Yesterday the DC Council took its final vote on the 2014 Budget Support Act and, as part of that act, the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2013. We’ve blogged extensively about our concerns about the original bill, from its overly punitive approach to poverty to the negative impact that specific provisions could have had on DC residents living in homeless shelters and supportive housing.
The Act that passed yesterday is substantially better than the original version thanks to the efforts of a diverse coalition of advocates, service providers, community members, and ultimately the elected officials who actively listened to their constituents and responded to the public’s concerns.
Many of the harmful sections of the Mayor’s proposed law were removed entirely from the final version, including time limits for housing placements, an expanded definition of “provider’s premises” that would have increased terminations from supportive housing, and the provisional placement scheme that contemplated families losing shelter placements with no pre-termination hearing for a variety of grounds. Other sections were vastly improved from the original. For instance, the law now gives the Mayor authority to develop a mandatory savings program, but the program cannot interfere with an individual’s ability to pay reasonable expenses or maintain public benefits and, most critically, an individual cannot be kicked out of shelter for failing to save money. A section of the original legislation that could have forced people to accept a rapid rehousing unit or lose their shelter placement was modified to clarify that the unit has to meet the household’s specific needs. Finally, the section that would have allowed terminations of participants in supportive housing who sought treatment for an addiction, mental health or medical disorder was vastly improved to protect the rights of people with disabilities and to provide a right to return to housing after absences.
So, how did this proposed law end up in such a different place than it was a few months ago? Nearly 200 organizations signed on to our letter asking the Council to delay the vote on the bill until a hearing could be held. More than five dozen witnesses testified at this hearing held by Councilmember Graham who, over the course of ten hours, heard from and questioned witnesses on the potential impact of various parts of the proposed law. Many of those who testified spent countless hours with us discussing and developing real solutions to problems in the original bill. We are particularly grateful of the work and partnership of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Miriam’s Kitchen, and SHARC, who were there every step along the way and suffered through many long meetings!
The affected community, people who are homeless or who live in shelters or supportive housing, came out in force to the DC Council, both at the public hearing and at rallies and lobbying visits. SHARC (Shelter, Housing and Respectful Change) in particular was incredibly active and persuasive. Their message was clear: none of the proposals did anything to solve homelessness, and even worse, were based on unfounded stereotypes about people who are homeless, such as that people are poor because they just don’t know how to manage their money. Their message was one we completely agree with: the government needs to focus on real solutions such as affordable housing and jobs. But their delivery of that message was far more powerful than anyone else’s would have been.
When faced with the testimony of dozens of community members, advocates and providers about both the legality of provisions and the possible consequences, the Mayor, through the Department of Human Services, reconsidered some of the proposed language and positions. DHS officials spent hours listening to concerns and redrafting proposals in response. While we could not come to an agreement or compromise in every area, they were far more reasonable and receptive to concerns than we had initially thought they would be, and much progress was made through that collaboration.
Finally, the success of our advocacy depended on the responsiveness of the DC Council. Councilmember Jim Graham showed strong leadership and commitment to the homeless community in this fight. He stood with us the whole way. Despite intense pressure from the Mayor to put through the original version of this law as quickly as possible, he advocated strongly for an opportunity for the community’s voices to be heard. After hearing their nearly unanimous opposition to the bill, Councilmember Graham and other members of the Human Services Committee carried their message forward to negotiate a much more progressive piece of legislation. (And we must recognize the very hard work of Councilmember Graham’s staff, in particular, Yulondra Barlow.)
When negotiation with the Mayor came to a standstill, the community and Councilmember Graham picked up a powerful ally: Chairman Phil Mendelson. He listened carefully to our concerns over several meetings and drafted his own language to meet those concerns. His support pulled in the votes of any undecided Councilmembers, and the vastly improved bill passed unanimously without amendment.
The progression of this bill from what the Mayor proposed several months ago to what actually passed yesterday represents a true victory for DC residents and for the democratic process. It is a testament to what we, as a community, can accomplish with collaboration, advocacy, and leadership.
What now? The community and the government have invested an incredible amount of time on this proposed law over the past few months. It’s time to turn our attention to efforts to end homelessness in the District of Columbia. Thanks to the leadership and hard work of Councilmembers Jim Graham and Mary Cheh, we have a newly invigorated effort to end homelessness via a cabinet-level Director to End Homelessness and a dedicated fund for that purpose. We look forward to working with them as well as the rest of the DC Council and the Mayor to develop and implement a human rights-centered approach to the crisis of homelessness.