Homeless Youth Who’ve Beaten the Odds Speak Out

July 2, 2015

Such an enlightening — and in some ways, disturbing — panel discussion among homeless and formerly homeless youth.

There were ten of them, brought together by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, which had awarded them scholarships. So they were hardly a representative sample.

Not only had they graduated from high school, though homeless kids are 87% more likely to drop out. They’d gotten grades good enough to get them into college. And the upbeat invitation to the event suggests they were chosen not only for that, but for “resilience.”

Their stories were nonetheless worth hearing — and, I believe, sharing, though the best I can do is highlight major themes that emerged.

I hesitate to do even this because some of those themes play into the nastiest stereotypes of poor parents. And for the most part, they seem beyond the reach of policy solutions. However, ignorance is a bliss we shouldn’t enjoy. So without further ado ….

Shocking Cases of Abuse and Neglect

One might expect, I suppose, a story of how a child who was or became homeless suffered from neglect due to a parent’s depression, distraction by the daily challenges of poverty and/or the need to juggle multiple part-time jobs.

But we heard several stories of sexual abuse — by a mother’s boyfriend, by a father with whom the then-young child was forced to “nap” by her grandmother, who knew what was going on.

Stories also of violence in the home — a boyfriend who beat her mother “half to death,” a grown-up sister who beat her because she moped around after their mother’s death.

And we heard of egregious neglect — in one case, the result of substance abuse, in another severe mental illnesses, in a third an absent father ‘s belief that he had no responsibility for child support.

Now, not all parents were like that. One mother made sure her child was always clean for school, though that meant bathing in a river and washing his clothes there too. Parents of another panelist clearly shielded her from the reason they were living in a motel. “I didn’t know I was homeless,” she said, until the bedbugs attacked.

Lost Childhoods

“I was caretaker for my mother,” said the young woman whose mom was too afflicted with mental illnesses to care for her.

Virtually the same phrase from another panelist, whose mother often came home “shit-faced” drunk and vomiting. She’d clean her up and put her to bed. “I was the mother…. I feel I never had a childhood,” she said.

Still another visited food pantries, took a job at fifteen and a second at sixteen to earn money for food because her father wouldn’t apply for government benefits. “I was so tired,” she said. But “I had to worry. They are my family too.”

Hardships From Doubling Up

Most of the panelists were never homeless, according to the definition most of our data reflect. In other words, they hadn’t lived in a shelter, transitional housing or on the streets. The majority, as one said, had “bounced around.”

Some of those doubled-up situations were unsafe. Recall the grandmother. Another panelist referred to “sleazy relatives” he and his family had to rely on for a place to stay.

The bouncing around itself caused problems, both academic and emotional. “The biggest hardship,” one panelist said, “was going to eight elementary schools, four in the second grade.” So lessons repeated and others missed.

Another panelist had great difficulties gaining admission to a new school because the family couldn’t prove residency. He — now an aspiring lawyer — finally prevailed, but he lost months of school in the interim.

At the same time, the doubled-up arrangements apparently fostered a sense of insecurity. “You have a roof over your head,” a panelist said. “But it’s not yours. You can get kicked out at any time.” “You never know what you have till it’s gone — peace of mind,” said another.

School a Respite From Troubles

We’ve got scholarship winners here. So it’s not surprising that they viewed school as their “ticket out,” as one put it. What struck me more was how many spoke of school as a counterbalance to the rest of their lives.

It “was pretty much the only stability I had,” one panelist said. “I would go to not think about homelessness…. I’d work hard because it was the only control I had.” “Breakfast and lunch were a guarantee,” another said. “I felt safe.”

Still another spoke of the structure and support provided by extra-curricular activities — sports and the school band, in her case. “There were rules, times and community.”

Now, school wasn’t an altogether welcoming place for all the panelists. One, for example, was sometimes turned away because she wasn’t wearing a uniform. Or she was chastised because it wasn’t clean. “We didn’t have money for a laundromat,” she explained. And apparently no one at the school had bothered to find this out.

What Helps

The panel discussion was held in the Capitol building — obviously to relay messages to members of Congress. None was there. Nor expected, I think. But junior staffers packed the room. One asked what Congress could do.

