Thank you to everyone who responded to our email action last week demanding that Mayor Gray’s Administration immediately start serving homeless families who have nowhere to go. If you are one of the more than 300 community members who participated, you probably received a form response from the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Beatriz Otero. We imagine you found her answer to be somewhat unsatisfying, as we did. Our colleague Matt Fraidin blogged his response to her letter on the Huffington Post. We thought we’d share a little bit of ours with you here:
Though we share your concerns, we are not placing families into the DC General Shelter at this time for the following reasons:
Of the 271 units at the DC General Shelter, 118 are not funded for the remainder of this fiscal year or for the coming fiscal year (October 2012 through September 2013). Although we will use these additional units to meet the legal requirements during hypothermia season, operating them outside of the winter will result in an overall reduction in services/shelter. The average cost per night for a family to stay at DC General is approximately $150 per night. These funds are better invested in these same families but for supports that meet their needs more effectively.
It is troubling both that DHS never shared this information during the Council’s budget hearings and that the Administration failed to include the cost of this DC General expansion in the $7 million shortfall estimate. Based on information received from DHS, our estimate is that it would cost less than $200,000 to serve every family in dire circumstances in October, the one FY 2013 month that would be affected if you started serving families today. It is hard to understand how the District of Columbia could not find $200,000 (or $7.2 million, for that matter) if ensuring safety for DC homeless children were truly a priority.
Shelter has many shortcomings for families and especially for children. To the extent possible, resources are better used to provide prevention/diversion assistance and housing. We cannot use money for more appropriate assistance/placements if we are expending it on shelter.
Regarding the shortcomings of shelter, we whole-heartedly agree that shelter is not the best long term solution for families. But we trust that you would agree that shelter is better than living on the street. If the choice is between housing and shelter, then let us choose housing. But until that housing is provided, we simply cannot condone the Administration’s choice to leave more than 100 units of shelter vacant while children sleep in abandoned buildings and parks.
Expanding shelter utilization does not address the broader issues of affordable housing (which is what these families need) and moving families toward self-sufficiency. As DHS works to redesign and integrate its Homeless Services and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) programs, it is critical that it dedicates resources (fiscal and otherwise) to this process.
Regarding this being a housing issue, we join you in recognizing that an adequate supply of affordable housing is the long term solution. The Gray Administration’s actions, however, belie such recognition, in that it has prevented affordable housing resources from being fully utilized. We understand that the Administration has instructed the DC Housing Authority to hold back about 65 Local Rent Supplement Vouchers, instead of providing them to the homeless families for whom they were intended. Similarly, we understand that DCHA has been instructed not to re-issue Housing Choice Vouchers that have been paid with local dollars when those vouchers are turned back to the agency. It seems that the laudable policy goals that DHS is trying to accomplish through its integration of Homeless Services and TANF would have a greater chance of success if DC families could access stable affordable housing, as studies show families obtain and maintain employment at higher levels if they have affordable permanent housing. It is particularly puzzling that the Administration would choose to “shelve” available shelter and housing resources at a time when so many families are so desperately in need of help.
How did you respond? Outrage? Facts and figures? Disbelief? We know our blog readers are a smart and passionate group of people. Send your reply to the Deputy Mayor’s letter to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “House these families NOW,” so we can share with our readers.