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David Berns has one of the harder jobs in District government: Trying to keep people off the streets in a housing market that doesn’t leave much room for the poor. As part of a Housing Complex Q&A series with Mayor Vince Gray‘s cabinet, I sat Berns down with family services administrator Fred Swan to ask just how bad that problem is.

You’ve served all over the country in different capacities. Why come to D.C.? And what were you asked to do when you got here?

One of the reasons why I came here was conversations with the mayor and [Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services] BB Otero, where they let me know that the [Temporary Aid to Needy Families] program hadn’t been implemented according to the federal laws back in 1996. They had heard about some of the work that I’d done in other states that was much more client-centered, in not eliminating welfare, but eliminating poverty, one family at a time. And so it really wasn’t a surprise. We still had the old TANF program, that was the old AFDC program, that didn’t focus on moving people ahead. It gave them economic support in order to maintain some safety and stability in their lives, but not enough to really move them into something better.

So you were charged with modernizing the TANF program.

I don’t know if it’s it modernizing as much as returning to our roots of supporting families so that they can really be successful. [Ed. note—-Here’s Berns’ white paper on the reform]

And how did you find operating in D.C. to be different from other places you’d worked?

We are the state, we are the city, we are the county, all of those things are merged into one city. It’s a great and wonderful place to work, because you don’t have so many types and layers of government, so you can do more things collectively. And certainly, the advocacy community here is so strong, so articulate, so involved. And so it’s refreshing to have so many people who care about these populations. I’ve been in other jurisdictions where I’ve felt like I’m the lone voice. I never was, but it really didn’t have the same constituency and passion.

What unique things do your clients have to deal with?

Our housing situation is horrible, certainly worse than any jurisdictions where I have personally worked. The cost of housing is so much, and a TANF grant covers a week’s rent rather than a month’s rent. The housing market is one of the stumbling blocks that we have. Some of the good things are that we’ve had tremendous outreach, and many many people who are eligible for food stamps and Medicaid are actually receiving it.

So, our 10-year Plan to End Homelessness kicked off in 2004.

We’re not gonna make it.

Do you think we could’ve gotten closer to that goal, with more commitment of energy and resources?

I can’t speculate on that. There’s competing pressures all the time, investing in law enforcement, investing in infrastructure. But now you’re seeing that it’s a continuing problem, and unless you can solve the housing issue, you’re going to have a terrible time solving employment issues. And if families are faced with unemployment, the kids are going to suffer in school. So everything contributes.

Is it worth doing another time-limited plan like that?

I think it’s always great to have a vision. It’s my goal to eliminate poverty. Do I think that in my lifetime I’ll be successful? No. But I would rather have that kind of a vision than saying we’re going to eliminate poverty for 50 percent of the people, and then have to choose which of the rest are going to get served. Now I think we have a more realistic view. We don’t have so much a homeless problem in the district as we have a housing problem. We have ways to shelter and get people off the streets and into something that’s reasonably safe. Our problem is we don’t have a way to get them out of the shelters and into something better.

When we last talked, it was about the fact that the city was putting up some 200 families in hotels, after seeing a huge spike in the number of families applying for shelter. Do we know anything more about why that happened?

I think we properly identified what the problem was. It wasn’t just the number of people coming in, it was how long they were staying. And once we started looking for places for them to go, we couldn’t fast enough. If we could have the same amount of people apply, and we could get them into some kind of permanent housing within 30 days, we wouldn’t have to expand capacity at D.C. General, we wouldn’t have had to use any of the hotels.

Fred Swan: It’s hard to put your finger on one particular cause. The economy’s going to be a factor for some families. When you look at the lack of affordable housing, it means more families have been doubled up for longer. And the longer you’re doubled up, the more likely it is that the bottom’s gonna fall out.

Berns: That is one realization that’s crystallized over the last couple of months, that we were talking almost exclusively about getting them out the backend. Now I think our statistics are showing that if we had more a reliable low-cost housing market at the beginning, we could be helping a lot more families on the day that they show up at Virginia Williams, or before they even get on the street.

Hypothermia season ended two months ago. How many people are still staying in hotels?

Berns: It’s still very very high. We had two additional hypothermia alerts after the season ended, adding 25 families each time.

And once you’re in….

Swan: You’re in.

Speaking of D.C. General: I know a lot of people are upset about the fact that there’s a 1,000-person homeless shelter on a prime redevelopment location. Is there any plan to decrease that presence?

It’s our goal in the next year to be working with our private landlords and others to come up with enough affordable, subsidized, either short term or long term units so that we won’t need to have as many people at D.C. General. We think the best solution for the mass of people we have at D.C. General isn’t to relocate them to other shelters, but to reduce the whole need. We probably wouldn’t get much community flak at all if we dropped it down to 75 families at that location, and then it becomes much more supportable. I think we’re always going to have a need for an emergency situation where you can’t get them into an apartment tonight, they might have to go into something for a couple of weeks. We have some good strategies on the table, where we think using some existing and new resources, we’ll be able to move families a lot more quickly than we have, and not only eliminate the number of families in hotels, but drastically reduce the need for capacity at D.C. General.

Yeah? How?

