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When District and federal officials announced plans for the D.C. Homeless Initiative in 1993, they gushed that it would be a model for the nation. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros and then-Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, who negotiated the plan, vowed that the initiative would create transitional and permanent housing for hundreds of homeless people in D.C. It would also offer health care, counseling, and job training. But now, two years after its much-publicized kickoff, the initiative is in trouble, a victim of bureaucratic snafus and the city’s omnipresent budget crisis.
Under the original proposal signed by Cisneros, city officials, and the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the city and the feds planned to boost spending on the homeless for three years. The District initially agreed to maintain its 1993 level of funding on homeless services—about $22 million—and HUD would add $20 million over the three-year period. Together, the nearly $30 million per year was expected to provide more than 200 new beds for homeless substance abusers and 550 apartment units for homeless families, including 50 for families with drug- or alcohol-related problems. In addition, the city’s Department of Public and Assisted Housing (DPAH) would house 300 families and offer them counseling and other support services.
But that was before the District’s budget collapsed. Even before the initiative was finalized, the city slashed its fiscal 1994 contribution from $22 million to $14.8 million. D.C. funding plummeted again in fiscal 1995 to $10.6 million. Unless Congress or the control board miraculously intervenes, the District will spend about $10.8 million in fiscal 1996, barely half what the city hoped to spend.
The D.C. Homeless Initiative will be lucky if it actually keeps that $10.8 million this year. The control board has ordered D.C. to eliminate more than 5,000 jobs from the fiscal 1996 budget and to save about $180 million. And the Republican Congress, which begins marking up the D.C. budget this week, is eager to make even deeper cuts in the District’s social welfare programs.
Instead of becoming an innovative national model, the initiative is devolving into an unremarkable, troubled program.
“Much of the promise of the D.C. Initiative cannot be realized,” laments Steve Cleghorn, deputy program director for the Community Partnership, which administers the initiative and which was granted authority to operate the city’s homeless programs by the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS).
“The budget cuts are crimping substantially our ability to build a continuum of care,” adds Cleghorn. Without more money, he says, the initiative can’t provide ancillary services such as health care, counseling, and job training. These services, of course, are the very ideas that were supposed to make the D.C. Initiative different from traditional policy.
Besides weakening ancillary services, the budget cuts have also harmed the effort to find permanent housing for the homeless. Families have been particularly hard hit by the reduction in the District’s funding: The initiative has not developed any of the promised 550 units of permanent family housing. Although it has created 140 units of single room occupancy (SRO) housing, even that falls 20 units short of the initiative’s goal.
“I’m disappointed but not surprised,” says Patricia Mullahy-Fugere, director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “I anticipated the city’s involvement might be a way of getting out of providing services to the homeless.”
Mullahy-Fugere says about 300 families currently are on the waiting list for emergency housing, but that the city is housing only half of them. “There are families living under the freeway, in cars, and in parks,” she continues. “One of the scariest things is that winter will soon be upon us and we will be dealing with families that have no place to go.”
And while the city has failed to build new units for homeless families, DPAH hasn’t renovated much public housing. The Kelly administration claimed that it placed 1,000 homeless families and individuals in public housing. But sources in the administration of Mayor Marion Barry say fewer than 1,000 moved. And Mullahy-Fugere says some homeless families who moved in have already moved out, appalled by horrendous living conditions and ever-present crime. (In early 1995, a D.C. Superior Court judge, citing grotesque mismanagement by the city, placed DPAH in receivership.)
But not all of the initiative’s setbacks can be blamed on money. According to D.C. Council staffers, the awkward transition from Kelly to Barry bogged down the homeless effort. DHS bureaucrats, who were not fully aware of the initiative agreement, missed a grant that could have provided funds for families. And federal dollars controlled by the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) have not been released to the initiative because the department and the Community Partnership have not struck an agreement on how the money will be used. Cleghorn says he is confident such a deal will be signed sometime this week.
DHCD Executive Director Merrick Malone could not be reached for comment.
Even if DHCD and the partnership do reach an agreement, those funds will create only 135 rental units of housing for families, says Cleghorn. The partnership also will invest in nonprofits that build family housing, projects that could yield about 60 homes over the next two years. This housing still constitutes only a fraction of what the initiative hoped to create, but Cleghorn says he’s optimistic that the initiative will eventually attain its goals.
“A lot of things came slower than we thought. We do want to speed things up,” he says. “[Next] year we’ll play catch-up.”