Panelists didn’t have much of an answer, though several mentioned increased funding for the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

That could mean, among other things, more money for homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, i.e., temporary rental assistance, and permanent supportive housing — seemingly the right solution for several panelists’ families.

It could also mean more money for the homeless liaisons that schools districts are supposed to have — enough so they’d have the time, training and resources to do what the law envisions.

Homeless students could then get consistent, appropriate help with enrollment. More already enrolled might be identified. And they’d get what they need for equal educational opportunity, e.g., school supplies, transportation, tutoring, links to healthcare and other services, perhaps even access to a washing machine.

Panelists provided a fuller answer when asked what had helped them personally. After-school programs, as I’ve already mentioned. Nonprofits that offer not only some of these programs, but others. And through them –but not them only –ongoing relationships with responsible, caring adults.

You can see, I think, why I flag these. “I don’t trust people,” one panelist said. But someone was always there for her, “not lying, not leaving.” And eventually she accepted help that gave her safety and stability — and enough trust to share her hurts with strangers.

 


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.

 

 

 


We Don’t Know How Many DC Youth Are Homeless, But We Do Know Too Many

October 9, 2014

My last post focused on poverty among older teens and young adults, both in the District of Columbia and nationwide. Some, though far from all are homeless. Here’s what we know — and don’t — about the scope of the problem.

As you’ll see, we still don’t have a good fix on how many homeless young people are out in the world alone — those formally known as “unaccompanied.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reports that, on a single night sometime during January 2013, there were 40,727 homeless, unaccompanied youth in the U.S. These are all 18-24 year olds. Teenagers on the cusp of adulthood are lumped together with younger children. Far fewer were unaccompanied, according to the counts HUD tabulated.

Nearly half (48%) of the unaccompanied youth counted were unsheltered, i.e., spending the night in a car, public transit station or, in HUD-speak, elsewhere “not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping place for human beings.”

The District reported only six homeless, unaccompanied minors and said that all were sheltered. As some of you may recall, I questioned this figure when the results of the Washington metro area counts were first reported.

To HUD itself, the District also reported 158 homeless 18-24 year olds “in households without children.” Eighteen, it said, were unsheltered.

An additional 446 in the same age bracket and counted were in households with at least one children — presumably, in most cases, their own. Somewhat over half were in an emergency shelter — and none unsheltered, the report says.

If accurate, this is probably because the count was made on a freezing-cold night, when the District is legally obliged to shelter anyone who would otherwise have no safe place to stay.

What we know for sure is that more parents at the now-notorious DC General shelter are still in their teens or not much older. Last winter, nearly half there were between 18 and 24, according to the coalition that developed the roadmap for a better homeless family system.

Yet we also know for sure that both the national and the District’s figures are undercounts. This is partly because homeless youth — the unaccompanied, at least — are singularly hard to count.

But even the best count wouldn’t give us an accurate read because the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use — and therefore, the definition its grantees must use for their counts — excludes many youth, as well as older people whom most of us, I think, would consider homeless.

HUD has only recently begun requiring breakouts for homeless youth. And the latest posted reports are more detailed than those for the previous year. So we can’t trace trends. But we do have some evidence that the number of homeless, unaccompanied children and youth is rising.

The Department of Education, whose definition of “homeless” is broader than HUD’s, reports that the public school systems to which it had awarded grants for support to homeless students had 62,890 who were enrolled during the 2012-13 school year and with no parent or guardian looking out for them. This represents a 14% increase over the 2010-11 school year.

We don’t get a breakout for the District, alas. But we do find total homeless student enrollment figures in prior Education Department reports.

So we learn that the D.C. public schools reported 2,499 homeless students during the 2009-10 school year and 2,947 during the 2011-12 school year. This represents an increase of nearly 18%.

Though the upward trends indicated are probably accurate, the hard numbers are again almost surely undercounts.

For one thing, the homeless, unaccompanied students are only those who received services from grant-funded staff or activities. For another, the totals, including the District’s, tell us only how many homeless students school authorities could identify.

Homeless students, we’re told, are often reluctant to seek aid and hard for school authorities to identify when they don’t. They’re fearful of peer reactions, being put into foster care, etc. We can assume this is especially the case for those who are on their own.

And, of course, the Education Department’s figures don’t include youth who’ve dropped out of school — or those who’ve graduated and been unable to find jobs that would give them the wherewithal for rent.

