Right To Shelter In DC Dies On Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day

December 22, 2010

Yesterday, the shortest day of the year, marked the 20th annual National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

Around the country and here in Washington, D.C., public officials, advocates, service providers, homeless people and other community members gathered to commemorate men and women who died while homeless during this hard year.

Let’s also pause to mourn the death of major protections formerly provided by the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act. Because, in an unwitting irony, the DC Council yesterday passed Councilmember Tommy Wells’s amendment to the act for the second time.

This virtually ensures that restrictions which expose homeless people in the District to greater — even life-threatening — risks will become law. And Councilmembers were well aware of the impacts.

Opponents warned that the amendment will be “cruel” to District residents, that we’ll be putting homeless people “who arrive at our doorsteps” out into the cold, that we’ll be “dumbing down” standards for family shelter accommodations.

Reminded their colleagues of someone homeless whose birthday we’re about to celebrate.

All over-ridden by self-congratulatory explanations that homeless people have been flocking here because we’re such a “liberal” jurisdiction.

By recurrent references to the prospective funding shortfall and a potential “over-concentration of facilities” in Ward 4 — a fine justification for letting families freeze if there ever was one.

Plus an assurance that the bill won’t take effect until mid-March, so there’s no danger of “immediate harm” — as if that’s the only kind we should worry about.

“These are difficult times we find ourselves in,” says Council Chairman Vincent Gray as a wrap-up. More difficult than someone comfortably housed can imagine, I think.

Debate notwithstanding, positions were already set in stone. The amendment was a done deal before the vote was taken.

So now what?

Councilmember Wells informs his colleagues that DC General is full, that there’s a long line of families awaiting shelter and that the District “can’t even guarantee a private room” — the new minimum standard for family shelter units.

In other words, the District can’t comply with the weakened law. And there’s not a shred of evidence that the problematic proof-of-residency requirements (see here and here) will make much difference.

No difference at all to the homeless families that can’t get into DC General because the Council failed to ensure that the Department of Human Services could in fact cope with needs for shelter beyond the dubious projections in this year’s winter plan.

More About Changes In DC Homeless Services

December 19, 2010

As I recently wrote, Councilmember Tommy Wells made changes in his proposed amendment to the District’s Homeless Services Reform Act before the Committee on Human Services and then the full DC Council approved it.

I’ve already tried to account for changes related to eligibility for shelter. Here are the other big changes I see.

Families can’t be sheltered in barracks-style facilities. Like the original version of the bill, the final allows the District to place families in non-apartment style shelter units during severe weather conditions if no apartment-style units are available.

However, the final version says that families must be given private rooms. This seems to address some of the most urgent health and safety concerns about eliminating the apartment-style housing requirement.

Or maybe not. Washington City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis acutely notes that it doesn’t say that each family must have its own room. On the other hand, the Homeless Services Reform Act doesn’t say that each family must have its own apartment-style unit either. I doubt we’d have the outcry now if it weren’t understood that way.

However interpreted, the provision clearly relieves the District from any obligation to move toward more suitable shelters for families. Professor Matt Fraidin’s testimony about conditions at DC General should give one pause.

I’m thinking here particularly about conditions that can’t be remedied by improving maintenance and investing in some modest remodeling, e.g., refrigerators that all parents can use 24/7.

Such upgrades would still leave children with no quiet place to do homework, no safe place to play, limited opportunity to socialize and exposure to a host of rules that undermine a healthy relationship with their parents.

As Fraidin recently told Cherkis, even a good communal shelter, which DC General isn’t, “is a bad place for kids” and will probably cost the District more in the long run than moving away from institutions like DC General.

Homeless people may, in some circumstances, receive other services without proving residency. The original version of the bill would have required proof of residency for all homeless services — even a blanket, a warm drink or a lift to a shelter to ward off hypothermia.

The final version of the bill allows the mayor to exclude certain homeless services, provided he publishes a notice identifying them. This could ultimately take care of the ban on crisis services.

Till then, it seems that, as the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless has said, the proof of residency requirement is “akin to requiring an ID before administering life-saving medical emergency services.”

Methods of proving residency have been expanded. In the original version of the bill, only someone who lived in the District — and could present the requisite proof — could verify the residency of a homeless person who couldn’t present other acceptable evidence.

The final version includes someone who is not a District resident, but works for a service provider in the District. But only if he/she produces evidence of such employment.

No indication of what evidence would qualify. So we don’t know whether an employee could satisfy the requirement without setting aside services to other clients to take an ID or whatever to a shelter or the Virginia Williams intake center for families.

The final version of the bill also either expands or clarifies another proof of residency option. Now someone may “demonstrate” residency by “reporting a mailing address in the District, valid within the last two years.”

That could certainly take care of documentation problems that service providers and advocates have raised. But are we to understand that this will be a trust, don’t verify situation? If it is, then what’s the point of the other residency proof provisions? If it isn’t, then the problems seem as great as ever.

Bottom line. Councilmember Wells seems to have made an effort to address some of the concerns that services providers and advocates raised. But, as the old saying goes, you can’t make a silk’s purse out of a sow’s ear.

The law is going to be a deuce to administer — mainly because Wells would only tinker at the margins. And it’s still going to put our most vulnerable residents at even greater risk of harm.

All because of some fragmentary evidence that some non-resident families might have been given shelter in one of the soon-to-be-legal single rooms at the warehouse the District now has less incentive to remodel or replace.

NOTE: The Legal Clinic reminds us that the final vote on the amendment is this Tuesday, December 21. It urges us to e-mail or call our Councilmembers and ask them to vote “no.” E-mail addresses and phone numbers are at the end of its action alert.

DC Council Passes Homeless Services Restrictions

December 16, 2010

Last week, the DC Council passed Councilmember Tommy Wells’s amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act. This was the first of the two votes generally required for District legislation. The second is scheduled for December 21.

The bill, as you’ll recall, aims to reserve publicly-funded homeless services for District residents. It also, as Wells now acknowledges, seeks to protect the District from lawsuits based on its failure to provide homeless families with apartment-style accommodations, as the Homeless Services Reform Act requires.

The final version of the amendment is different from the bill Wells originally introduced. You can see the differences in the marked-up version I’m linking to.

I’ll leave the legal analysis to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which still finds the amendment thoroughly objectionable. Will instead confine myself to remarking on what seem to me the biggest changes.

There are quite a few of them. So I’ll review only the provisions related to eligibility for shelter here. A followup posting will deal with the rest.

Shelter in severe weather is no longer absolutely restricted to District residents. The final version of the bill would allow the District to make shelter space during severe weather conditions available to non-residents so long as priority is given to residents.

This surely sounds less harsh than the original. But it’s hard for me to see how it would work out in practice.

Would non-resident families have to wait until the Virginia Williams Family Resources intake center made sure there would still be space if more resident families asked for shelter? Would a non-resident family get kicked out if a resident family showed up the next day?

I’m focusing on families here because the final version of the bill expands the earlier exemption for low-barrier shelters, i.e., shelters for individuals that, by definition, require no identification. Responding to testimony and/or the Legal Clinic’s analysis, Wells added an exemption for severe weather shelters that operate as low-barrier shelters.

Homeless people may be admitted to a shelter in severe weather without first proving residency. In the final version of the bill, a homeless individual or family seeking shelter in severe weather may be afforded a three-day grace period to prove residency.

Note that this is a contingent grace period. No indication of who would make the decision or on what basis. Seems to me an open door to inconsistency and confusion.

How, for example, does one reconcile this provision with the required priority for District residents? How reconcile it with a separate provision that establishes a priority for all homeless services to those who can prove residency at the time they apply?

