In April, we told you about the unprecedented rise in family homelessness and the District’s (non)response to the crisis: no new shelter placements until next winter and a new puzzling and punitive policy to report every family who requests shelter because they have no safe housing to Child Protective Services (CPS). Then we shared our solution to the crisis: provide long term affordable housing to 250 families to move them out of shelter and create room for new families in crisis. This solution would meet the family’s immediate need and avoid any risk of family dissolution based purely on poverty—an approach that’s sensible and consistent with DC law, which forbids a foster care placement based on poverty alone.
Thank you to our many readers who took action to persuade the DC Council that the District’s budget should reflect our values and support families rather than penalizing them for facing a housing crisis! Because of your efforts and the leadership of Councilmember Michael Brown (special shout-out to Kilin Boardman-Schroyer) as well Jen Budoff in the Council’s budget office, the Council passed the Housing for Homeless Families Amendment Act of 2012. This amendment to the Mayor’s Budget Support Act directs $4 million towards 250 Local Rent Supplement Vouchers for homeless families currently residing in DC funded shelter or transitional housing. The money is specifically directed to relieve the pressure on the family shelter system by requiring the Department of Human Services (DHS) to select families and place them in housing now so that spaces will open soon for newly homeless families with no safe place to go (“priority 1” families).
In addition to this big win for homeless families, we also convened a group of advocates to meet with representatives of DHS and the Child and Family Services Administration (CFSA) to talk about the District’s new policy of reporting parents to CPS for abuse and neglect investigations for not having a safe place to sleep. We learned that, sadly, CFSA had no new housing resources to add to the mix for these families. DHS and CFSA agreed to draft a more formal protocol for the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the shelter intake site for families, to use in determining when and if a report to CPS is appropriate. Advocates, including the Children’s Law Center, the DC Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project encouraged the city agencies to tailor this protocol so it does not have a chilling effect on families in need of shelter. Everyone at the meeting agreed that the solution to this “Catch 22” was to increase shelter and affordable housing for families.
You may have read the recent Washington Post story featuring families faced by this very Catch-22. We were surprised to read that the number of families requesting shelter who were reported to CPS because they had no safe housing more than tripled since we met with DHS and CFSA in April. At the time, ten families had been referred. Two months later, the number has jumped to thirty-two. As Ruth Ann White from the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare points out in the article, “[DC] is using its new warning to reduce the number of families in its system by scaring away parents…” What the article doesn’t tell us, and what we will never know, is how many families leave the FRC every day because they (rightfully) fear such a reporting or how many opt for cars or abandoned buildings and don’t even seek help because they’ve heard of this practice.
Here’s the bottom line: the District’s current policy does not serve children well. Families who turn to the government for help – usually as a last resort—should not be threatened with a CPS referral simply for being homeless. By making referrals to CPS rather than finding ways to invest in affordable housing for all DC residents, the DC government is punishing children for being poor.
Fortunately, the solution is simple and the money is in the budget. The Gray Administration just needs to place families in housing as quickly as possible, and start placing “priority 1” families as soon as there are vacancies in the shelter system. Of course, if the Gray Administration hopes to solve this crisis beyond this year it will need to invest in affordable housing each year. In the meantime, though, The Gray Administration can ensure that every family has a safe place to stay and no family is broken up due to poverty alone if it uses its current resources quickly and wisely.
If you agree with us that Mayor Gray’s number one priority this summer (and beyond) should be to end this crisis, share your concerns by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.