Guest blog contributed by Ruth White, founder and Executive Director of  The National Center for Housing and Child Welfare

What Mayor Gray can learn from Mike Rizzo about housing DC’s homeless families

Tonight, in nothing short of a miracle, the Washington Nationals will play game five of the National League Division Series.

Last year, the Nats lost over half of their games and ended the season third in their division. The year before that – they were dead last.

This year, they have the best record in baseball. What could be the cause of such a dramatic turn-around? Well, in 2011, Nationals General Manager, Mike Rizzo coaxed a seasoned professional named David “Davey” Johnson out of retirement and offered him the resources and latitude he would need to get the team to the World Series. Johnson seized the opportunity and sure enough, if the Nats win tonight, they move closer to being World Series champs.

In a remarkable coincidence, Mayor Gray also coaxed a seasoned professional named David out of retirement in 2011 to take on an impossible task. In this case, it was David Berns, and he was tapped to lead the Department of Human Services (DHS). His task? Housing DC’s homeless families.

Like Johnson, David Berns has a storied career. His ability to knit together housing, economic security, and child welfare services is unmatched. In fact, Berns’ legacy of systems integration on behalf of the most vulnerable families was chronicled by the Center for Law and Social Policy and recognized by the National Association of Social Workers. When I am asked which jurisdictions have the best policies and practices related to preventing homelessness among families and preventing family separation due to poverty, I point to El Paso County, CO and the state of Michigan – both places where Berns left his imprint. These are places where Berns crafted a blueprint for changing systems and demanding the funding flexibility necessary to keep families together and safe. To learn more about his plans for DHS reform, read his article in the Journal of Family Strengths.

So why is it that despite the acquisition of Berns, DC is experiencing an alarming crisis within the homeless services system – one where families are sleeping on the streets or doubling up in dangerous, untenable circumstances.  Why are families suffering despite the availability of over 100 units of emergency shelter at DC General?  Why don’t the services systems work together properly to help prevent child welfare involvement?

This is because, unlike Mike Rizzo’s approach with Davey Johnson, the Mayor has provided Berns neither the resources nor the latitude, or dare I say, Natitude, necessary to excel in his efforts to end family homelessness. DHS should not be hamstrung by an inflexible hypothermia policy and poorly targeted resources.

As a proven reformer, Dave Berns should immediately be given the authority to release the units at DC General for homeless families and children. Furthermore, given Berns’ track record for using funding flexibility to save jurisdictions money by making smarter use of case management, permanent housing, and self-sufficiency services, the Mayor should transfer the surplus in the Juvenile Justice budget to DHS. Finally, the Washington Post reported months ago that DC Child and Family Services had a surplus with few plans about how to spend the money.  This funding should also be transferred to DHS and used to provide housing for families that are at risk of separation due to housing.  Research has shown that housing is an effective child welfare intervention (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2012) and is cheaper than foster care (Harburger & White, 2004).

It is going to be a chilly night for baseball – around 45 degrees.  So you can bet that Davey Johnson will use all of his resources to make sure that his players are keeping their arms warm during the game. Let’s make sure that Dave Berns has what he needs to keep homeless children warm, safe, and ultimately – housed.

Email the Mayor now to demand that he unleash Dave Berns’ Natitude! 

Go Nats!