Federal Funding For DC Homeless Housing Program At Risk

November 4, 2009

President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2010 budget included $19.2 million for the District of Columbia’s permanent supportive housing program. Whether the District actually gets this funding hinges on what happens in the Senate.

The House of Representatives adopted the President’s recommendation in its version of the Financial Services and General Administration Appropriations Act–the bill that includes federal funding for the District. The Senate Appropriation’s Committee didn’t.

I’ve been told that the appropriations bill will be folded into a more comprehensive bill comprising all the appropriations that the Congress hasn’t already sent to the President. So the hope now is that leaders of the House subcommittee for the District’s appropriation insist on the provision and their Senate counterparts agree.

SOME (So Others Might Eat) has posted a letter we can e-mail to urge these leaders to agree to the $19.2 million. It’s a quick, easy way to join our voices to those of PSH providers, their clients, advocacy organizations and other concerned citizens.

The funding would enable the District to move forward with its efforts to transition from an emergency shelter-based system to a system that provides long-term affordable housing and an array of services to those in greatest need–individuals and families who’ve been homeless for a long time or repeatedly over the years. Without the funding, the program will stall because its local funding was cut to help balance the D.C. budget.

The permanent supportive housing model is widely viewed as a cost-effective approach to helping homeless people who face complex challenges, e.g., very low (or no) income, mental illness, substance abuse, etc. The theory is that once they’re in a safe, stable environment, they’re more receptive to services that help them regain control over their lives and greater self-sufficiency. And, of course, it’s easier to coordinate these services and deliver them for however long needed.

The District has already moved more than 500 individuals and 70 families off the streets and out of emergency shelters into permanent supportive housing. The Department of Human Services says that the $19.2 million would allow it to extend the program to 400 more individuals and 150 more families. As in other communities, the investment should pay off in reduced shelter, medical care and other safety net costs.

It’s no substitute for urgently-needed funding for other homeless services. But it would reduce pressure on these services and offer chronically homeless people a better chance for a better life.


Next Round In the DC Homeless Services Crisis

October 13, 2009

This Wednesday at noon, the DC Council Committee on Human Services will hold a roundtable hearing on the District’s winter plan. Or at least that’s the formal topic for the hearing. The dialogue will undoubtedly be broader because, at this point, what’s at stake is the longer-term future of homeless services in D.C.

Since the hearing was scheduled:

  • Homeless service providers have been told that their contracts will be reduced by an average of 30%. Five shelter providers have warned that their clients are at immediate risk. One has said her organization will have to close a housing program for families.
  • Interested parties have locked horns on the size of the homeless services budget cut. We’ve now learned that it’s apparently somewhat over $12 million. Most of this cut represents funds in the federal block grant for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. These were formerly used to supplement the local homeless services appropriation but have been diverted to other programs.
  • Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, has issued a statement committing only to funding for the shelter capacity and other services identified in the winter plan, capped at the Fiscal Year 2009 level. No assurance that any funds will be available for the rest of the year.
  • Some Councilmembers, including Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, have expressed dismay at this turn of events.

So the hearing promises to be lively and potentially consequential.

A coalition of homeless service providers, advocates and homeless people has scheduled a press conference on the steps of the John A. Wilson building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, at 11:00 a.m. This will be a great opportunity to learn more about what’s happening and likely to happen if the Council or administration higher-ups don’t step in to restore the homeless services budget.

You can influence the outcome of this crisis by calling or e-mailing Mayor Fenty, the City Administrator and members of the Human Services Committee. Contact information for committee members is in the Council directory.

Also attend the press conference and/or hearing if you can. A big turnout will show Councilmembers that their constituents care about the safety and well-being of their homeless neighbors.

No Clear Answers on DC Shelter Cutbacks

October 7, 2009

Last Saturday, the Washington Post reported that the Fenty administration had cut funding for homeless services by $20 million. The source for that figure was Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee. He says the cuts took him by surprise–that the budget he asked the Council to vote on included no cuts in homeless services.

That takes me by surprise. The expenditure reductions table that blogger and budget “insider” Susie Cambria got from reliable sources certainly indicates cuts for homeless services, though nowhere near $20 million.