In sum we seem to have better data on homeless children and youth than we used to — the unaccompanied cohort in particular. But we know they’re imperfect.

Here in the District, we may have better numbers fairly soon. The budget for this fiscal year includes $1.3 million for the End Homeless Youth Act — an optimistically titled bill based on recommendations by another coalition.

The bill requires the Department of Human Services to conduct “an extended youth count,” which, I take it, means something considerably more comprehensive than the one-night counts that have yielded such dubious figures.

But the bill itself called for $10 million in annual funding, reflecting what the coalition estimated the first year of its plan would cost. A million was for evaluation, including, but not limited to the youth count.

So it’s not altogether clear what we’ll have and when. Meanwhile, however, even the figures we have are plenty good enough to tell us that we’ve got a larger, more complex problem than our public agencies and the nonprofits they help support have the resources or the inter-connections to cope with effectively — let alone solve.

The Winter Plan for the upcoming season identifies 117 shelter beds specifically for young adults and 10 beds (no, this is not a typo) for unaccompanied minors.

And, as I earlier wrote, there’s no genuine plan for homeless families — thus none for the large number headed by parents in their late teens and early twenties. Setting aside the urgent shelter capacity issue, solutions designed for older people, e.g., rapid re-housing, may not be suitable for them.

Many challenges for the new administration. One can only hope it will be more concerned with meeting the diverse needs of its homeless constituents — even if that means spending more, as it probably will.

 

 


New Hope for Left Out Homeless Children and Youth

August 4, 2014

How many children and youth are homeless in our country? We still don’t know. What we do know is that many of them don’t qualify for programs and services funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bipartisan bills introduced in both the House and Senate aim to close this gap in the safety net. Whether they will fare better than earlier efforts to expand the definition of “homeless” that HUD must use remains to be seen.

What’s the Problem?

The U.S. Department of Education reports that well over 1.1 million homeless children and youth attended public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

But this is an under-count — in part because not all school districts reported data. Even those that did probably didn’t know how many homeless students they had because, for obvious reasons, homeless kids don’t always ask for help. Nor are they always easy for school personnel to identify.

And, of course, the reported number doesn’t include infants and toddlers — or all somewhat older preschoolers either, the National Associations for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports. Homeless youth who’ve dropped out of school or graduated aren’t in the tally either.

Only some fraction of homeless children and youth — counted and otherwise — can get into a shelter funded in whole or in part by HUD because they and their parents have some place else to stay and aren’t demonstrably at immediate risk of being out on the streets.

They’re surely at risk of having to find another accommodating friend or relative — in some reported cases, because the place they’re staying is unhealthful or unsafe. But even in the best of cases, they’ll be moving from one place to another. And we know that instability is bad for kids.

The families are also ineligible for the limited-term housing assistance that HUD’s grantees provide — and for the services that aim to improve their finances so they can afford market-rate rents.

The children and youth are, however, homeless under the part of the McKinney-Vento Act that applies to public education — hence the count cited above. They may also be homeless under other federal laws.

What the Bills Would Do

The bills address several major problems advocates have identified. The largest is the restrictive definition that bars so many homeless families from HUD-funded aid — unless and until they’re out on the streets or about to be.

First off, the bills would enable families to qualify if they stand to lose their housing within 30 days, instead of the current two weeks.

Second they would extend the definition of “homeless” to children and youth who are verified as such by administrators of seven federal programs, in addition to HUD’s.

So, for example, children and youth who are living doubled-up with friends or relatives or staying in a cheap motel would become eligible for HUD-funded services, as they already are for those public schools must provide.

A somewhat similar provision extends eligibility to families and unaccompanied youth who are certified by a public housing authority as lacking “a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.”

Communities wouldn’t have to make these newly-eligible homeless families and youth a priority. But they could do more for them than HUD rules now allow. The bills, in fact, prohibit the agency from giving priority to any homeless population in its decisions on grant awards.

HUD currently gives top priority to people who are chronically homeless, i.e., those who have a severe disability and have been spending their nights in a shelter or “a place not meant for human habitation” for at least a year or recurrently.

Obviously not conducive to extending services for families and unaccompanied youth who’ve been couch-surfing.

