There is a Family Homelessness Crisis and Provisional Placement is Not the Answer

The crisis isn't that too many families are in DC's shelters; the crisis is that so many families need shelter. That is the crisis the Mayor should be addressing.
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Today, The Washington Post reported on DC Mayor Vincent Gray's plan to address the crisis of family homelessness by introducing emergency legislation aimed at keeping the front door of the District's family shelter closed as tightly as possible. The proposed legislation, which if adopted as emergency would have neither the benefit of a public hearing nor input from the community, would allow for "provisional placement" of families in shelter. This means that families who prove that they have no place else to stay could gain entry into shelter for up to two weeks while homeless services staff try to find an alternative placement for them with relatives or friends, thus diverting the family from fully entering the shelter system.

As the Post article explains, the Mayor tried - and failed - to pass similar legislation last year. He now blames the DC Council's refusal to adopt his prior plan for much of the crisis we are facing today.

The Council was right to unanimously reject The Mayor's provisional placement proposal last year for one solid reason: It would have hurt rather than helped homeless families. Alongside other advocates, providers, and community members, we voiced our strong opposition to the passage of that measure. Simplified, the plan was fraught with problems -- it proposed a way for getting families out of shelter without considering where these families would end up once they left; it denied families a right to return to shelter if the temporary placements fell through or were found to be unsafe; and it failed to protect families' constitutional due process rights.

Why, then, is the Administration again moving forward with a proposal that addresses the wrong problem? The problem is not the number of families in shelter; the problem is the number of families becoming homeless. The solution is therefore adequate housing, not returning families to inappropriate, unstable, or -- in the instance of diverting a family to the home of an abuser -- a potentially lethal situation.

Below is our response to each part of the Mayor's stated rationale as printed in today's Post article.

Gray (D) has said that keeping people from entering shelters or moving them into other types of temporary housing is the best way to push families toward self-sufficiency.

No families want to come into shelter. They do so out of necessity, not choice. To think otherwise is to engage in victim blaming and promulgate stereotypes. While diversion can be a useful tool in avoiding a shelter placement, it requires the work of skilled social workers who identify a family's obstacles (e.g., lack of employment or childcare) that led to their homelessness in the first place and then assist the family in addressing those obstacles. Simply "pushing" families out of shelter is certainly not the "best" way to accomplish stability or self-sufficiency. On the contrary, this will only lead to an even greater crisis of family homelessness not far into the future. The best solution is to provide families with the supports and resources they so desperately seek and are not currently getting in our bare-bones shelter system. The best way is to address the causes of homelessness head on, to create affordable housing and living wage jobs. Provisional placement is but a bandaid and a distraction from the real problem and real solutions.

"Our goal is to get people out of shelters . . .or never into shelters in the first place, even if that means living with a grandmother, a sister, whatever," said Chris Murphy, Gray's chief of staff.

But what if "whatever" means going back to the home of an abuser, or to a condemned building? And what if, as is very often the case, the host family is risking their own housing stability by having family members sleep on their couch or on the floor of their living room? The Mayor's approach would force tenants to violate their leases, to risk eviction, and to endanger their own health and safety. We hope that the Mayor does not endorse a "whatever" approach to family homelessness.

"If someone is doubled up in a safe situation that is determined to be appropriate, we think that is acceptable. Families have done it for generations. Immigrant families do it. It's not an unacceptable situation."

Under current law and practice, families who can be safely doubled up are ineligible for emergency shelter and are denied placement in the first place. The families that are placed have passed a rigorous screening process and have been determined to be both DC residents and to have absolutely no safe alternative to shelter. Most families placed after this screening process have spent weeks, months, and sometimes years doubled up until their host families can no longer accommodate them.

At a listening session to get feedback on this proposal at the DC General Shelter last week, a DC Department of Human Services (DHS) official said she "heard loud and clear" from families that they have no alternative, no personal safety net on which they could rely. If they did, they would not be in shelter.

"We do not believe that there is a family homeless crisis that many people claim there is," Murphy said. "We think there is a crisis of too many families in shelters, and that's a meaningful distinction because it drives how you solve the problem."

DC has been facing a family homelessness crisis for years, and it has only recently come to a head. Here's the evidence to back up that claim: There's been a 74 percent rise in homelessness from 2008-2012. We've lost half the stock of affordable housing units in the last dozen years. Families' TANF benefits have been cut. More than half of families who rely on TANF are in situations where they are doubled up. Unemployment remains as high as 17.9 percent for residents of Ward 8. While DC's passage of the minimum wage bill will certainly help some struggling families, it has yet to go into effect.

We agree with Murphy that the solution depends on how you define the problem. This goes to the heart of the shortcomings with the Mayor's plan. The crisis isn't that too many families are in DC's shelters; the crisis is that so many families need shelter. That is the crisis the Mayor should be addressing, and which the legislation he plans to present to the Council will do nothing to resolve.

We hope the Mayor will reconsider this current path and that families will stop being blamed for their poverty and homelessness, because only then can DC become the "world class destination" that the Mayor envisions we already are.

If not, the ball will once again be in the Council's court, and we will look to them to introduce real solutions to the crisis of family homelessness. We stand ready to assist them.

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