Will DC’s Proposed Budget Increases Be Enough to Improve Shelter and Housing for Homeless Families?

Guest Blog by Kate Coventry, DC Fiscal Policy Institute

It’s time for the District to do everything needed – once and for all – to give all homeless families a clean, safe place to stay until they can move into permanent housing and stabilize their lives.

We applaud the city’s increased attention and resources for addressing family homelessness. The proposed city budget devotes substantial new resources for shelter and assistance to help families move out of shelter and into housing. Yet it’s not clear whether funding will be enough to accommodate all families, including allowing families to access shelter year-round. If it turns out that the city has not set aside enough resources to implement its new plan, then the city must find more money to provide year-round shelter; and move families out of the DC General Shelter to smaller shelters or into permanent housing.

The District budget proposed for fiscal year 2016, which starts October 1, significantly increases funding for shelter and assistance to help families move out of shelter and into housing. It also includes money to replace DC General Family Shelter, the aging former hospital that is not adequate to house families. Families at DC General face deplorable and overcrowded conditions. And they often don’t receive the services they need, partially due to difficulty for staff to effectively keep track of so many families.

There are currently about 750 homeless families– 247 families in the DC General Shelter, 386 in overflow hotels, and about 121 in temporary shelters. More than 40 percent of these families are headed by a parent under the age of 25. The number of homeless families in DC has skyrocketed since 2009, with 1,007 families entering shelter this past hypothermia season compared to 723 the year before, a 40 percent increase.

No one knows exactly why family homelessness is increasing so much, but DC’s dramatic loss of affordable housing, high unemployment among low wage workers, and wages that have not kept up with increasing housing costs are big contributing factors. The loss of philanthropic giving for homelessness prevention/intervention and affordable housing also plays a key role.

DC currently allows families to enter shelters only during the winter, when the city must do so by law. So families who become homeless during non-winter months often have to “couch surf” for extended periods, moving in with a different friend or family member every few days—or even worse, have no safe place to stay at all. This makes it extremely difficult for parents to get to work and children to get to school.

Budget-increases---housing-blog-postThe proposed budget would spend $40 million in capital funding over the next two fiscal years to construct four smaller replacement facilities for the DC General Family Shelter, with 40 to 50 units each (a total of 160-200 units). It also includes $4.9 million to rent 84 new family shelter units that will be available next year. This funding puts the District on a path to close DC General Shelter in two years. It is hoped that this will provide enough emergency shelter, assuming that the District gets better at helping families exit shelter into permanent housing quickly.

The budget also includes a $16 million increase for emergency shelter and rapid re-housing (short-term rental assistance, generally up to 12 months, to help families move out of shelter and into their own housing). These programs have been greatly under-budgeted for years, forcing the Department of Human Services (DHS) to take funds from other programs each winter to make up the gap. This created pressure to cut costs, such as placing families in recreation centers rather than in apartments or private rooms as the law requires, and it took funds away from the programs that help families move out of shelter into housing.

The new funding will help stabilize the family shelter system. But, this increase, when combined with anticipated federal carryover funding (funding that DC received in previous years but did not spend), will just bring spending to the level that is expected to be spent in the current fiscal year. That means it’s not clear if it will be sufficient to provide year-round shelter access for families – which should be a top priority.

Funding thus far has not kept up with the dramatic increase in family homelessness. In 2011, the District ended its long-standing practice of placing all “Priority-1” families, families facing the toughest circumstances into shelter– whether it was winter or summer. These are families with no safe place to stay – those sleeping in abandoned buildings or fleeing domestic violence.

DHS officials say that they hope to serve families year-round by running the shelter system better.  This includes helping families move out of shelter into permanent housing more quickly — which will reduce costs — and more robust homelessness prevention efforts to reduce the number of families needing shelter. The priorities are right. Following through on them will make a big difference in helping families gain stability and have the chance to succeed. What DHS needs to do now is make public its projections for how fast families will exit shelter into housing under the current funding proposal, how much capacity to serve new families will be available, and whether that dollar amount is enough. Then it will be clear what steps need to be taken next.

Kate Coventry is a DCFPI Policy Analyst and voting member of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Note: The opinions and positions expressed in this guest blog post are those of the author, DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Housing Security in the Washington Region

In 2014, The Community Foundation released a research study, Housing Security in the Washington Region and a companion guide for funders. This study is the first of its kind showing critical gaps in affordable housing across a range of income levels. It is also the first study to comprehensively examine housing needs and how housing policies and programs are funded by public and philanthropic sectors in multiple jurisdictions. The study’s findings can be used to direct public and private sector resources to the populations most in need of relief from high housing costs and to build and preserve affordable housing for these households over the long term.

What Can Funders & Donors Do?

If you are interested in:

  • ●  Learning more about homelessness and affordable housing in DC and/or the region
  • ●  How you can support efforts to help homeless families
  • ●  How you can support efforts to increase housing affordability

Please contact Silvana Straw, Senior Philanthropic Services Officer at sstraw@cfncr.org

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