Lastly, the bills require HUD to make the results of the HMIS (homeless management information system) reports that grantees must submit available online to anyone who’s interested — and to Congress.

We wouldn’t, of course, see personally-identifiable information about clients. But we would have access to better data than the one-night counts provide because HUD would have to report cumulative HMIS figures.

So we’d have a better fix on the extent of the problem. Of course, we’d also need more funding to address it — and to do so without shorting the needs of homeless adults who don’t have children in their care.

First, however, we need more members of Congress signed on to the bills. Those of you who have voting representation in Congress have several opportunities to help, including a quick and easy e-mail. We who live in the District of Columbia can pass the word along.

 


Nearly 47,000 Youth and Children Homeless and Apart From Family

December 2, 2013

We who live in the District of Columbia have been engaged in a lively discussion (euphemism) about the 2013-14 Winter Plan for homeless youth and children who aren’t with a parent or other adult caregiver.

Now we have some first-time-ever figures on homeless unaccompanied young people. The most detailed are nationwide. But we also get totals for states, the District and communities of several sorts whose totals were highest.

The figures are all part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, which reflects the results of last January’s point-in-time counts, i.e. the one-night censuses conducted by Continuums of Care (the technical name for the planning entities in communities that receive homeless assistance grants).

Generally speaking, we need to take PIT figures with a grain of salt because much depends on how each CoC goes about conducting its census.

And whatever their methods, it’s reasonable to believe that the counts miss some homeless people whose only shelter is what they manage to find — or create — for themselves.

We need also to recall that the legislation governing the HUD grants — and thus the data collected — generally excludes people, including children and youth, who are living in motels or doubled-up with friends or relatives because they can’t afford a home of their own.

Perhaps we should add another grain of salt for the homeless youth count because CoCs never had to do it before. And they faced new challenges.

For example, the places they’re used to looking for homeless people aren’t where they’re likely to find homeless kids, as an Urban Institute assessment of homeless youth counts says.

And, of course, many of the kids don’t want to be found because they fear they’ll be returned to the families they fled or put into foster care.

CoCs addressed the challenges in different ways — some more aggressively and strategically than others, the Institute’s report suggests.

So with all these caveats, here’s what the AHAR tells us.

At some point last January, there were 46,924 unaccompanied children and youth up to the age of 24.* They represented about 7.7% of all the homeless people counted.

By far and away the largest number were in the 18 to 24 age range — 40,727 or 86.8% of the whole subgroup. Nearly two-thirds (66.2%) of all youth, so defined, were unaccompanied.

All but 4.5% of the children counted were in a family “household.” Which leaves 6,197 who’d left their families or been kicked out of their homes.

Half the unaccompanied children and youth were found unsheltered, i.e., in a park, bus station or, in HUD’s inimitable phrasing, some other place “not ordinarily designed for or used as a sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

The unsheltered rate for unaccompanied children was higher — 59.2%. This is far higher than the unsheltered rate for all people counted, by about 24%, as well as somewhat higher than the rate for unaccompanied youth.

Here in the District, the count reportedly turned up a total of 164 unaccompanied children and youth. No breakouts in the AHAR.

The District’s CoC report to HUD, however, identifies six unaccompanied children and says all of them were in emergency shelter. Only eighteen unaccompanied youth in the 18 to 24 age bracket were unsheltered on the count night, it says.

I’d like to think this is accurate, but have my doubts. That’s all they are, however. So I’ll forgo elaboration.

I understand discussion will soon be under way to improve the District’s homeless unaccompanied child and youth count. It will be interesting to see what next year’s figures look like.

In the meantime, the top priority is to ensure that every one of the unaccompanied young people, however many there are, have shelter or housing this winter. The rest of the year too.

* The AHAR defines the subgroup as “under the age of 25.” And the graphs identify youth as “18-24.” However, both the text and HUD PIT guidance use the phrase “to 24.” So it seems more likely than not that the PIT homeless youth counts did not include 24-year-olds.


Final DC Winter Plan for Homeless Children Passes, With No Shelter Guarantee

November 14, 2013

The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness met yesterday to again consider the part of the 2013-14 Winter Plan that’s supposed to address the shelter and service needs of homeless young adults and minor-age children.

This time, it approved the draft, as-is and with virtually no discussion.

