Homeless Single Adults in DC Speak Out

March 9, 2015

We’ve had ample opportunity to learn about homeless families here in the District. We’ve read about the increasing number, about the District’s struggles to shelter them when it must, about its struggles to move them out of shelter into housing they may not be able to pay for when their short-term subsidies expire.

We know — and have known for some time — that conditions at DC General, the main family shelter, are awful.

But as of the latest official count, there were somewhat more homeless single men and women, i.e., those who had no children with them, than adults and children together as families. And there have been considerably more in years past. What about the singles?

A briefing last Monday provided some answers. Nothing definitive, but more than I knew before. You too perhaps.

Here then, briefly, is what we learn from the experts — the homeless men and women who spend (or formerly spent) their nights in shelters and from a social worker for Catholic Charities, which operates five shelters for singles under contract to the District.

Also, briefly, the conclusion I reached and a brand-new development that should point the way forward.

Awful physical conditions. Like DC General, most of the shelters for singles are “aged buildings,” as a former shelter resident called them. Sometimes the electricity works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes there’s heat and hot water. Sometimes not.

And, as at DC General, the singles’ shelters are reportedly infested with vermin — bed bugs in the mattresses, rats and roaches scuttling about, etc.

Bad food. Shelter residents complain of spoiled food, just as they do at DC General. There seems to be something to this. The social worker reported that staff examine the food delivered by the District’s contractor to decide whether it can be served. Sometimes not, one infers, since he spoke of going to other sources.

Not enough help getting out. Singles in the shelters say they can’t see the caseworkers who are supposed to help them develop and carry out plans to become job-ready and/or find paying work.

Some back-and-forth at the briefing about whether the caseworkers are on duty when the shelter is open — and allegations that they won’t always see clients when they are. What seems beyond dispute is that there aren’t enough of them.

Catholic Charities has one caseworker for every 100 clients. And the ratio would be higher if it didn’t use donor money to supplement the staff covered under its contract. No way that a caseworker, however diligent, could effectively assess, refer and guide that many clients.

Uncaring treatment. For the homeless and formerly homeless singles who spoke, both on the panel and from the audience, none of the above triggered as much outrage as the way shelter staff treated them.

There’s a “disconnect” about weather, one said. Shelter residents are turned out onto the streets when it’s raining. If they try to remain, someone calls the police. If it’s raining — or even snowing — when they’re lined up waiting to get in, staff still keep the doors shut until official opening time.

When it’s bitter cold, residents have a right to remain in shelter during the day — and apparently are allowed to. But they may have to sit in some sort of outer room, on uncomfortable chairs, for many hours because their regular rest areas don’t get promptly clean.

One resident spoke of waiting for eight hours — not only he, but people in wheelchairs. Desperate offers to clean their own rest areas were curtly dismissed.

It’s not only such particulars that make sheltered singles feel they’re treated like lesser beings. Staff  have a “drill sergeant mentality,” one woman said. They “bark.” She further objected to their assumption that every resident — obviously herself included — is a drug addict, an alcoholic or mentally ill.

“They need to put humanity behind what they are doing,” she concluded. “We are individuals.” One hears a plea for recognition that homeless people are as different from one another as shelter staff members know they themselves are.

Beyond that, however, a recognition of common humanity. Panelist Carol Doster, formerly homeless and now a poignant advocate, put it well. “In practice, we do not consistently afford our homeless neighbors with the level of respect, dignity … or human rights that we Americans and D.C. residents indicate we stand for.”

Or, I would add, that we would expect — and be shocked not to find — if we became homeless and had no friends or family to turn to.

Management issues. Several of the speakers called for better staff training. The remedy, I think, must be broader. The District has contracted out responsibility for the single adult shelters — ultimately to the Community Partnership to End Homelessness, which lets and manages contracts with the nonprofits that operate them, as well as with the food service providers.

Manifold problems at DC General have prompted some advocates to say that the Partnership should be replaced — at least, in its capacity as the shelter manager. Seems to me someone needs to look carefully at how it’s managing the rest of the homeless services system it’s responsible for too.

