Interagency Council Has Big Plans, Less Focus Or Funds For Ending Homelessness

July 6, 2010

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness has now released its strategic plan. As I earlier wrote, the plan is supposed to establish priorities and strategies that the 19 agency members will jointly pursue to prevent and end homelessness within a specific timeframe.

I’ve been sitting here trying to decide what I think about it — and how I can tell you what’s in it within reasonable blog length. These two things are not unrelated.

First off, the plan is quite a piece of work — 59 pages, plus prefatory material, notes and acknowledgments. And it’s not only long, but very complex.

Four major goals, 10 objectives ranged under five major themes, 52 strategies divided among the objectives, three performance measures, tables reflecting specific agencies’ responsibilities for implementation, a review of what’s known about three major populations of homeless people and more.

This, I think, is its strength — and also its weakness.

On the positive side, it reflects a good grasp of the complexity of the problem. It’s refreshing to see a broader focus than the Bush administration’s intensive focus on chronically homeless people.

Yes, it’s got a goal to “finish the job of ending chronic homelessness in five years.” But it also sets goals and timeframes for preventing and ending homelessness among veterans and for families, youth and children. There’s also a goal sans timeframe for the unnamed populations, e.g., homeless individuals who aren’t veterans and/or classifiable as chronically homeless.

The policy shift is reflected in the acknowledgment that, for most homeless people, the problem is a gap between income and the cost of housing. Also in the themes, which include increasing both access to stable, affordable housing and economic security.

And in objectives for the latter — more “meaningful and suitable employment” for homeless people and those at high risk of homelessness and better “access to mainstream programs and services,” i.e., those not specifically targeted to homeless populations.

There’s a flip side to the reach, complexity and apparent interest in satisfying a very large and diverse group of diverse stakeholders. All aspects of the problem — and related strategies — get equal billing.

So many to-do’s for so many entities and nothing I can see to identify first-order priorities. True, the plan is supposed to be a five-year “roadmap.” But what does it provide, except for initiatives already in the President’s proposed budget, to tell agencies what they should do first and foremost?

At the same time, I see an unspoken awareness of limited federal capacities. We read a lot about interagency collaboration, better program integration and dissemination of information and best practices. The heavy lifting seems largely left to state and local public agencies and to private organizations.

Which brings me to the elephant in the room. Where’s the money for all this? Certainly not in the revenue-strapped budgets of state and local governments or in those of the nonprofits and other community organizations the President’s prefatory letter alludes to.

It’s not in his proposed budget either, notwithstanding what the plan terms its “signature initiatives” for veterans, families with children and chronically homeless people.

I found only one specific reference to new federal funding — a strategy that simply says “fund the National Housing Trust.” Perhaps this refers to the $1 billion the President is again requesting. How can it be a strategy for the ICH members?

Efforts to secure any capital funding for the Trust have thus far gone nowhere. Doubt they’re going to fare much better in a Congress that’s moving to lower the President’s ceiling on most discretionary domestic spending.

In any event, $1 billion would be a mere down payment on what would be needed to significantly increase the supply of rental housing that the target population, i.e., extremely low-income households, can afford.

Neil Donovan, Executive Director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, has expressed some cautiously-worded reservations along these lines. He welcomes the plan’s vision, overall framework and commitment to engaging all stakeholders. But he finds “many of the methods … vague and without firm commitment to allocate funds and implement strategies.”

He warns of a double standard. Federal grant applications require local communities to identify clear numeric goals, timetables, funding and implementing bodies “to ensure they move from planning to action.” Thus far, nothing comparable in the federal strategic plan.

Exactly. It’s a fine thing to have the President on record as saying that “ending homelessness in America must be a national priority.” But it will take a whole lot more than the ICH roadmap to get us there.

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?

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.

What’s the Future for Black Kids In Our Public Schools?

July 15, 2009

President Obama has come out with a “cradle to career” plan to overhaul our public education system. It’s supposed to prepare all Americans to enroll in at least one year of college or job training after high school.

To get there, the President proposes some investments in early childhood education and more generous financial assistance for college students. But the core of the plan is fairly conventional–raise standards, reward good teachers and fire bad ones, support the expansion of charter schools, etc.

No doubt something must be done. Our schools aren’t preparing enough young people for the emerging economy–jobs that call for specialized knowledge, high-level technical skills and the capacity to keep learning over time.

Like the current employment situation, this is not an equal opportunity problem. The large race gaps in employment and earnings are mirrored in measures of student performance. The most telling, I think, are the National Assessment of Education Progress scores because they reflect consistent, impartial assessments across the country and over time.

NAEP scores for black students have improved since the early 70’s. But scores for white students have improved too. So the gaps are still there, though not as wide. And we’re not seeing steady progress. All the gaps were narrower in the late 80’s, except for 4th grade reading scores.

What concerns me more than the gaps are what the scores themselves mean. According to the Children’s Defense Fund’s analysis:

  • 86% of black public school 4th graders can’t read at grade level, and 85% can’t do grade-level math.
  • By the 12th grade, 2% more black students can read at grade level, but 94% can’t do grade-level math.

By then, says the Economic Policy Institute, a quarter of black students have dropped out. So we’ve got to assume that competency in these most basic skills is even lower for the whole age group.

How will these students successfully complete at least a year of postsecondary education or high-level skills training? Some short-shot remedial work on the side can’t compensate for what they’re supposed to have mastered during twelve years in the classroom.

No Child Left Behind was supposed to address the race/ethnicity gap. It obviously hasn’t. And, frankly, I doubt that tinkering around with standards, incentives and penalties will. Because, as everyone admits (well, just about everyone), there’s only so much the schools can do.

My hunch is that we’ll need an approach that addresses the entwined legacies of race discrimination, poverty and education holistically and begins when children are born–or earlier. Many have mentioned the Harlem Children’s Project as a model.

Scaling this project would be a tall order. And it’s certainly better to go at the issues piecemeal than wait till we’ve got a program that gets at them all. But we do need to focus on the connections–and the sooner the better.