DC General Family Shelter in Councilmember’s Bull’s-Eye

May 5, 2014

One of those interminable hearings on the proposed budget for the District of Columbia’s Department of Human Services. A list of 81 witnesses, not counting DHS Director David Berns, whose testimony was deferred.

Many issues teed up — most, though not all related to homeless services. No way to wrap them up in a blog post. One, however, raised a new red flag.

Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the Human Services Committee, insisted that DC General, the main shelter for homeless families, be closed by year’s end.

He wants to force the District to “marshal the will … and the resources” by putting a mandate to this effect in the Budget Support Act, as Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper reports.

Graham returned to this notion over and over again — and attempted (unsuccessfully) to garner advocates’ support.

His lead-off witness put a plank in the platform with observations and some survey results — all confirming that DC General is an awful place. Hot water only some of the time, rats, roaches and, as one current resident testified, bedbugs that caused her daughter’s face to swell up with infection.

It’s “a dead building,” Graham said, quoting past testimony by Berns. No point then in putting any money into making it somewhat more habitable.

And even if it were, it would still be an out-sized facility — “a small city” of homeless families, each with only a single room to live in.

No one, so far as I know, believes that DC General is a perfectly okay place to shelter homeless families when they’d otherwise have no safe place to stay. Some doubts, in fact, as to whether it is safe — raised most recently by the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd.

The issue is rather whether the District should close DC General before it can open enough more suitable shelter units to meet the need. Graham clearly believes this is the only way to ensure it will ever open them.

He cites the Mayor’s initiative to rapidly re-house 500 homeless families by mid-July. That, he says, would leave only about 100 families in DC General.

So there’d be vacant units — assuming, as he apparently does, that the initiative succeeds and accepting, as he does, the Mayor’s intent to keep them vacant for as long as he can. They’d still eventually be filled, Graham foresees, unless the shelter is shut down.

What to do then with the 100 or more families — and the who knows how many who will seek shelter as soon as the weather turns cold enough to trigger their legal right to protection from exposure to “severe weather conditions?”

Graham would temporarily shelter them in hotels, using money saved by not operating DC General.

This is wholly contrary to the approach DHS plans to take. Berns, recall, believes that homeless families left doubled-up situations once they knew they’d be put up in a hotel, instead of DC General.

It’s also quite different from the approach envisioned in the “roadmap” that 20 leading advocacy and service provider organizations released the day of the hearing.

This is the second time this year that advocates and service providers have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands because the Gray administration either won’t or can’t develop and carry out a plan to ensure that all homeless D.C. families have a safe, decent place to stay — and sufficient help to make their time there brief.

Or both. On the won’t side, we can look at the Mayor’s proposed budget, which would effectively cut homeless family services by $11 million — 20% of what DHS has this year.

The first coalition effort was a multi-part strategy to address the immediate family shelter crisis. The “roadmap” is a more evolved version — goals, sub-goals and new cost estimates to move the District toward a significantly improved homeless family system.

That, of course, will include something other than DC General — apartment-style units in smaller buildings, scattered in different parts of the city. The coalition expects the overhaul to take several years, however, and so focuses on improved casework and other services for families who’ll be at DC General.

Not so many there perhaps — or any for so long, if other goals are met. But there will be “safe and adequate emergency shelter for families when they need it” — whatever the outdoor temperature.

Pressed to endorse immediate closure, Judith Sandalow, who heads the Children’s Law Project, demurred because “we haven’t seen a plan that will keep families safe.”

Marta Berensin at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless was understandably unwilling to rely on “all the big ifs.” She envisions a process in which units at DC General will be closed as they’re replaced.

A crisis-creating measure like what Graham wants could set off a repeat of the “draconian measures” DHS resorted to this winter, she warned. These measures would mean shelter for families only on freezing-cold days and no shelter during the next severe cold snap unless they went through the whole application process all over again.

One can understand Graham’s impatience. DC General was initially supposed to be an interim solution. There’s been talk about closing it for some time. Yet the Mayor only very recently directed Berns and the Deputy Mayor for Human Services to develop a closure plan.

We’ve no reason to believe that the District can establish alternative shelters for hundreds of homeless families by year’s end — or that it will pick up the costs of hotel rooms for them whenever they’ve no safe place to stay.

We do have reasons to believe that some of those families will be boomeranging back because they can’t pay rent when their rapid re-housing subsidies expire.

So I can’t help wondering if Graham, who’ll be leaving the Council shortly, wants to make a bit of history, knowing he won’t have to deal with the fallout — or perhaps just go out swinging.

UPDATE: The DC Fiscal Policy Institute now has a petition asking Councilmembers to fund the reforms recommended in the roadmap. It’s a quick and easy way for those of you who live in the District to support sorely needed improvements in the homeless family system.



DC Bill Puts Priority On Homeless Youth

July 21, 2011

The DC Council seems again poised to amend the Homeless Services Reform Act — the basis for much of what the District does to address homelessness in our community.

The bill is nothing like so controversial as last year’s amendment, which, as you may recall, sought to restrict emergency shelter to people who could prove they were D.C. residents.

The new amendment was jointly introduced by Councilmember Jim Graham, Chairman of the Human Services Committee, and Councilmember Michael Brown, Chairman of the Housing and Workforce Development.

It’s got nine cosponsors — all sitting Councilmembers who had an opportunity to sign on except Jack Evans and David Catania.

Last month’s hearing on the amendment was a virtual love fest. All but two witnesses supported it as-is.

And those two had reservations about just one part — seats on the Interagency Council on Homelessness designated specifically for represents of organizations that serve homeless youth and homeless families. Not, I think, a make-or-break.

The strategic plan ICH issued last April pays a good deal of attention to homeless families — as well it should. Virtually nothing, however, about homeless youth who aren’t with adult family members.

Concern about them dominated the hearing. And it’s surely a legitimate concern.

As a majority of witnesses emphasized, homeless youth are distinctively different from homeless adults.

Many become homeless for different reasons, e.g., because they need to escape abusive situations, because their parents throw them out, because they “age out” of the foster care system or get released from detention without provisions for housing.

They’re still developing emotionally and cognitively — more vulnerable, but perhaps more open to help than people who’ve endured years of hardship, humiliation, downright hostility, etc.

They’re more likely to be in unstable housing situations — couch surfing in homes of friends and relatives — than in shelters or on the streets. And, for that reason, we’ve got no idea of how many there are.

The Graham-Brown amendment aims to give the DC Council a better fix on the problems and solutions — not only for homeless youth, but for other subgroups that the ICH strategy and homeless counts already distinguish.

It requires ICH to develop a new five-year strategic plan, plus annual plans for implementing it. The Council is supposed to get these as part of the administration’s annual budget proposals.

Many specific parts to the plan. Some seem to me very challenging — for example:

  • A gap analysis of the shelter, housing and support needs of discrete homeless populations, along with numerical goals for housing production or rental assistance for each.
  • A strategy for working collaboratively with surrounding jurisdictions.
  • An account of trends in federal homelessness funding, plus an analysis of how local agencies and nonprofits can get more federal funds and, as if that weren’t enough, how said funds would be “utilized and prioritized.”

Heavy lifting, I think. But something along these lines could be feasible if all the senior District officials now nominally on the ICH actively participated — and committed staff support.

That in itself could be a heavy lift for agencies already struggling with budget-driven staff shortages.

I’ve remarked before that the DC Council seems better at making good policies than at providing the oversight and resources needed to make them work.

I fear that the Graham-Brown amendment may prove a case in point. But I hope it passes anyway.

We have nonprofits in the District that specialize in services for homeless youth. But our government needs to make serious investments in helping these young people out on their own get connected to caring adults and onto a pathway out of poverty.

Clearly also needs to do a much better job of making sure there aren’t so many homeless youth to begin with.

Can’t do that until it knows where it is, where it should be going and what it must do to get there. And the rest of us could use better data and benchmarks too.

Marathon Budget Hearing Previews Fight On DC Tax Increases

December 2, 2010

First a confession. I didn’t watch all of Tuesday’s 12-hour hearing on Mayor Fenty’s plan for closing the budget gap. Gave up mid-afternoon when I realized that more than half of the 144 scheduled witnesses still hadn’t been called.

But I heard enough to get a sense of how the revenue raising debate will proceed.

First the good news. Even Councilmember Jack Evans seems open to the idea of some revenue raising. True, he began by advocating for a process that would require any add-back to be offset by a comparable spending reduction. What we would expect, given his recently reaffirmed aversion to “revenue hikes.”

But he later remarked on the need for “those with the greatest ability to step forward” — this in reference to lawyers such as himself perhaps accepting an income tax increase. A number of lawyers testifying said they would.

Now the rest. Councilmember David Catania is ferociously opposed to a new top income tax bracket — or the two new top brackets that Councilmember Jim Graham earlier proposed and still seems to favor.