We now have the results of an audit, thanks to an inquiry from Councilmember Mary Cheh. These, at the very least, cast doubts on the Partnership’s financial practices — and controls over at the Department of Human Services.

But the issues our homeless singles experts raised call for another sort of investigation. Who, if anybody, is visiting the shelters (unannounced), examining the meals delivered, finding out how staff are trained and supervised, etc.? And who, with clout, is raising holy hell about the building systems and maintenance?

“I had an instinct that no one was minding the store sufficiently,” Cheh says. She was referring to the money matters, but we’ve got more than instinct to tell us it’s true for shelter operations as well.



DC Human Services Director Ducks Responsibility For Family Shelter Crisis

April 5, 2010

Last Wednesday, the end of the District’s hypothermia season, the DC Council’s Human Services Committee revisited the vexed matter of the 2009-10 Winter Plan for homeless services.

The hearing went on for about seven hours. Though officially billed as a review of how the winter plan had been implemented, most of it was devoted to testimony by parents housed or formerly housed at DC General–the only facility dedicated solely to winter-only space for homeless families.

Thanks to persistent investigative reporting by Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper, the rest of us already knew a good bit about major problems there–mold, leaks, peeling paint (maybe lead-based), pest infestations, food that apparently sickened some children, workers who propositioned residents and/or sold drugs, caseworkers who failed to screen incoming residents for potential mental health problems or to help residents get the heck out of the place.

Still, it was acutely distressing to hear residents speak of their personal experiences.

  • A pregnant mother in a room too hot to stay in because the window wouldn’t open and whose four-year-old couldn’t play on the floor because of the rats, droppings and roaches.
  • Another mother who couldn’t get food for her wheat-intolerant son or access a kitchen so she could prepare food for him.
  • A disabled woman who had to walk down four flights of stairs because the elevators were broken.
  • A woman who told her caseworker she wanted to get out and was asked, “How are you going to do that?”

Many viewed the hearing as a proceeding against Families Forward, the nonprofit contractor for managing the family shelter portion of DC General. Supporters showed up in tee shirts reading “Support Families Forward.”

Staff praised the leadership, spoke convincingly of how they cared for the residents and had guidance about what to do in cases of untoward events, like the deaths of two newborns in the last 12 months. Some clients also spoke favorably about operations at DC General, especially the kindness and helpfulness of caseworkers.

All for naught. The Families Forward contract expires at the end of the month. Mayor Fenty has announced it won’t be renewed–a belated effort at damage control.

It’s hard to argue that Families Forward should retain responsibility for the day-to-day operations at DC General. But the problems there didn’t originate with the contractor. Nor will they be resolved by bringing in another.

When the Interagency Council for Homelessness issued its draft winter plan last summer, advocates questioned its proposal for family shelter space. So did I. The numbers just didn’t add up. Nor did they seem realistic in light of the rising tide of family homelessness and dismal projections for the economy.

Yet Clarence Carter, head of the Human Services Department, insisted that all would be well–that DHS had “identified all the needed resources to meet the full demand for homeless services during the hypothermia season, as outlined in the District’s 2009-2010 Winter Plan.

Some ambiguity there. But notwithstanding the $12 million cut for homeless services, both he and the final winter plan itself repeatedly committed to opening additional facilities if needs exceeded projections.

Winter set in. The temperatures dropped–also record-setting amounts of snow. In mid-February, 170 families were crammed into a facility with 124 contracted units. Nine units were added. The snow melted. And, in mid-March, there were 75 more families than units–some on cots lined up in activity rooms, some bedded down in hallways.

Yet apparently no one from DHS went out to look at the situation. Indeed, Carter testified that the prime contractor for homeless services, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, was responsible for monitoring homeless shelters, not DHS.

And who was monitoring to make sure the that Partnership had the resources for the task? Who was checking on whether the agencies responsible for the physical conditions at DC General were doing their job? Apparently no one.

The District is legally responsible for the safety and well-being of its most vulnerable residents–not the Partnership nor its subcontractors. It shouldn’t take a public relations disaster and the threat of a lawsuit to trigger action on problems that anyone could have identified some months ago.

