Helping Families Home: A Roadmap for the District

A high-quality family homelessness system should provide year-round access to decent shelter when it is needed, and sufficient case management and services to help families quickly move from shelter to a safe and stable home. Unfortunately, this hasn’t happened for the past several years in DC. Families have been able to enter shelter only when it is cold. Shelter conditions have been deplorable. And many families have been in shelter for too long. The unexpectedly harsh winter DC faced this year brought the crisis of the family homelessness system into sharp focus.

DC started the season with the family shelter system nearly at capacity and then faced an enormous increase in families seeking shelter. This overwhelmed the District’s system, and led to the placement of families in motels and then in recreation centers, which were found by the courts to pose the risk of irreparable harm to children. DC also began placing incoming families in shelter only during nights when the temperature was below 32 degrees, even if they had no safe place to go.

Without sufficient planning and funding, the likelihood is high that the crisis will be repeated next year. No one wants that to happen.

This community report, being released by 20 community organizations, including DCFPI, serves as roadmap for the District from now until next spring to put DC on a path to a system that serves families appropriately with the goal of quickly connecting families with the right services, including emergency shelter if needed, when they need it, regardless of the time of year. In order to lay that foundation, the report outlines key goals, and the steps needed to achieve those goals, some of which are already in progress.

The roadmap focuses on five key areas for the District to tackle:

  • Safe and adequate emergency shelter for families when they need it. Families with no safe housing option should be able to access shelter year-round. They should not be forced out when the weather gets above 32 degrees. And they should be sheltered in safe and decent settings. As the District develops a new emergency shelter system, improvements at DC General — in both the facility and services — are needed to ensure the well-being of vulnerable families with children.
  • A system that quickly connects families with the right services to limit their stay in shelter. The District should build the capacity needed to assess families, match them with resources, and move families out of shelter within 30 days. This can improve the families’ well-being and reduce the risk that shelters will be filled beyond capacity.
  • A robust set of tools to meet the unique needs of each homeless family. The District needs strong prevention and diversion programs to help families avoid needing emergency shelter. It needs to strengthen Rapid Re-housing ‘ the main tool to move families out of shelter quickly. And it needs to take a closer look on how to better meet the needs of DC’s youth-headed households that represent a large share of homeless families.
  •  Affordable housing for families. Efforts to move families out of shelter need to be coupled with investments in affordable housing. The shortage of low-cost housing is a key contributor to homelessness, and families will have an easier time ending their homelessness if they can find housing that is affordable.
  •  Improved data on performance, budgeting, and spending. Today, policymakers and the public have limited information from DC on the performance of the family homelessness system, on how funding is allocated and spent, and on the division of responsibilities between DHS and its main contractor, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. This makes it difficult to assess the changes needed to create a well-functioning system.

Importantly, this roadmap identifies the funding needed in the fiscal year (FY) 2014 and FY 2015 budgets to achieve these goals. When all resources available in FY 2014 are considered, the FY 2015 budget for homeless families represents a decrease of $11 million, or 20 percent from the FY 2014 adjusted budget, after adjusting for inflation.

By next spring, the community believes that the Interagency Council on Homelessness, which has just hired its first executive director, will have had time to make necessary internal reforms and begin creating a long term plan for the family homelessness system to pick up where this report leaves off.

Over the next year, DC has the capability to make major improvements to the family homelessness system. This roadmap provides a guide for where the energy and resources should be focused to help DC avoid repeating the crisis of last winter.

To read the complete report, click here.

To view the nearly 640 DC residents that have signed onto a petition asking Councilmembers to fund the roadmap, click here.