Gray Administration’s Responses to Call for More Permanent Supportive Housing Misstate Facts

October 14, 2013

Reasonable people can differ over how much the District of Columbia should spend on Housing First, its permanent supportive housing program.

The Gray administration contends that it’s spending as much as it can. A coalition of local service providers and advocates thinks it should spend more, as the Washington Post recently reported.

It’s often said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Which doesn’t mean all opinions are equal, of course. But everyone isn’t entitled to their own facts. Gray administration spokespeople, however, seem to think they are — or simply don’t know what they’re talking about.

I’m referring to their claims that the District isn’t getting federal funding for homeless services any more. Also where they say it once got funds for PSH, though that’s perhaps less germane to the current issue.

Pedro Ribiero, a spokesperson for the Mayor, told the Post reporter that “[t]he federal government is not handing out money any more,” though he apparently also acknowledged that it was.

Then BB Otero, the Mayor’s Deputy for Health and Human Services, wrote the Post to expand on Ribiero’s points. She maintains that “federal funding is completely dried up.”

And, like Riberio, she also asserts that the District got one-time funding for PSH from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“Most jurisdictions,” she says, ended “similar programs” when their ARRA funding ran out, while the Gray administration not only replaced the lost funds, but expanded the PSH investment.

Here, as best I’ve been able to determine, are the facts.

The District did get “one-time” funding for Housing First, but it wasn’t through ARRA. Recovery Act funds for homeless services were specifically for homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

Thus, the Fenty administration’s announcement of how the District would use its $7.5 million grant refers only to support for residents struggling to retain their existing housing and several forms of financial assistance to help those who needed to move into a more affordable place.

The District did, however, get what was initially one-time funding for PSH. The Fiscal Year 2010 federal appropriation for the District included $17 million for the program, available for spending through September 2011.

The District got another $10 million for Fiscal Year 2011. So the one-time funding was actually two-time. As I recall, the administration was given to understand that these unique infusions wouldn’t be ongoing — that, in fact, it would be expected to pick up the tab for the units created.

And it has, which accounts for most of the local funding increase the Mayor’s people tout.

Federal funding has not completely dried up. Federal funding for the District’s homelessness programs has certainly shrunk. Congress didn’t renew the special earmark for the PSH program. The ARRA money truly was one-time.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds that support homelessness programs were indeed subject to sequestration, as Ribiero said. Department of Veterans Affairs funds were exempt, however — and thus the money the District (and other jurisdictions) received to provide the service components of PSH for homeless vets.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimated the District’s homeless assistance loss at slightly less than $1.1 million. Not chump change, but far from a total wipe-out.

So the District has received federal funding for its homeless services programs, apart from and since the unusual one/two-time grants. And it’s not planning for a drought. The Department of Human Services told its oversight committee that it expected just under $13.7 million for this fiscal year.

This includes about $7 million specifically for PSH — over $1.1 million more than the District received last year (sorry, no link).

It apparently does not include all the funds HUD awards to nonprofits that provide homeless people with housing and services as part of the District’s continuum of care. The most recent total for the COC was $20.4 million.

Most communities have not ended their PSH programs. Where Otero (or whoever wrote for her) came up with this way to boost the Gray administration is a mystery.

A national expert I consulted isn’t aware of any communities that have abandoned PSH. Surely she would know if most jurisdictions had done so.

We deserve straight talk. None of this is to say that Congress hasn’t put the District — and other jurisdictions across the country — in a bind, since they must either make up for the ill-timed, arbitrary spending cuts or reduce assistance to people in need.

Yet the District’s finances are in much better shape than most. The Chief Financial Officer now expects $6.31 billion in tax revenues this fiscal year — nearly $173 million more than the projection the budget was based on.

So the Gray administration is understandably defensive — even though, as it says, it’s putting more money into PSH.

It will serve an estimated 133 more households this fiscal year — or perhaps as many as 233 more, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s budget analysis. The higher number would still be more than 900 of the units that the District’s strategy for ending homelessness by 2014 called for.

The Mayor has chosen not to ask the DC Council for approval of the funds needed to achieve this goal — or for that matter, for the money to resume providing shelter or housing for homeless families year round, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves in Metro stations and the like.

We shouldn’t expect the Mayor’s spokespeople to say that ending homelessness just isn’t a top priority — nowhere near so important as subsidizing a new home for the soccer team.

But we should expect them to stick to facts — and get those straight — when they talk about federal funding.