Draft Winter Plan Has No Plan for Newly-Homeless DC Families

August 15, 2013

Every year at about this time, the District of Columbia’s Interagency Council on Homelessness produces a Winter Plan. This is one of the responsibilities the law that created it assigns.

The plan is supposed to account for how the District will meet its legal obligation to ensure that no one in the jurisdiction is exposed to freezing-cold weather during the winter months.

The ICH has a multi-stakeholder Operations and Logistics Committee that’s technically responsible for much of the draft plan. But as a practical matter, the Department of Human Services calls the shots when it comes to such crucial matters as shelter sites and other resource commitments.

I’ve analyzed — and written about — the annual Winter Plan for five years now. I’ve focused mainly on the portion that deals with homeless families because DHS has struggled to accommodate all those who are entitled to shelter (or housing) ever since the recession began.

The issue has always been whether the plan was realistic, given the number of homeless families DHS should be prepared to accommodate.

Past plans have given us some ability to arrive at conclusions. We’ve been told how many units DHS planned to have available at DC General, the main shelter for homeless families. We’ve also usually been given some figures for subsidized housing units.

No such figures for the latter last year. But we were able to back into a range of the number that would be needed because the Operations and Logistics Committee had gotten some expert help with projections — not only for the whole winter season, but month-by-month.

This year, the draft Winter Plan itself includes something like this projection — a month-by-month estimate of the number of families who will need shelter or housing and won’t already have it in November, when the winter season officially begins.

The plan anticipates a 10% increase in the number of families who will qualify for shelter or housing, i.e., those who will otherwise have no safe place to stay on freezing-cold nights.

By this estimate, DHS will have to shelter and/or house 590 families. These are in addition to the 271 that the plan assumes will be at DC General come November and perhaps some of the 65 or so who are still in motels because DHS had nowhere else to put them when it had to put them somewhere.

Also in addition to however many will have limited-term or indefinite-term housing subsidized with DHS funds. (Still trying to get reasonably accurate numbers for them.)

The draft also provides a month-by-month estimate of the number of families who will leave DC General with no assistance from DHS. It then subtracts this number from the number of newly-qualified families. I can’t see why.

Be that as it may, the plan foresees the need to accommodate 467 newly-qualified homeless families during the five-month winter season.

What DHS will do with them is a total mystery. The plan doesn’t tell us how many units will be open at DC General because families there received some form of subsidized housing or a one-time cash infusion from the Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

It gives us no numbers for the ERAP grants or the several diverse forms of subsidized housing — nor for the placements in motels that the plan formally acknowledges may be necessary.

All we have is a list of resources DHS may use.

This isn’t because Operations and Logistics fell down on the job. It’s in part because of some serious problems over at DHS — problems that at least some committee members felt could again lead to an overly-reassuring Winter Plan if it incorporated the agency’s placement projections.

Next post will talk about some of these problems.

UPDATE: The limited-term subsidized housing I referred to is housing for which a portion of the rent is paid by the Family Re-Housing and Stabilization Program — the District’s name for its rapid re-housing program. I’ve just learned that there are currently 386 families in FRSP. This is probably roughly the number that will be in the program in November.


Summer Meal Program Participation Rate Ticks Down Nationwide, Plunges in DC

June 17, 2013

The Food Research and Action Center’s tenth annual report on federally-subsidized summer meal programs delivers mixed news for the nation as a whole.

News for the District of Columbia is just plain bad — worse, in fact, than last year’s. And I’m still puzzled, though I’ve got a few glimmers now.

Nationwide Summer Meal Participation

On any given weekday in July 2012, about 12,790 more low-income children received a free meal from a school, other government agency or nonprofit subsidized by one of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s funding sources.

This does not, however, mean that summer meal programs served a higher percent of children in need because the number of children poor enough to receive free or reduced-price school lunches during the school year increased by somewhat more than 444,500.

By this benchmark, the percent of low-income children served by summer meal program dropped by 0.3%.

Very slight, but it means that only 14.3% of these children received a free, well-balanced meal during the summer recess. That left some 16.8 million children at risk of hunger.

They lived in families with incomes no higher than 185% of the federal poverty line — apparently much lower in more cases than not.

Last year, 59% of children in the school lunch program qualified for free meals. Most thus had family incomes no higher than 130% of the FPL — about $24,800 for a family of three.

In 2010-11, 14.7% of these children were food insecure or sometimes actually didn’t have enough to eat, even though their families also received food stamp benefits, according to a recently-published USDA analysis.

So need is outstripping capacity to serve. But over the long haul, capacity is shrinking too.

Even with last year’s increase, summer meal programs still served 3% (about 99,100) fewer low-income children than they did in July 2008 — and 7.8% fewer than the peak in July 1998.

DC Summer Meal Participation

The District’s summer meal participation rate plummeted — from 73.5% in July 2011 to 59.8% last July.

True, this is still higher than any state’s rate, but we don’t have an apples-to-apples comparison here. The District is, after all, a city. It’s got none of the challenges states face because they’ve got children dispersed in far-flung suburbs and rural areas.

The year-to-year comparisons for the District itself probably are fairly reliable. So the sudden, large rate drop is alarming — especially because it’s not one of those things we can lay off on recession-related poverty increases.

Specifically, the summer meal participation rate didn’t plunge because vastly more children received free and reduced-price lunches during the school year. Only 944 more did.

It’s almost entirely due to a large decrease in the number of low-income children the District’s summer meal programs served — 4,249 fewer than in July 2011.

With the exception of a blip the summer before, both the number of children served and the participation rate have been trending down since July 2007, when the District’s programs served nearly 96% of low-income children.

Yet both District government agencies and local nonprofits have worked hard to make summer meals readily available — and known to low-income families in the community.

Last July, meals subsidized by USDA’s Summer Food Service Program were offered at 338 sites across the city — 16 more than the year before.

What I understand now, however, is that the sheer number of sites is too crude a measure. We need also to consider how big the programs were and whether they were programs kids were likely to participate in for reasons other than getting something to eat.

From this perspective, the large reduction in the District’s public summer school enrollment may help explain last summer’s lower participation rate. Also perhaps reduced funding for nonprofit day camps and other summer activities.

A bright spot in all of this is that DC Hunger Solutions — a mover-and-shaker in the District’s nutrition programs, including summer meals — plans to do a deep dive into the participation data.

Let’s hope what it finds helps get the rate turned around.

What We Know (and Don’t) About the Drops in DC Homelessness Rates

May 9, 2013

In my last post, I summarized the major results of the latest point-in-time, i.e., one-night, count of homeless people in the District of Columbia.

We see one-year decreases for the homeless population as a whole and for all the subgroups the District reports to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Decreases are longer-term for two overlapping groups — homeless individual men and women, i.e., those not with family members, and individuals classified as chronically homeless.

The District’s report attempts to account for the decreases. It attributes them to an expansion in permanent supportive housing capacity and its investments in homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

We’ve got sound evidence for the impact of PSH. The evidence for HPRP — the rapid re-housing component, in particular — is squishy.

It may help explain the one-year declines, but they’re no proof that rapid re-housing will end homelessness for the families that the Mayor — and his Director of Human Services — want to force into the program.

Permanent Supportive Housing

As I previously remarked, the steady drop in the number of chronically homeless individuals counted probably reflects the high priority that both federal and local policies have placed on moving these individuals into PSH.

The report itself provides additional evidence for this. At the time of the latest count, it says, 3,690 individuals and 983 families were in PSH units, thus not homeless for the purposes of the count.

Both these figures are higher than those reported in 2012 — by 18% and 8% respectively.

But this doesn’t mean that the District can take credit for providing housing with supportive services for all these formerly homeless people.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that the Department of Human Services expects to have 1,350 households in the PSH units it’s funding this fiscal year.

Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing

The PIT count report offers no basis for assessing the impacts of homelessness prevention and rapid re-housing.

A brief by the Community Partnership to End Homelessness says that 762 individuals and 643 families are “stably housed” because of HPRP.

But we have no timeframe for these figures. So we don’t know how long ago the beneficiaries received the one-shot or limited-time assistance — let alone anything about them, e.g., how much steady income they had.

We do, however, have data indicating that a goodly number of individuals and/or families didn’t stay stably housed after their rapid re-housing subsidies expired, presumably because they couldn’t afford to pay the full rent.

A presentation, also by the Community Partnership, says that two-thirds of rapid re-housing participants “exited” the program to “permanent destinations” (HUD-speak for permanent housing) and that 91% of them remain stably housed.

So about 39 out of every 100 households that had the limited-term rent subsidies are in some sort of unstable situation — either at-risk or literally homeless.

We don’t know how long the rest have been stably housed, though a recent statement by David Berns, the director of Human Services, suggests perhaps only one year.*

We do know, however, that some homeless families declined rapid re-housing because they were pretty sure they couldn’t pick up the full rent. So even if the stably-housed figure is fairly long-term, it would reflect some self-selection.

Why Fuss About the Rapid Re-Housing Data?

I’m nattering about the under-supported claims for the success of rapid re-housing because they have immediate policy implications.

As I recently wrote, the Mayor’s proposed amendments to the Homeless Services Reform Act would, among other things, give homeless families a choice between rapid re-housing and life on the streets.

At the time of the PIT count, 18% of homeless D.C. adults with children had no source of income whatever. Twenty-five percent were employed, but obviously not earning enough to pay market-rate rents here.

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program was the most commonly reported source of income. The maximum TANF benefit for a family of three is less than a third of the monthly rent on a modest two-bedroom apartment.

How many families who’ve remained stably housed entered the rapid re-housing program with comparable incomes — and comparably doubtful near-term prospects for such significant improvement that they could afford full rent?

For the two-bedroom apartment, that would require a monthly income of nearly $4,707 — more than three times the District’s minimum wage.

Seems to me the DC Council should have a much better grasp on the putative — and prospective — success rates of rapid re-housing before it votes on the HRSA amendments.

A better grasp and a lot more input on other issues too.

* Berns says that “91 percent of those who have been re-housed … remained in stable housing after one year.” He’s apparently using the Community Partnership’s figure as if it were a percent of the whole, rather than of two-thirds.

DC Homelessness Rates Trend Downward, But Still Very High

May 8, 2013

The upsurge in homelessness in the District of Columbia seems to have abated — at least for the time being. The actual numbers, however, remain very high.

And while homelessness among individual adults is now lower than in 2008, when the recession had just set in, family homelessness is still exponentially higher.

This is the top line news for the District in the just-issued report on the results of the one-night homelessness counts by communities that belong to the Metropolitan Council of Governments.

As I always say, these point-in-time counts don’t tell us how many homeless people there are — only how many meet the restrictive definition the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development mandates.

Nevertheless, they’re all we’ve got for the District’s homeless population and the subgroups reported to HUD.

So here are the figures, with some additional calculations I’ve made to indicate change over time. I’ll deal with how the report explains the recent decreases in a followup post.

The total number of homeless people counted dropped a bit — from 6,954 last year to 6,865. This represents a decrease of 1.3%, but it’s still 16% higher than in 2008.

The number of homeless families also decreased — from 1,014 to 983 or by 3%. Even with the drop, however, the number has increased by nearly 67.5% since 2008.

The count identified 3,169 homeless family members — just 18 fewer than in 2012. Of these, 1,301 were adults and 1,868 were children with them.

The number of homeless individual men and women, i.e., those not with family members, declined for the third year in a row. The latest count identified 3,696 — 22% fewer than in 2008.

These are adults only. The count identified six homeless unaccompanied youth, i.e., kids under 18 who weren’t with a family member.

This presumably reflects major flaws in the count, since a limited survey by the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates found about six times as many who’d fit the definition the count used.

Both local and federal policies have put a high priority on moving chronically homeless individuals into permanent supportive housing.

We see the results in the number counted — 1,764, as compared to 1,870 in 2012. This is the fourth year in a row that the number has dropped.

PSH probably also helps explain the relatively small number of unsheltered homeless individuals counted — 512. This is 25% fewer than in 2012.

The count isn’t complete, of course, but the percent drop is probably fairly accurate. Figures for earlier years may not be comparable because recent PIT reports suggest greater efforts to identify the unsheltered population.

All these numbers speak to choices local policymakers have made — and some facing them right now. More on this tomorrow.

DC Child Welfare Agency Will Treat “Traumas” of Child Poverty

November 19, 2012

Policy consultant and blogger Susie Cambria calls our attention to a grant the District of Columbia’s Child and Family Services Agency recently received.

The grant, says CFSA, will help it “make trauma-informed treatment the foundation of serving children and youth in the District [sic] child welfare system.”

The approach sounds like a good thing, but it’s far beyond my capacity to assess.

The reason I write about it is rather what Mindy Good, CFSA’s public information officer, told Cambria about the traumatic events children have experienced by the time they become part of the agency’s caseload.

Some are cases we could confidently classify as abuse, e.g., severe physical punishment, molesting.

Others bespeak neglect that could call for at least a temporary rescue, e.g., having to rely on a parent or other caretaker whose behavior is “erratic” due to substance abuse or untreated mental illness.

But many are simply consequences of living in a family that’s desperately poor, e.g., “not knowing where the next meal is coming from,” “being homeless or moving a great deal.”

Good alludes to getting the child to safety as a first step. This seems to mean, in most cases, removing children from their parents or other caretakers — itself a traumatic experience, as she notes.

Perhaps even the first traumatic experience they have. It’s by no means clear, for example, that the mere fact of living doubled up with first one family and then another induces emotional and/or behavioral problems.

Last year, CFSA confirmed about 873 cases of child neglect — 58% of all the incidents it substantiated. In 2010, neglect (unspecified) was the primary reason it put 395 children into foster care.

One can’t help wondering how many of them weren’t really neglected at all — children in food insecure families, for example, or in homeless families the District wouldn’t shelter.

Or children being cared for by strangers or tasked with caring for younger sibs — two other “traumatic events” Good cites.

There’s a ready remedy for these “traumas.” And it’s not being put into foster care.

If children justifiably fear hunger, their parents or guardians obviously need food stamps — or if they’re not eligible, assurance that their children often are.

Perhaps they also need cash assistance, since we know that food stamps often don’t cover the costs of even the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s cheapest meal plan.

If children are homeless, their families need affordable housing. Same if the family moves frequently because it has to rely on the hospitality of friends and relatives.

If children get parked with strangers or have to shoulder inappropriate child care responsibilities, perhaps the family needs a voucher to pay for daycare — and access to a provider who’ll care for kids early, late and on unpredicable schedules.

CFSA can advise families how to seek these kinds of help. And it may now be doing so, since it reports a new response model, which, in some cases, “leads to service options the family can choose to accept.”

But, of course, seeking isn’t receiving.

As recently as 2010, CFSA cited “inadequate housing” as the primary reason it put some children into foster care. Telling their parents they could apply for housing assistance would be futile, since they’d merely join the many thousands of households on the waiting list.

Though parents might enroll in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Family’s program, the cash benefits would leave them in dire poverty — perhaps still unable to stretch their food budgets till the end of the month.

They’d be eligible for child care assistance, but they might not be able to find it because the District’s provider reimbursement rates have led to a severe shortage of available slots, especially for very young children and those with disabilities.

CFSA’s new treatment approach may help children overcome whatever traumas they’ve experienced because their parents can’t afford to provide them with safe, stable housing, regular meals and the like. But it’s a second-best solution.

Perhaps the best CFSA can do, however, because our system defines “child welfare” as protection from abuse and neglect.

It’s up to other agencies — and ultimately to our elected officials — to ensure that the poor children in our community have what they need to fare well.

Or rather, it’s ultimately up to us since we’re the ones who elected them. Don’t think as many of us as could are doing as much as we might, though some are giving their all and more.

What Lies Behind the Plan to Close DC’s Housing Assistance Waiting List?

October 9, 2012

A small piece of news buried deep in the avalanche of last week’s debate commentary: The DC Housing Authority says it may close its waiting list.

In other words, it will stop adding names to its registry of low-income people who’ve asked for, but haven’t gotten admission to public housing or a voucher that subsidizes the costs of market-based rents.

DCHA has more than 8,000 public housing units and some 12,000* vouchers — most, though not all of them issued.

More than 67,000 households are on the waiting list. So it’s pretty clear that most of them will stay there until DCHA decides they’re not eligible any more, takes them off the list because they don’t communicate otherwise — or die of old age.

I’m not kidding about this last. A local homeless woman interviewed a few years ago said she knew people who’d signed up for housing assistance when they were young and were grandparents now, still waiting.

DCHA says it’s a waste of resources to maintain a waiting list that’s so unrealistically long. Also that it has to “increase transparency, … manage expectations, … and increase choice.” Choice apparently of something it can’t provide.

The Director of Bread for the City’s legal clinic says it should keep the list open to demonstrate “the crushing need for affordable housing in this city.”

It’s certainly true that the waiting list has often been cited by advocates for more local affordable housing funding. Problem is that demonstrating need doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere close to where we need to be.

On the contrary. The Gray administration seems to want to get out of the affordable housing business.

I’ve thought this ever since the Mayor’s first budget covered the costs of locally-funded housing vouchers in current use by shifting money out of the Housing Production Trust Fund — the District’s main source of public funding for affordable housing construction, renovation and preservation.

Thought it again this year, when he tried to make a further cut in the Production Trust Fund and to let the Local Rent Supplement Program, i.e., the source of locally-funded vouchers, wither away — just as he had in 2011.

An unnamed affordable housing advocate has arrived at a similar conclusion.

The Gray administration, s/he told Washington City Paper reporter Aaron Wiener, “doesn’t believe it should fund long-term affordable housing.” It’s decided to tackle the affordable housing shortage by increasing income instead.

It’s absurd to think — and I doubt the Mayor does — that his strategies for growing the economy and preparing residents to fill the jobs it creates can boost the incomes of most of those on the waiting list so much that they can afford the very high costs of housing here.

He nevertheless has injected a “demand side” component into the deliberations of his Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force and appointed members who will shape its recommendations accordingly.

In other words, he’s looking for solutions that will reduce need at least as much as increase supply — preferably more.

Perhaps also, in some manner, redefine need. The Housing Authority’s executive director, for example, says she’s working on initiatives that will persuade low-income people to give up their subsidies, notwithstanding their fears of illness, job losses, etc.

Surely no one would quarrel with strategies to improve the financial circumstances of the District’s low-income population.

And no one, I hope, would underestimate the affordable housing problems the Gray administration faces — some inherited, some of its own making and most magnified by the cumulative impacts of inadequate federal support.

But it’s hard not to feel that the Mayor’s much more interested in building a high-tech, green economy — and making the city a congenial living place for the high-earning taxpayers it will employ — than in addressing the struggles of the folks on the waiting list.

His policies didn’t create the inordinately long housing assistance waiting list. But they will contribute to its growth — if DCHA doesn’t close it.

* This number represents only vouchers households can take into the rental market. DCHA also issues vouchers to developers, nonprofit housing operators and other landlords, which they then attach to specific housing units.

New DC Poverty Figures … Surprising and Not

September 20, 2012

Figures the Census Bureau released two weeks ago indicated that the poverty rate in the District of Columbia had gone up — and by a lot.

Looking at the two-year average to compensate for the small sample size, the poverty rate hit 19.7% in 2010-11. This is 4.6% higher than the comparable rate for the U.S. as a whole — and higher than the rates for all but two states.

