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The city tried outreach to landlords to secure housing for families exiting homelessness. It tried tightening the controls on shelter access. It tried deterrence, by using recreation centers as shelter in the hope that families might turn to other options. It tried advance planning and preparation. None of it worked: The homelessness crisis got even worse this winter.
So now the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser is trying something more fundamental. The budget she presented this morning would dedicate considerably more funding to homeless services, particularly for families.
Overall, the Department of Human Services, which oversees the city’s homeless program, is slated to get a 9.2 percent budget increase, to $459 million. That’s less than the 16.4 percent increase in the current fiscal year’s budget over the previous one.
But drilling down into homeless services, there’s a substantial increase. The Family Services Administration, which manages support for the homeless, would get a bump of $28 million, or 19.4 percent. The vast majority of that increase comes from a boost to the so-called continuum of homeless services, and particularly for families, who get an increase of $13 million, or 28 percent.
Where would all that money go? According to Bowser’s budget documents, $4.9 million would fund 84 replacement units to help replace the troubled D.C. General shelter. Another $4.6 million would pay for 340 additional units of rapid rehousing—-the city’s main (and flawed) tool for moving families out of shelter and into housing—-and for a new daytime center where homeless individuals can get housing and employment resources. The budget allocates an additional $2.6 million to help families avoid homelessness and to place 80 families in intensive rapid rehousing. Permanent supportive housing, for people who require extensive support services, would get a $1.3 million boost to provide 110 units for families and a $1.6 million increase to fund 250 units for individuals—-plus $3 million for support services for existing permanent supportive housing units.
And finally, anticipating a shelter crunch like the ones that have hit the city for the past two winters, the budget allocates $1.8 million to help shelter families and individuals next winter.
“This budget is a huge step forward toward ending chronic homelessness and homelessness more broadly,” says Kurt Runge of Miriam’s Kitchen, a homeless services nonprofit that has made a goal of ending chronic homelessness. He’s particularly impressed that Bowser managed to put this funding toward homeless services while confronting a $200 million budget shortfall. But he adds, “I do recognize that given the magnitude of this problem, more resources are going to be needed.”
“We are thrilled that Mayor Bowser is implementing the legislation she initiated on the Council to require at least $100 million to be available in the Trust Fund each year for new projects,” Susanne Slater, president of the board of directors of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development, says in a statement.
Beyond homeless services, the budget provides $5 million to extend Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits by a year for families facing a “cliff” as their TANF benefits expire after five years due to a recent change to the program. That extension also requires a reallocation of an additional $5 million by DHS.
Some of the funding for these homeless services will come from Bowser’s proposed sales-tax increase, from 5.75 to 6 percent. According to the budget, $8 million in funding will also come from “an $8,000,000 reduction within the Family Services Administration division, which will be achieved by identifying efficiencies and cost savings within contracts.” That sounds more aspirational than concrete; likewise, it’s not immediately apparent if some of the other funding is the result of budget shuffling that could detract from affordable-housing or other social-service programs.
And there’s obviously much more to solving the homelessness crisis than throwing money at the problem. But money is a start, and a welcome one to advocates of the homeless.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery