IDA program whole and propose enough Fiscal Year 2012 local funding to eliminate the need for a waiting list.

Deliberately delaying benefits for people who are waiting for benefits subverts the purpose of the program and creates greater cost pressures elsewhere, e.g. in homeless services, emergency room costs.

It also creates a vicious circle because the fewer people who receive benefits, the less the District gets back from SSA, which means that even fewer people receive benefits, the District gets even less back, etc.

I’m told that IDA would need a local funding increase about as big as its total original Fiscal Year 2011 allocation, SSA funds included, just to support a caseload up to the official cap. The cap itself is one of the main reasons why.

The second thing I hope the mayor will do is declare — and enforce — a much higher level of transparency. Backroom fund shifts that come to light only after the fact — and only because the advocacy community is monitoring — is no way to run a government.

UPDATE: A new posting on DCFPI’s blog, The District’s Dime, recaps what’s at risk if IDA funding isn’t restored. It features a short video of three D.C. residents, who speak of their own situations and what the program has meant to them.

Take a look and then, as the video urges, “preserve human dignity” by contacting Mayor Gray at eom@dc.gov and his budget director Eric Goulet at eric.goulet@dc.gov.