More newsworthy perhaps is that it rejected, almost unanimously, an amendment that would have committed the District to ensuring that “no homeless youth is in danger of hypothermia this winter season,” even if the resources identified in the plan prove insufficient.

Two other parts of the Winter Plan — those that identify shelter capacities for homeless individual men and women — include a similar commitment.

The real sticking point was the basis for the commitment, stated in the sentence that preceded it: “The right to shelter during a hypothermia alert applies to all District residents who cannot access other housing arrangements, including homeless youth.”

Those who’ve been following this issue will recall that the first iteration of the youth-children part said nothing about what the District would do to provide shelter in freezing-cold weather for children under 18 who aren’t with an adult family member.

The ICH approved the Winter Plan, but contingent on a genuine plan for unaccompanied minor-age children. The second iteration didn’t pass either — and as I said at the time, with good reason.

Like the first, it reflected the Department of Human Services’ novel view that the Homeless Services Reform Act, which establishes a legal right to shelter in “severe weather conditions,” doesn’t protect unaccompanied minor-age children, except in the rare cases when they’re legally emancipated.

DHS still takes that view. An open letter to the community issued late last month grudgingly acknowledges that “some advocates believe that the District’s Right to Shelter legislation extends to unaccompanied children who have run away from home for issues other than abuse and neglect.”

Unsaid, but obvious is that DHS believes otherwise. The meeting confirmed that it speaks for the Gray administration. City Administrator Allen Lew, who chairs the ICH, objected to the amendment because it would establish “an unsustainable right to shelter.”

In other words, DHS and the Child and Family Services Administration, which has a lead role in the unaccompanied minor part of the plan, will try to ensure that homeless children are safe, even if it’s not clear they’ve been abused and/or neglected. But if the plan, as written, falls short, well, so be it.

The plan itself reflects the administration’s contorted reading of the law. A child who refuses to return to a “safe available home” with his/her family isn’t homeless, it says.

What staff are supposed to do with children if a preliminary screening indicates they could return is unclear. But the restrictive definition clearly implies that ensuring they have shelter from the elements is, at best, optional.

In other ways, the final draft is far better than its predecessors. But that doesn’t mean it’s as clear and apparently sufficient as the portions of the Winter Plan for homeless men and women who don’t have children with them.

Like the open letter, the draft acknowledges funds in the District’s current budget that will support a new six-bed facility where unaccompanied minor-age children can stay for up to three days without parental or court approval and up to two weeks with approval.

DHS says it expects stays to average a week — and thus to have beds available for 300 more children than the roughly equivalent number that led to high turnaway rates last winter.

The total number of beds should be enough to meet the need, the plan says. What will happen if no bed is available when a homeless child needs one isn’t stated.

And what will happen before the new facility is up and running isn’t either. At this point, a contract to furbish and operate it is still pending. DHS Director David Berns said he thought it would open in January. Agency officials are “talking about interim scenarios.”

But we’ve already had weather cold enough to trigger hypothermia alerts. In fact, one was in effect while the ICH met. Kinda late to be still talking, one might think.

I’m not suggesting the Gray administration will cavalierly let kids freeze to death. But if it were absolutely determined to bring every one of them out of the cold, why does it insist that it has no obligation to do so?

Even if the law were ambiguous — and I don’t think it is — why niggle about it when the moral obligation is crystal clear?

I understand that the drafting committees felt they had to confront complex issues. Children aren’t grownups. We can’t just give them a shelter bed and let them be — or tell them to go on home, regardless of whether they’ll be safe and properly cared for.

But all the Winter Plan is supposed to do — for them, as well as for everyone else in the District — is, as the title page says, “protect the homeless during the winter season” from exposure to the life-threatening risks of freezing-cold temperatures.

If it were enough to trust agencies to muddle through somehow, the law wouldn’t require the District to have one.


DC Department of Human Services Plans to Leave Homeless Children Out in the Cold

October 24, 2013

The District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness recently met to discuss, among other things, a revised section of the 2013-14 Winter Plan — specifically, the part that deals with homeless youth and young adults.

Once again, the ICH sent it back to the drawing board. And a good thing too. Because it isn’t merely lacking in specifics, like the family portion I complained about. It’s a tacit denial of a responsibility that everyone, to my knowledge, assumed the District had.

