How Did $12 Million Disappear from the Homeless Services Budget?
Sometimes something happens that makes you say “what the hell is going on?” Late in September, dozens of the District’s homeless service providers were notified that their funding from the city was being cut substantially. The cuts were announced just days before the start of the fiscal year and a month before the start of hypothermia season. No one — not the DC Council, the Interagency Council on Homelessness, the providers, or those experiencing homelessness — saw these cuts coming. Confusion and concern are rampant.
Mayor Fenty’s administration says the cut is $12 million: a $900,000 reduction in local funds for the Permanent Supportive Housing program that had been designated as one-time funds in FY 2009 and $11.5 million in federal TANF block grant funds. That’s about 20 percent of the city’s homeless services budget, and some advocates say the cut could be even greater.
Why is this happening?
The reduction to homeless services isn’t coming because the District is losing TANF funds — federal block grant funding to DC remains unchanged. What the Department of Human Services has lost is local funding — $25 million in FY 2010 — due to budget cuts. To make this up, the District chose to use federal TANF funds to fill gaps in other programs like the Emergency Rental Assistance Program and energy assistance.
These are important programs, especially during an economic downturn. But why did the city, in its race to use every penny of TANF funds, fail to set aside TANF funds for homeless services as it had for years? The choices to fund some programs and not others were made largely outside the view of the Council and the public. The DC budget has just a single line for TANF and a single line for homeless services — and no detail about how the funds are spent. No wonder no one saw the homeless cuts coming.
Lack of budget transparency has real — human — costs.
The reductions in funding to homeless services — which Councilmember Tommy Wells hopes to reverse, at least partly — will hurt the District’s most vulnerable residents. More than 100 families with children, 485 women, and 1,332 men could be harmed — not including the people who already cannot access emergency shelter because the system is at capacity. Even if providers figure out a way to keep shelters open, they will be forced to reduce services to help people move out of shelters and supplies, such as sheets and toiletries, which are already sparse.
Street outreach this winter will be significantly reduced, which means fewer blankets and warm drinks to people on the street and fewer people coaxed into shelters. DC is almost guaranteed to violate its legal — and moral — obligation to shelter its residents from cold weather this winter.