To Catania, a more progressive income tax structure is tantamount to “class warfare.” He absolutely rejects the notion that “one side” should pay — this framing itself a reflection of a class warfare mentality. He’ll have no part in “the game of politics that plays one community off against another.”

In his view, a new top tax bracket exemplifies what’s wrong with our country, i.e., having what we want so long as someone else pays for it. If we care about the safety net, then we should all contribute, he says.

He seems to be entertaining the notion of a 1% across-the-board tax increase. “We all give a little,” he says. No recognition that a little for someone supporting a family on a minimum wage translates into a lot of basic needs budget trimming.

Councilmember Marion Barry also speaks of an across-the-board tax increase. Says that the Earned Income Tax Credit will protect the lowest earners.

Quick review of the IRS rules shows that in many cases it won’t. But who knows where the self-described representative of the District’s “underserved and overlooked population” will be coming from these days?

Councilmember Tommy Wells, on the other hand, reviews some of the proposed cuts in services for low-income residents and says, as he has in the past, “I haven’t been asked to pay one additional cent.”

Wells has previously mentioned a possible new tax bracket that kicks in at an adjusted income lower than what’s been thus far proposed. Councilmember Mary Cheh may be thinking this way too. At any rate, she asks one of the witnesses how low a new tax bracket should go.

Not as much discussion of other potential revenue raisers. Several Councilmembers, however, seem to be looking for ways to get more revenues from all those Maryland and Virginia residents who come into the city to work.

No chance of getting Congress to lift the home rule prohibition on a commuter tax. But might there be some workarounds?

Evans seems inclined to impose a targeted salary cut on District employees who live outside the city, plus a 10% cut for the largest contractors.

Graham tees up the idea of raising the vehicle storage and use tax, i.e., the sales tax on charges for commercial off street parking. Kicking it up by 5.5%, he says, would nearly pay for restorations of cuts to key safety net programs that witnesses advocated for.

So Councilmembers, by and large, seem uncomfortable with the huge tilt toward spending cuts in the mayor’s plan. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute tells us it’s $40 in new cuts for every $1 in additional revenues.

Some Councilmembers also registered concerns about cuts in certain programs witnesses sought to defend. They’ll have a tough time restoring them all without adopting new revenue raisers.

But Council Chairman Vincent Gray didn’t tip his hand. And we know that, at the end of the day, it’s going to be his budget.

Might You Be Declared A Public Nuisance?

April 25, 2010

At a couple of mini-parks near my house, homeless men sometimes gather to chat. They occasionally get a little loud, occasionally ask me for a cigarette. (Yes, I’m one of those unregenerate smokers.) I don’t feel comfortable sitting on benches next to them. Should I have a right to recruit a few like-minded pedestrians and sue to get an injunction against their gatherings?

What about my former neighbor? She didn’t like working in her front yard because kids from the nearby public housing project hung out on the corner and sometimes made rude remarks. Dropped used fast food containers near her front walk too. Should she have had a right to pull together some sympathetic neighbors and sue to keep them from stopping at our corner?

What about the day laborers who gather in the parking lot at Home Depot in hopes of getting picked up by a construction crew? Should those who have to steer around them have a right to seek a court order against this approach to finding work?

What about homeowners who think the newcomers down the street bring down the tone of the neighborhood by relaxing with a couple of beers on their own front porch?

These are not fantastical what-ifs.

Part of a proposed amendment to the District’s Omnibus Public Safety Amendment Act would permit any community group of any size to file a civil action against these groups as constituting a “public nuisance.” The court could then issue an order to “abate, enjoin and prevent” it. Violation of the order could lead to a fine or imprisonment.

And not groups only. Any individual perceived as interfering with “the quiet enjoyment of life and property” by any group purportedly organized for the benefit of the community could be subject to such a lawsuit.

We can see what the cosponsors of the bill–Councilmembers Jim Graham and Jack Evans–may have had in mind. Some types of behaviors the bill specifically names really ought not to be performed in public places–relieving one’s self, engaging in sexual acts, going around without any clothes on. And, as a Washington City Paper blog reports, there’s some constituent pressure to outlaw loitering.

But we’ve already got laws against indecent exposure, public drunkenness, disorderly conduct and the like–even a law against loitering for drug-related purposes. We’ve got police officers and prosecutors to enforce these laws.

By contrast, the language of the Graham-Evans amendment is way over-broad and an open license to harass and displace homeless people and others who are already socially and/or economically disadvantaged.

If you agree, take a moment to drop a line to DC Councilmembers. DC Jobs With Justice has a good prefab e-mail you can use.