The Department of Human Services now takes the view that the District doesn’t have to provide emergency shelter for homeless children who aren’t with a parent or other caretaker — and that the Winter Plan, therefore, should do nothing to ensure that they have a safe place to stay in freezing-cold weather.

This novel interpretation of the Homeless Services Reform Act is apparently quite new. And it’s not directly stated in the revised section presented to the ICH.

The portion that deals with “unaccompanied minor children” says that the Child and Family Services Administration, i.e., the District’s child welfare agency, will provide 24/7 safety for those it determines were victims of abuse and/or neglect.

Not, I should note, an assurance of immediate shelter or housing.

For children generally, the draft says, “there is not a separate low barrier shelter system in the District” — in other words, no network of publicly-funded providers to ensure that they can get shelter with meeting requirements that might exclude some of them, e.g., showing an ID.

This is a mere statement of fact, not a reason for a “plan” that’s no plan at all.

As the draft indicates, there are two local nonprofits that provide emergency shelter for youth — only one of them for the very young. But, as the prior draft said, “capacity in these programs is limited and slots are quickly filled.”

You’d think DHS would have done something about such an obviously urgent problem. The shortage of shelter beds for kids is hardly new.

The DC Alliance of Youth Advocates alluded to it in a report issued nearly two years ago. Last February, the ICH Youth Sub-Committee reported that 80 youth had been turned away from emergency shelters the month before.

Preliminary data cited by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless indicate that at least 150 minor-age children were turned away during a three-month period, including two months of last year’s official winter season.

DHS could have sounded alarm bells. It’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t have gotten the funds to significantly expand emergency shelter capacity for children who’ve been thrown out of their homes or fled.

Instead, the agency secured a legal analysis to justify the “proposed framework for serving unaccompanied minor children” that’s reflected in the Winter Plan.

Which prompted the Legal Clinic’s own legal analysis.

As it says, the framework asserts that DHS has no legal authority to shelter homeless unaccompanied minors who would otherwise be exposed to dangerously-cold temperatures. Nor, “by extension,” do the providers it contracts with.

This is merely an administrative issue — a way of shucking off responsibility to other agencies, most of which serve on the ICH and, therefore, have responsibilities for a Winter Plan that purports “to protect the lives of those who are homeless.”

The more important claim is that the HSRA doesn’t require the District to shelter unaccompanied minors — except in cases where they’re legally emancipated, i.e., have a court order granting them freedom from parental control (and parents freedom from responsibilities for their care).

The reasoning here is pretty contorted. I’ll leave it to the Legal Clinic to explain the details.

For our purposes, it’s sufficient to say that the legal opinion the framework cites relies on the fact that the HSRA doesn’t specifically say that unaccompanied minor children have a right to shelter — or define the term “individual.”

It does, however, clearly say that the District must provide “appropriate space … for any person in the District who is homeless and cannot access other shelter” whenever “the actual or forecasted temperature, including wind chill factor falls below 32 degrees.”

And there is nothing in the law to justify some of the exclusions the DHS framework establishes for any homeless services to minor-age children. For example, the proposition that they’re not homeless if they “have a house to return to but … no place to stay for the night.”

Say, for the sake of argument, that the law were sufficiently ambiguous raise doubts about the District’s legal obligation to provide children with a safe place to stay when they’d otherwise be on the streets in freezing-cold weather — and highly vulnerable to predators who offer to take them in.

Wouldn’t we still want some of our taxpayer dollars going to remedy a long-standing weakness in the District’s publicly-funded network of shelters, housing and other services for homeless people?

But I’m persuaded that the law isn’t ambiguous on the fundamental issue here. So the real alternative is having our taxpayer dollars wasted in defending the District in a lawsuit for violation of a basic right established in the HSRA — a likely possibility, the Legal Clinic’s brief implies.

But, in the meantime, there will be a lot of young people at unnecessary risk of harm.

The DC Council’s Human Services Committee will hold a hearing on the Winter Plan next Tuesday morning. One can only help that it will firmly reject the pseudo-legalistic evasions and tell the Gray administration to do what it should have done some time ago.

And do it PDQ because, as you may have noticed, it’s getting cold outside.

NOTE: The Legal Clinic tells me that the timeframe for the turn-away estimate is five months, not three, as the source I link to indicates.


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