In any event, Wells changed the agenda for a scheduled hearing so that he could look into the issue. As the Post reports, Clarence Carter, head of the Department of Human Services, testified that Wells was “dead wrong.” The actual cut was more like $900,000.

Moreover, he said, funding for the Community Partnership for Homelessness Prevention, which manages homeless services for the District, is about the same as last year’s, though he also referred to a budget reduction of $11.5 million. Wells and homeless advocates insisted the cut was larger–about 30%.

One would think the amount of funding available for homeless services would be beyond dispute. But the Budget Request Act–the appropriations the Council approved–has no separate line item for homeless services. So DHS can allocate funding for these services as it sees fit and move money around in response to changing priorities and pressures.

Whatever the figure, a fact sheet issued by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says that at least five emergency shelter and transitional housing providers were notified on September 28 that their contracts would be cut by an average of 30%, effective October 1. This much apparently is not in dispute.

We’re given to understand that a lot of people who now have shelter will be out on the streets unless the mandated cuts are rescinded. And we know there are now 385 families on the waiting list for shelter or other housing.

The official start of the hypothermia season is just weeks away. And the winter plan, which is supposed to be a blueprint for how the District will provide shelter for every individual and family who needs protection from the cold, assumes more capacity than apparently will be available.

So we obviously have a crisis–and, what’s worse, no clear view of its dimensions or potential solutions. The roots of the problem go back to the over-broad budget allocation and what certainly seems to be a lack of transparency on the part of the Fenty administration.

Whatever Carter told the Community Partnership and/or the providers, he testified that his department had the funds to cope as recently as mid-July. And he said not a word to the contrary when the Interagency Council on Homelessness met in early September.

But I’d be sorry to see all the blame heaped on DHS. After all, the Council voted to cut the department’s budget. What did they expect? That somehow homeless and other poor people wouldn’t be hurt?

CORRECTION: The version of the Fiscal Year 2010 budget submitted for Congressional approval on September 28 has a separate line item for homeless services. The budget was restructured this year to put these in the family services account.

Revised Winter Shelter Plan Still Iffy For Homeless DC Families

October 3, 2009

The Interagency Council on Homelessness met last month to consider the District’s plan for sheltering homeless individuals and families during the winter months ahead. The plan before the Council indicated considerably more shelter capacity for families than the draft I wrote about awhile ago.

What we see now proposes a total of 228 family shelter units, plus 73 new units of permanent supportive housing. Of the shelter units, 128 are open year round. (These weren’t reflected in the prior draft.) An additional 75 units are designated as winter-only, and up to 25 more would open if these were full.

Last year, the plan says, a total of 210 family units were available during the hypothermia season. The District’s 2009 homeless count report says there were 237 units. So capacity for the upcoming season would be increased by either 30% or 21%. That’s a lot, by either measure. Is it enough? Who knows?

What we do know is that:

  • As many as 37 of the family units the plan designates as winter-only have been used this summer because all the year-round units have been full. So they’re not all really additional seasonal capacity, as the winter plan says.
  • All family units currently available have been full virtually every night since at least the beginning of September.
  • As of the latest published report, there were 382 families on the shelter waiting list–81 more than the total number of shelter units, plus PSH units in the winter plan.
  • Only 16 more PSH units are scheduled to open before November. The remainder included in the winter plan are already occupied and thus not additional space.
  • The Fenty administration has just cut the homeless services budget by $20 million. Advocates say that families now in emergency shelter units included in the winter plan are at immediate risk of eviction.

The committee charged with developing the winter plan faces a difficult challenge. One truly can’t know how many homeless people will need shelter on any given night. But for individual men and women, the committee projected need as 110% of the maximum number of beds used last winter.

I’ve been told the same can’t be done for families. I’ve tried hard to find out why. One reason, it seems, is that the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, which handles intake and placement for all homeless D.C. families, sends some to accommodations that aren’t part of the daily reports used for the winter plan. I gather they’re not in these reports because the providers serve only certain types of homeless families, e.g., victims of domestic violence. Why figures from the FRC records couldn’t be used to project need is an open question.