Now we’ve got results from the much more comprehensive American Community Survey. It uses samples large enough to make one-year figures for states — and even smaller jurisdictions — reasonably accurate. Also figures for specific age and race/ethnicity groups.

And, lo and behold, the overall poverty rate in the District didn’t rise after all. Here’s more detail on that, plus some other notable numbers.

Poverty and Severe Poverty Rates Halt Upward Climbs

The new D.C. poverty rate looks like a decline — down from from 19.2% in 2010 to 18.7% last year.

The Census Bureau, however, says that the change is not statistically significant.* Even a level rate is, of course, better news than what we read earlier.

As with the two-year averages, the rate in the District was higher than the nationwide ACS rate — by 2.8%. Rates in nine states were higher.

Similar news for the severe poverty rate, i.e., the percent of residents who lived below 50% of the applicable poverty threshold (just $23,021 for a family of four).

It dropped a bit — from 10.7% to 10.3%. Doubtful that this change is statistically significant.

Whether or no, it means that more than half of all D.C. residents counted as officially poor — 109,317 — were so very poor as to meet the severe poverty standard.

Unequivocally bad news for the District’s children. The poverty rate for the under-18 population — 30.3% — was virtually the same as in 2010. The new rate is 7.8% higher than the also disturbingly high national rate.

As with the District’s poor population generally, more than half of all poor D.C. children lived in severe poverty last year — 16.5%. That’s nearly 17,285 children in truly desperate circumstances.

Race/Ethnicity Gaps Still Very Large

We’ve got new figures, but no new story for the challenges to Mayor Gray’s One City vision. For example, in 2011:

  • The poverty rate for blacks was more than four times the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 27.8%, as compared to 6.8%.
  • The severe poverty rate for blacks was also much higher than the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 14.6%, as compared to 4.8%.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 18.1% and the severe poverty rate 8%.

We see the same disparities in household income.

  • The median income for non-Hispanic white households was a very comfortable $107,679.
  • For black households, the median income was barely more than a third of that — $39,302.
  • Hispanic households did better, on average, with a median income of $59,607, but their median income was somewhat higher in 2010.

More Jobs Would Help, But …

Commenting on the earlier Census figures, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute noted that the jump in the poverty rate reflects mainly “stubbornly high unemployment” for “some groups of residents.”

Well, we had no jump. But the analysis still applies, with some qualifications.

Nearly half — 47.3% — of the District’s poor residents between the ages of 16 and 65 didn’t work at all last year. Another 25.5% worked less than full time and/or year round.

That leaves 27.2% of working-age residents who were employed full time, year round and nevertheless in poverty.

So it’s pretty obvious that more jobs would be helpful. But it’s also obvious that more jobs alone won’t cut it.

Education is commonly touted as the answer to persistently high poverty rates. I, among others, am  inclined to think that’s over-simple, though no doubt part of the answer — certainly here in the District.

According to the ACS, the poverty rate for adults 25 years and older who had just a high school diploma or the equivalent was 22.8% last year — and for those with less, a whopping 35.6%.

The poverty rate for those with at least a bachelor’s degree was just 4.2%. This is lower than the rate in 2010, while the rate for those with less than a high school diploma or GED is markedly higher.

We could surely narrow the income gaps in the District with better — and more equal — educational opportunities for residents without the advantages of their well-off peers.

Those opportunities unfortunately may diminish, due to the across-the-board federal spending cuts that Congress isn’t even close to averting.

We know that the District’s public education programs would take a significant hit — estimated, for only three major sources, at more than $9.1 million next year.

The cuts would also throw a lot of people out of work — estimated at upwards of two million nationwide. The District would lose its share — perhaps more than its share.

Lost jobs mean lost tax revenues that could be used to shore up our fraying safety net and for programs that reduce needs for the aid it should provide.

All sad — and wholly avoidable — prospects for our egregiously large poor population.

* As the text indicates, the severe poverty rate change I report here may not be statistically significant either. The Census Bureau’s brief doesn’t cover levels above and below the poverty thresholds, though the ACS tables do. They show error margins, but they’re not multi-year.