There’s no one magic bullet, but one of them is that I run the TANF program, as well as the homeless family program. We’ve done them pretty much in a siloed fashion, even within the Department of Human Services. We concentrated on the housing aspect over at Virginia Williams, and we’ve had the TANF program that’s focused more on getting people jobs. And when we look, they’re basically the same families, and we’ve assigned separate case managers, separate approaches. We also have this new assessment tool within the TANF program, and we’re finding that well over 30 percent of the families on TANF either are homeless or housing insecure, meaning they’re soubled up, basically, and are potentially our next homeless family. So there’s a great need to integrate our approaches, so that a family, if they come in through the TANF door, don’t just get a job, or if they come in through Virginia Williams or the Family Resource Center, don’t just get housing, but the combination. You have to do both in order to be successful with it.

The Council mandated that we start reducing TANF benefits for those who’ve been on it for a long time, starting this October. Are your clients ready for it?

The law was passed before I got here, the gradual reduction in the benefits. This is a process that’s similar to what was done in the rest of the nation 15 years ago. There are things that haven’t really received much attention: If they come in, get a plan, and are really working towards their goals, they can get up to $200 a month of additional resources under TANF to support their plan, which could offset some of the loss that they have with the reduction.

And then there’s the income disregard system, which is among the best if not the best in the country. If you get a job while you’re receiving TANF benefits, you get to keep more of your earned income without having significant reductions in your TANF grant than anywhere else in the country.

So it takes away the disincentive to get a job.

That’s right, and it gives families that have been on assistance for a long time an opportunity to look not just for that perfect job, but anything to build up their resume and make up for the loss of the TANF reductions. A lot of people aren’t quite ready for a $25 or $30 hour job as their first job, but get there incrementally, and our system is designed to support them and work with them until they get to a level that’s well beyond what they’re receiving with their TANF grant.

There’s been a lot of talk about requiring people to be D.C. residents in order to receive services, even though homeless people will have a touch time proving where they live. What do you think about that approach?

Over the years, I haven’t found many people willing to move across great divides just for welfare benefits, it’s just not that productive. With that said, I think because we are so close, it’s sometimes a matter of moving across the street, we will get some of that increase. Then we have some programs that are almost unique in the nation that we want to make sure are used exclusively for people in the district, like the Alliance program. And that’s the one where I’ve seen the most attention. And so we instituted a process where we have to interview them twice a year to make sure that they are residents. We saw an initial big decline, and thought it might be the residency program, but the numbers of Alliance recipients is increasing again. So we’re not really realizing the savings from the expectation that a lot of people were getting those benefits illegally.

Is there any city that does this stuff really well?

The two that are touted most in the country that I know of are Seattle, Washington and Minneapolis-St. Paul. They have a very coordinated approach, more wraparound services, a lot of the things we’re trying to do here with the integration of the TANF program.

Swan: One thing I would add is that a lot of our challenges have to do with affordable housing, not so much that our programs aren’t designed to be successful. There are programs that would work much better in other jurisdictions, where you have affordable like ‘I can afford on my own if I get a halfway decent job.’ Those programs are going to be much more successful in those jurisdictions, even if they’re run in exactly the same way as they’re run here, when you need a lot more income here to get to that point.

To go back to the D.C. General question: How are you planning on making sure families find housing next year, instead of going into shelters?

Swan: We have what we call rapid re-housing, where it’s not an apartment, but it’s a temporary subsidy, could be a year, could be a year and a half. We want to move more in that direction, so instead of having 200-some-odd families at D.C. General, we have 200-some-odd families in housing somewhere, even if it’s a short-term subsidy. They’ll probably have more opportunities to be successful if they’re in their own housing.

Are families able to transition from that subsidy to self-sufficiency?

Swan: Depends on the family.

Berns: But mention our statistics!

Swan: We have a federal stimulus program, called homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing, that we’ve been doing since the end of FY ’09. There’s a housing subsidy that you get for up to 18 months that you get in four-month intervals. And thus far, 90 percent of the individuals and families that we placed in those programs have not come back to us for shelter.

Does that mean they’ve rented apartments, or what?

Swan: Some of ‘em. Some may have been able to afford their rent after the subsidy went away. Some of them may have had someone room with them. Individuals, by default, they just have a better shot at it by default, than families.

Which reminds me—having a kid makes this a lot harder. Are we doing enough to combat teen pregnancy?

Berns: Obviously not. But there have been declines, and we’ve made as a society some strides. I think a lot of it is just a change in culture and family planning. Statistically, a young woman has one child is disadvantaged and has obstacles. If she has two kids, or more—it’s that second child that really diminishes her likelihood of success in the market.

Do you have enough counselors?

No. That is one of the big changes that we’re seeking with the current budget discussions. The mayor’s two top priorities for the budget surplus were the $7 million for homeless families and the $14.5 million for the TANF. Well, in some ways, for us it’s the same pot. Because, over the years, we lost a lot of the administrative money, it was redeployed into other programs, we had to go to a system where people go to out offices, they get the next available eligibility worker. You come in next month or next week, or anytime. So you never get a chance to forge a relationship. That works fine for food stamps and Medicaid, which aren’t based on getting people a job. TANF is more about guidance along with resources to be able to get a job or no longer require that public assistance, and that’s hard to do without a relationship.

If you had another $20 million, where would you put it?

I would go to the mayor, since he has the much broader vision of what’s necessary in the city, and let him go through that process.

How noble of you.

I say that with the confidence that he put us with the top two priorities already!