Bowser Budget Scants Needs of Homeless and Others at High Risk

April 20, 2017

Picking up where I left off, some major parts of Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget don’t link as obviously to the inclusive prosperity road its title promises as, for example, adult education and available, affordable child care.

Yet two other parts we care about do because both are virtual preconditions to earning income and having enough left over after basic needs to invest in boosting one’s marketable knowledge and skills.

But I don’t want to leave impression that I equate “prosperity” with income or wealth, as I think Bowser’s budget title does because it seems an indirect way of referring to the extraordinarily high level of income inequality in the District.

The Latin root of “prosperity” means made successful, but also made happy, according to one’s hopes. One can surely make a homeless family happy by providing it with decent, stable housing it can afford without—or before — doing whatever necessary to boost its income so that it can pay full rent.

So we need to look at the following from multiple perspectives.

Affordable Housing

No one, I suppose, needs anything further said about the acute shortage of housing in the District that its lowest-income residents can afford.

Such prosperity as they might achieve — through taking college courses, for example — is beyond their means because, if they’re not homeless, most are paying more than half their income for rent and more than half of those at least 80%.

The Mayor, to her credit, would again commit $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, plus $10 million to a new fund dedicated solely to preserving existing affordable housing.

But helping developers finance new affordable housing construction and/or renovations isn’t enough to produce units affordable for the lowest-income residents.

Those units need housing vouchers attached to cover the difference between what tenants must pay — no more than 30% of their income — and ongoing operating costs, e.g., maintenance, utilities, staff wages. The Mayor fails to propose funding to increase the number of these so-called project-based vouchers.

And as I earlier said, additional funding could be needed merely to sustain vouchers now in use because if Congress extends the current funding level for federal Housing Choice vouchers, the DC Housing Authority won’t have the money to issue any.

If the Republican majorities in Congress accede to anything like Trump’s budget plan, a larger loss, as yet unestimated at the state/District level.

Homelessness

Want of affordable housing obviously causes homelessness. But it does more than that. It’s hard to get and keep a job when you’re living in a shelter.

That’s especially true if the shelter’s for adults only because they generally have to get in line in mid-afternoon to get back in. And those who make it may not be able to wash themselves and are highly vulnerable to theft.

There goes the cell phone that’s the only way to contact them — and the photo ID they’ll need, if they have one.

All but impossible to get a job if they’re among the chronically homeless without the safety, stability and appropriate services they’d get in permanent supportive housing.

The Mayor does increase PSH funding by $2.7 million. But that would meet only 30% of what’s needed to end chronic homelessness, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports. (The target year set by the strategic plan the Mayor’s embraced obviously won’t be met,)

Other single homeless people get shorted in several different ways. No additional rapid re-housing for them, though some temporarily down on their luck could pick up the full rent when their short-term subsidies end.

About 46% for less for families as in the current fiscal year. But its success in ending homelessness — or as the program’s formally titled achieving “stabilization” — is at the very least debatable.

And the District’s youngest homeless people — those under 25 who’re on their own in the city — will continue to suffer from neglect, in addition to the egregious neglect (or abuse) that caused some to leave home to begin with.

Others became homeless when they became legally adults. Various reasons for this. For example, they were either kicked out by their parents (something that can happen earlier) or reached the maximum age for foster care and didn’t have foster parents who’d foster them for free — or any one else who’d take them in.

These young people need safe, stable housing, but also education and/or training and mentoring because, as the National Network for Youth puts it, many are in a state of “extreme disconnection.”

In other words, they’re worst cases of youth commonly referred to as “disconnected” — or more hopefully, “opportunity.” They’re not only neither in school or working. They lack basic life skills, e.g., how to keep themselves healthy, look for a job, manage such money as they make.

The DC Interagency Council on Homelessness developed a five-year plan specifically for homeless youth, based on census (no link available) that’s surely an undercount. It nevertheless captured 545 youth who were either homeless or insecurely housed, e.g. couch-surfing.

The ICH developed a five-year homeless youth plan, as an amendment to the District’s basic homeless services plan requires. The Mayor’s budget invests $2.4 million — less than half what the upcoming (and first) year requires.

Homeless now — others to become so. How then will the District make not only youth, but former youth homelessness brief, rare, brief and non-recurring  — let alone enable these potential contributors to our economy and our civic life share in the prosperity the Mayor dangles before us?


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.


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.