Requiring that Families Show “Clear and Convincing Evidence” of Homelessness
Mayor Bowser’s Proposed Changes to Homeless Services Law
I was turned away by Virginia Williams at least five times because I did not have the right papers that they were asking for. It was so difficult to get them to help me.*
Most [families] tell me that they were denied multiple times before they got in, and that they slept in cars, laundromats, with abusers, etc. while they tried and tried again to get into shelter, spending days in the FRC waiting room, losing hours at work or opportunities to find housing. They tell me they get treated like liars, that they feel they have to beg for help, that the level of documentation required of them can be an impossible burden. No other public benefit eligibility process in DC operates with such a high level of subjectivity and low level of formal guidance, and no other public benefit is as erratically and inconsistently provided to applicants.
Amber Harding, March 2017 oversight hearing on the Department of Human Services (DHS).
In spite of its stated commitment to the safety of all who are homeless, the Bowser Administration has proposed several changes to shelter eligibility in the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017 that we believe will risk the safety of those in need of emergency shelter. Requiring families to prove by clear and convincing evidence that they either have nowhere to go, or that the only place they could go is unsafe, is incompatible with the life-saving goal of DC’s right to shelter, and puts particularly vulnerable families at higher risk. DC already has tools to address unclear eligibility, and these risks are unnecessary.
The Administration has characterized this legislative package as an attempt to “modernize” DC’s homeless services law, and bring it into compliance with the federal HEARTH Act, noting that it reflects the best and most up-to-date practices for serving people who are homeless. However, the Bowser Administration proposes removing the HEARTH Act standard of “credible evidence” for establishing that a person is homeless in certain circumstances (“any oral statement from an individual or family seeking homeless assistance that is found to be credible shall be considered credible evidence for purposes of this clause”) and instead, impose the most stringent civil evidentiary standard available: “clear and convincing evidence.” This provision in the proposed Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017 states the following:
“If the Mayor determines that an individual or family has an ownership interest in safe housing or is listed on a lease or occupancy agreement in safe housing, the Mayor may presume that the individual or family is not eligible for shelter, unless the individual or family can establish by clear and convincing evidence that they cannot return to such housing.”
Clear and convincing evidence is a standard most often used in the criminal justice system, not the civil system, and it could not be further from the HEARTH Act standard of “credible evidence.”
Youth-headed families at particular risk of harm
I lived in a basement and a laundry room after I was put out of my mom’s apartment… I went to Virginia Williams every day for 2 weeks. I was told several times I was not eligible for housing. One time it was because the case worker was not able to reach my mom on the phone so they said I could not prove I was homeless.
DHS has stated in meetings with advocates that the proposed amendments are intended to screen out youth-headed families that would be “better served” with relatives than in the shelter system. Some youth advocates agree. We can agree that no one should be in shelter, and that everyone should be in housing, and still disagree that these families should be turned away when they are applying for shelter. The families know what they are applying for– these parents are deciding at application that shelter is their only safe alternative. If we don’t believe shelters are good places for young families to be, we need to fix shelters and fund more housing assistance. The answer should not be turning families away when they seek help.
There are many reasons that young parents have to leave their parents’ homes when they form families of their own—overcrowding, financial pressures, coming out as LGBTQ, abuse, or protection of their children from unsafe situations, to name a few. Earlier this year, we worked with a woman with children who experienced emotional and verbal abuse from her parent to the extent that she became suicidal. She tried to leave and was denied a safe shelter placement because she was listed on her parent’s lease as an occupant. We appealed the decision, and she was placed. But her statement of parental abuse would not meet the standard of “clear and convincing” evidence under the proposed law. Neither would a young mom’s word that she has been kicked out, or the young mom who is in a serious fight with her host and the host will not answer the intake worker’s calls to verify that the family can’t come back. Even if it were a lower standard, like preponderance of the evidence, requiring families to bear the burden of proving a negative – that they have no safe place to go – puts more families at risk of harm.
This proposal disproportionately harms youth-headed households, who are likely to be listed as occupants of someone else’s household, but not be leaseholders themselves. Not only do occupants of housing have no legal rights to the housing if the tenant kicks them out, but this provision also undervalues the applicant’s assessment of safety. Applicants are best situated to decide whether their situation is safe for their family.
Domestic and family violence survivors and refugees at particular risk of harm
Earlier this year I was staying in an unsafe place with my infant daughter. I applied to shelter at Virginia Williams for the first time and I was turned down. They told me I had a safe place to stay and wouldn’t let me into shelter. Someone filed a complaint to child protective services about my housing situation. A CPS social worker came to my living situation, saw my roommate was drunk and abusive and told me that place was not fit for my child… I was only accepted into shelter because a CPS social worker intervened and spoke to a manager at Virginia Williams.
While the Mayor’s proposal has an exemption for applicants experiencing domestic violence, domestic violence experts believe that that this proposal places survivors at risk and they (and we) oppose the provision. Some survivors of domestic violence may not be comfortable identifying themselves as survivors at intake, and therefore will not be able to gain the protection of the exemption. Additionally, there is no exemption for refugees, who may not have sufficient documentary evidence that their country of origin is unsafe.
DV victims… are routinely being denied shelter and housing if they are on a current lease. Domestic violence perpetrators often threaten physical harm to the victim and their children and intimidate them by promising to pursue custody of the children if the victim reports the abuse, leaving many victims reluctant to disclose violence in the home. Immigrant victims are often threatened with deportation or loss of access to children if domestic violence is reported. Requiring the disclosure of their information or having to prove by clear and convincing evidence that they cannot return to their homes will force victims to choose between unsafe options – keep their victimization private and risk continued violence at home, or disclose their abuse and risk more severe violence from their partner without a guarantee of housing post disclosure.
DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence
DC already has the tools to address unclear eligibility, without risking harm to families
In our current shelter system, we have made the policy decision that we would rather provide safe shelter to individuals and families where there is some question about their eligibility rather than risk that they will sleep on the streets, in cars or in other unsafe housing. This was reflected in the 2015 decisions by the Council about interim eligibility… As with other areas where DHS attempts to address a theoretical problem of fraudulent entry into the system, DHS already has the tools to address this by granting interim eligibility to the applicant and continuing to investigate. We strongly advocate that this provision be stricken from the bill.
Kathy Zeisel, Children’s Law Center
Thanks to a 2015 amendment to the HSRA, DHS can make Interim Eligibility (IE) placements when an applicant’s eligibility is in question. This allows the family to be safe while further inquiry into other housing options is conducted. There is no reason that families should not be placed in shelter on an IE basis and then evaluated for whether they have a safe place to stay.
Many groups, including Bread for the City, Break the Cycle, Fair Budget Coalition, Children’s Law Center, DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, and the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless have recommended removing this section entirely. As an alternative, the Committee on Human Services could adopt the HEARTH Act standard allowing credible evidence, including oral statements.
*Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from written testimony submitted to the Committee on Human Services regarding the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017.