A further stumbling block for the winter plan is the District’s intent to make better use of transitional housing. But there’s no plan that indicates how many families could be diverted from the shelter system, in part because transitional housing providers have various eligibility requirements. And the new homeless services budget cut may impact them too.

The District also expects to ramp up its services to prevent homelessness, thanks to the $7.4 million for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing that  it received under the federal economic recovery act. But here again, no numbers to indicate how this will affect needs for emergency shelter.

ICH didn’t adopt the proposed winter plan, as expected. A majority of advocates on the Council wouldn’t vote for it–for reasons having nothing to do with the family numbers. The City Administrator, Neal Albert, and Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, were clearly frustrated.

Carter kept repeating that what really matters is the administration’s commitment to protect homeless people from cold weather. If there’s not enough capacity, he said, “we’ll bring more on.” Let’s assume that’s true, notwithstanding the huge budget cut.

We’re still left with a serious issue about the projections that will be used for the winter plan. After all, the District won’t be able to contract for more family shelter space overnight.

And if a mere assurance that the administration will fulfill its legal obligations is good enough, then what do we need a winter plan–or a multi-stakeholder Council–for anyway?

New Report Documents Violence Against Homeless People

August 15, 2009

Every once in awhile, we read about some act of violence against a homeless person. Young men set fire to a homeless man. A teenager beats a homeless man to death with a baseball bat. Twin brothers terrorize homeless people in a public park–a woman thrown down a flight of stairs, a sleeping man pounded with his own bicycle, another stabbed.

For 10 years now, the National Coalition for the Homeless has been issuing annual reports on crimes like these. It’s just published the latest.

As NCH readily acknowledges, its data are incomplete, based on news articles and reports from advocates, service providers and homeless and formerly homeless people themselves. But they’re still enough to give one pause.

  • In 2008 alone, 106 homeless people were subject to violent attacks, 27 of them fatal.
  • These attacks occurred in 22 states and the District of Columbia.
  • They included shootings, beatings, rapes, other assaults and at least three human torchings.
  • Victims were predominantly middle-aged and elderly. Of those whose attackers were formally accused, 17.3% were in their 50’s and 10.9% were over 60.

The NCH data are just the tip of the iceberg. Homeless people are understandably reluctant to call the police. And law enforcement authorities don’t have to keep records identifying crimes that seem motivated in whole or in part by the homelessness of the victim. But even the relatively little we know tells us there’s a serious nationwide problem.

So what’s to do? The ultimate solution, of course, is to create enough affordable and permanent supportive housing so that no one has to be homeless any more.

In the interim, we have to look for other policy solutions. One NCH recommends is legislation to make homeless people a protected class under existing hate crimes laws.

The District of Columbia has just joined a relatively small number of jurisdictions in enacting such legislation. Under the just-signed emergency crime bill, the Bias-Related Crime Act is amended to include crimes based on a prejudice against homelessness. This will allow a court to impose up to one and a half times the ordinary maximum fine or jail term if a crime against a homeless person was committed at least in part because of the victim’s homelessness.

The measure is important, I think, as an expression of our collective revulsion against senseless, hateful acts. But I doubt the tougher penalties will serve as a deterrent.

After all, crimes like those in the NCH report aren’t based on rational risk/benefit calculations. Most seem prompted by a felt need for the thrill, release and peer validation of attacking a defenseless person. Some apparently are also fueled by hatred or contempt of homeless people. In short, they’re a symptom of something profoundly wrong in our culture.

What else can we think when someone who strangled and cracked open the skull of a homeless man said, when told who the victim was, “Oh him, he’s just a beggar, a vagrant.”? Or when others arrested for similar crimes said they did it for fun or just because they could?

There’s a pathology here that’s beyond my ken. But I think NCH is right to lay part of the blame on laws that target homeless people for innocuous acts like sitting or sleeping in public places, loafing, loitering or living in cars–not to mention laws that prohibit feeding them.

So passing hate crimes laws won’t be enough. Nor, I think, will eliminating laws that criminalize homelessness or putting homeless education programs in our schools, as NCH also recommends. But these are all steps in the right direction.

Not as good as ending homelessness or the deep-seated alienation and rage of young men who get pumped up by “beat[ing] down some bums.” But positive nonetheless.