Contract monitoring is a basic agency function. If DHS didn’t have the resources for it, then someone should have come forth and said so.

DC Homeless Family Services Can’t Keep Up With Needs

February 18, 2010

In the District of Columbia, as throughout the country, family homelessness is increasing at an alarming rate.

In 2009, nearly 20% more D.C. families were counted as homeless than in 2008–703 families, with a total of 1,426 children. And these were only the families considered homeless under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s restrictive definition.

We’ll need to wait till May to know what the official 2010 count is. What we do know, thanks to the Community Partnership’s dashboard, is that family shelters under contract to the District have been full every night since the beginning of January. Indeed, more families have been packed into DC General than the shelter has contracted units for.

But these figures don’t tell us how many homeless families have sought help–or what happened when they did. Now we have a partial answer, thanks to a survey conducted by the Homeless Emergency Response Workgroup.

The Workgroup is a coalition of service providers, advocates and homeless people that formed last April in response to concerns about the District’s plans to cut back on shelter space. In late April, it conducted a nine-day survey, focused principally on homeless individuals. But family homelessness has also been a major coalition concern.

So in November, the Workgroup conducted an intensive, week-long survey of families who came to the the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center–the District’s central intake for homeless families. Although the number was relatively small, the findings should be a red flag for the Fenty administration and the DC Council

Here’s what I’ve extracted from the Workgroup’s detailed report.

  • Most families surveyed had been homeless for a significant period of time–on average 124 days.
  • Fewer than a third of the families who visited the Williams Center before had received a housing placement on their first visit.
  • Only 13% of families surveyed received an emergency shelter or longer-term housing placement on their current visit.
  • One-third of the families were told they’d have to return with more documents before their cases could be processed.
  • About a quarter of the families said they would not be able to stay together that night, and 22% said they didn’t expect to be safe.
  • More than a third of the families thought they would be able to stay in their temporary housing situation for no more than two days.
  • Forty percent of the families who were living doubled-up with friends or family were sharing space with at least two other families. One was sharing space with six.
  • Two of the families were denied shelter space even though they told intake workers they had no place to spend the night. (They were ultimately placed in a shelter, but only because the survey takers intervened with the Williams Center directors and the DC Department of Human Services.)

The Workgroup offers a number of specific recommendations to ensure that homeless families who seek help get an immediate shelter placement if they have no appropriate, safe place to stay–and that others don’t drop off the radar screen just because they’ve got a temporary alternative.

It also recommends that the Department of Human Services beef up its oversight and learn from shelter models in other jurisdictions. This would seem to be simply good management.

But DHS has to have the staff to manage effectively–and the funds to expand emergency shelter space, support followup and, at the same time, expedite the planned transition from a shelter-based system to a system based on homelessness prevention and permanent supportive housing.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that the District will have to close a $514 million gap in next year’s budget. Last year, DHS took a $24 million hit. Mayor Fenty recently cut its budget by an additional $2.8 million.

None of this means that the District can’t afford to ensure that homeless families have a safe, decent, stable place to live. After all, budgets are choices. But it does mean that homeless families are at high risk of still being left to fend for themselves.

NOTE: I participate in the Workgroup, but had little involvement with the survey. The framing of the findings and recommendations and the conclusions here are my own.

Another Homeless Person Dies In DC

December 22, 2009

Shortly after the District’s memorial vigil for homeless persons ended, a woman died when a fire broke out in a boarded-up row house. She’d apparently taken shelter there. And that’s all we know for sure. No name. Just “an adult female in her mid-30’s” or maybe her 40’s, depending on which news report you read.

Was she there because she’d been turned away from a shelter that was full or because she preferred to hole up in an unheated building rather than try to get admitted?

In two recent local surveys, homeless people said they hadn’t gone to a shelter the night before because shelters were over-crowded, unsanitary and/or unsafe. Was she one of those? Or was she one of the people who didn’t go to a shelter because of problems with transportation? We’ll probably never know.

What we do know is that there is something dreadfully wrong when anyone in our community doesn’t have a safe, secure place to stay. How many more needless deaths will we have to mourn before we end this situation once and for all?

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.

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.