But homeless people can’t get shelter until they’re actually in danger. The final version of the bill restricts eligibility for shelter to people who are homeless and “living in a place not intended as a residence,” e.g., on the streets, in a car, or “in any situation that is dangerous to the health or safety of any household member.”

Clarence Carter, Director of Human Services, indicated in testimony that he wanted such a definition because, he said, it would conform to the definition of “homelessness” in federal law. Unless I’m much mistaken, it’s more restrictive.

Last year’s HEARTH Act, which reauthorized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s homelessness programs, expanded the definition of “homeless” to include, among others, individuals and families who’ve been notified they’ll be evicted within two weeks and those who are living in a hotel or motel but don’t have the resources to stay there for more than two weeks.

The District’s definition would deny shelter to these people until they’d already spent at least one night without a roof over their heads — unless, of course, the place they were living was so bad as to endanger health or safety.

If this itself isn’t a major health and safety risk, then I don’t know what is.

Thanksgiving Thoughts On Safety Nets

November 23, 2010

Let me be up front about this. I’m having a hard time getting into the holiday spirit.

I know I’ve got an enormous amount to be thankful for — my health, my loving and ever-patient husband, my home, which is now fully restored from the fire damage of two winters ago, friends, an extended family, including a wonderful second mother, an occupation and a nest egg that should keep us secure through our “golden years.”

But I can’t stop thinking about the millions of Americans who can’t count all these blessings — and who are now dependent on a tattered safety net that’s likely to be yanked out from under them. Surely will be if the Republicans in Congress stand fast on their pledge to drastically roll back federal spending.

I’m acutely anxious for those whose plight I know best — my fellow District of Columbia residents. So many unemployed or in jobs that don’t pay enough for them to afford the high cost of living here. A chronic problem made worse by the recession. For many of them, an upswing in the local job market won’t be enough.

Budget cuts have already damaged the local safety net. And now we’re told there have to be more cuts to get the budget back in balance. Councilmember Jack Evans is all for this. “Make as many cuts as possible,” he says, “so we can stay away from revenue hikes.”

I’m thankful not all Councilmembers share his view — especially thankful for my own Councilmember Tommy Wells’s outspoken support for a tax increase.

He’s of course concerned about the safety net programs under the jurisdiction of the Human Services Committee he chairs. But the argument he’s making for progressive reforms in our tax system reaches beyond his turf.

His recent response to a DC for Democracy questionnaire echoes remarks he made during the last budget cycle. The Council, he observes, made “steep cuts in services for the most vulnerable…. My wife and I were not asked to make any sacrifice.”

Nor were my husband and I. But we’d pick up our share of the burden in a heartbeat. Because we know first-hand what a strong safety net can mean.

Back when that fire broke out, our safety net was homeowners insurance.

We called our agent as soon as the smoke cleared enough for us to get back in the house — and discover that we had no heat and a bedroom open to the great outdoors.

Within an hour, someone was on the phone telling us about reservations they’d made for us in a comfortable, centrally-located hotel. Our agent showed up with a check for incidental expenses.

The next day, someone else called us to talk about what sort of apartment we’d like and where. And someone else to tell us about the company’s arrangements for storing our belongings, sending our smoke-reeking clothes for specialized cleaning, even lining up a restoration expert for our beloved “art collection.”

Without this safety net, we’d have been literally homeless. In our car for the night, I guess. Then in separate shelters for men and women until we somehow located something more stable and secure — and figured out how we’d liquidate assets to pay for it.

My wish for the District is a safety net that’s as broad, responsive and individualized as ours. I understand this is pie in the sky.

But I hope that next Thanksgiving we’ll have a budget that puts a higher priority on basic human needs than on the investment portfolios of the wealthiest residents.

If you hope so too, Save Our Safety has an editable letter you can send to the Council. Or use the text to leave a message for Chairman Vincent Gray at 202-724-8032.

UPDATE: The Save Our Safety Net letter is now addressed only to Council Chairman Gray.