Winter Shelter Plan Leaves DC Families Out In the Cold

August 12, 2009

Under District law, homeless residents have a right to shelter in severe weather. The law requires a multi-stakeholder group–the Interagency Council on Homelessness–to develop an annual plan for ensuring that enough shelter space in available during winter months.

Advocates who monitor shelter space have raised serious concerns about current capacity. So what ICH plans to do for the upcoming winter months, when people without shelter are at risk of freezing to death, should get a careful look.

I’m told that ICH projected shelter space needs for individuals based on peak use during the 2008-9 winter season. So let’s do the same for families.

On peak use night, 211 families were in shelters provided by nonprofits the District contracts with. The draft plan for this winter calls for 75 units, plus 25 in reserve when these are full.

The plan also includes new supportive housing units. The District expects to have 80 more units for families open before November 1. Only 28 are open now. But let’s assume all the rest open on time. That’s still a total of only 180 units for families–about 85% of peak use during the 2008-9 winter season.

It’s hard to know how many units would be enough. What we do know is that, in mid-July, there were at least 285 families on the waiting list for shelter space.

We also know that the unemployment rate is expected to rise and that breadwinners who’ve been jobless for a long time may not have any unemployment benefits after December. So it seems reasonable to expect that more families will find themselves without the money for rent or mortgage payments.

Fred Swann, head of the Family Services Administration, discounts concerns about inadequate family shelter space. “We hear that every year,” he says. “We’ll make adjustments as needed.” Well, they haven’t done it for the families on the shelter waiting list. So what will they do that’s new and different in the months ahead?

I’m told there’s a group working on a plan to reduce needs for emergency shelter by maximizing use of transitional housing. I wonder how many vacant transitional housing units for families the District will have to work with at any given time.

Crunching the numbers, it would seem that, at peak, there should be 54–or about 10% of all the transitional housing units in D.C. That seems like a lot of vacant units to count on. If it isn’t, then we need to know why–and when the transitional housing plan will be in place.

The District should be proud of creating a right to shelter in severe weather. But having a right isn’t going to keep a family safe and warm. Only a realistic plan can do that.

To my mind, the draft winter plan doesn’t make the grade. The numbers for families just don’t add up. But maybe we’ll be offered something better in the days ahead.

DC Council Hearing On Emergency Shelter Crisis

July 20, 2009

Last Friday, Councilmember Tommy Wells, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, held a hearing on emergency shelter capacity in the District. He wanted to know if the system is in crisis.

The figures certainly suggest it is:

  • Between April 1 and June 17, women’s shelters were full beyond capacity more than half the time.
  • In June, there were, on average, four vacancies per night for women and just one for families, indicating there were probably nights when people were turned away.
  • About 30 families are still in what’s supposed to be additional cold weather space at DC General–as Wells says, “an awful place for children to be.”
  • At least 285 families are on the waiting list for shelter. The usually-reliable Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says it’s actually 311.
  • No one knows how many families didn’t register when they found out how long the waiting list is.

But Clarence Carter, head of the DC Human Services Department, doesn’t see a crisis because he’s got a plan to relieve needs for emergency shelter. He says that:

  • Within months, the department will be using $7.4 million it’s received through the economic recovery act to provide more short-term assistance to families on the verge of homelessness.
  • It will also be coordinating planning so that individuals discharged from institutions have a place to live.
  • In upcoming months, the District’s Housing First initiative will expand to provide long-term supportive housing for 160 more individuals and 24 more families, thus shifting long-term users out of the shelter system.

But what will happen to homeless women and families in the meantime? And what if needs for housing assistance continue to grow? Carter says not to worry. The department has enough funds to cope.

Of course, that’s what agency heads are supposed to say when an administration has no intention of requesting more funds–let alone when it’s trying to close a budget gap with virtually no tax increases.

Still, it’s disturbing to hear such optimism when all the evidence indicates that needs for emergency shelter and affordable housing will continue to outstrip resources for some considerable time to come.

More disturbing yet when the Mayor’s gap-closing plan would eliminate the modest increases approved for Housing First and the Local Rent Supplement Program–funds that could help some homeless or about-to-be-homeless people get an affordable place to live.