Last Tuesday, members of the Interagency Council on Homelessness (“ICH”) gathered at a public meeting, as they do each year, to approve or reject the city’s Winter Plan for shelter. Legal Clinic attorney and ICH member Scott McNeilly highlighted some issues with the Winter Plan on this blog last week, and he raised some of these same issues at the vote on Tuesday. In the end, the plan was approved with three members, Scott McNeilly, Donald Brooks, and Jean Michel Giraud, the Executive Director of The Community Council for the Homeless at Friendship Place, voting against the plan.

A pre-meeting was held before the vote at which community members were given an opportunity to comment on parts of the plan and during which the Director of the Department of Human Services (“DHS”), David Berns, shared an update of the status of homeless families. He stated that there are currently 210 families at DC General shelter (which has a capacity of 271 units), with another 26 currently in motels who have pending requests not to be placed in the communal shelter due to their disabilities. Meanwhile, since DC stopped placing families in shelter in April, 200 families have been determined by the city’s contractor to have no safe place to go. While Director Berns stated that the agency could not place any of the waiting families in shelter because they need the money to start placing families in housing, it was not clear whether there are any actual or significant cost savings to keeping 61 units empty at DC General because it does not appear that the contractor has reduced staffing at the shelter.

It wasn’t all bad news at the vote. As McNeilly acknowledged at the meeting, there have been some positive changes in the winter plan this year, and DHS has been extremely responsive to concerns raised by ICH members throughout the process. This year, all families placed in shelter, including any families being sheltered at motels, will receive case management and food, something that was lacking for families who were placed in motels last winter. Families who apply for shelter this winter will also be permitted to wait at the intake site until they get transportation to their placement, another major improvement from last year when families often had to wait outside in the freezing cold for several hours to get a ride. The hypothermia alert system has also been improved, which will hopefully result in alerts being called more consistently and earlier in the day.

Still, major problems with the plan persist.  Even some government members of the ICH raised concerns.  Director Berns said that if the $7 million funding gap for homeless services for FY 2013 is not filled by next April, DHS will be forced to make severe cuts to services in the spring that he characterized as “virtually catastrophic” for people who are homeless. The representative from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education shared her concerns about the impact on children and their education outcomes when their families stay in motels, because transportation to school is highly unreliable and time-consuming.

Some advocates, providers, and members who are homeless raised concerns about the housing plan for families. The plan relies on the placement of approximately 500 families in housing within 5 months if DC hopes to avoid increasing shelter beds or placing families in motels. Everyone agrees that housing placements are the ideal solution, but DHS took 10 months to place 150 families last year, and it’s unclear if the agency has the resources in hand to place more than three times as many families in housing in half that time. Another distressing feature of this housing plan is that the majority of the families will be placed in a short-term subsidy “rapid re-housing”* program for which only a fraction may be eligible or appropriate, potentially setting up many families for failure if they cannot afford to pay market-rate rents on their own once their subsidy runs out.

Will DHS be able to place families in housing according to its schedule? Will the placements be appropriate for the majority of families? Will the Mayor find the $7 million necessary to stave off catastrophic shelter closures in the spring? All of this remains to be seen.

Check this blog for regular updates from us on the city’s progress, and to learn how you can help advocate to protect the rights of our neighbors who are homeless.

* Stay tuned to this blog for a more in-depth discussion of rapid re-housing in the coming days