Restoring Homeless Services Funding Makes Fiscal Sense

Yesterday, dozens of homeless families came to the John A. Wilson Building to take part in the budget process. They asked the DC Council to restore money for homeless services that was cut in Mayor Gray’s proposed budget for next year. Their argument was simple:  There are more and more kids and parents in our city who have no place to sleep, and without a safe place to rest, our civic ambitions of improving education, getting jobs, and making DC a better city in the future simply can’t happen.

Numbers tell a big part of the story:  Since 2008, family homelessness has increased by 75 percent. According to the city’s Department of Human Services, 3,187 DC residents in families with children have no home right now. That is up from 2,688 in 2011.  This is the fourth year of significant increases.

Demand is up, but our supply of housing and available resources is going down.  Mayor Gray’s proposed budget has a $7 million gap in funding for homeless services, due to federal funds that will not be available in fiscal year 2013.  These funds are needed simply to maintain the status quo from this past year and won’t allow the family shelters to remain open year-round. It is in our best interest’both fiscally and as a city’to fund homeless services.

As a city, we can choose to tackle this difficult issue or we can wish that the problem will go away and these families will just find a place to stay. In the end, it’s sort of counterintuitive, but “the hope the problem goes away” approach is the more expensive option. Here’s why. The District does not have a legal obligation to house families in warm weather, but when it is hypothermia season’when the temperature dips below 32 degrees’the city is required under law to house families. Last winter, hundreds of families came to the city in need of shelter. DHS expanded capacity at its DC General shelter, bringing total capacity up to 273 families.  Yet, that was not enough. The District ended up placing 200 more families in motel rooms on New York Avenue NE, at a cost of roughly $3,000 a month per family.

You read right’$3,000 a month. That’s why the dozens of homeless families at the Wilson Building yesterday asked the DC Council to put money toward housing. It is the city’s less expensive and better option to move these kids and parents toward stability. As we look to next year, the problem is likely to be worse.  Ten to 12 families request shelter each week, but DC will not shelter any newly homeless families until hypothermia season. It is likely that once the shelter opens to new families, the need will again overwhelm existing capacity.  DCFPI estimates that if the need for shelter matches that of fiscal year 2012, DHS will need to house up to 296 families per night in motels, at a total cost of nearly $7.5 million.

DC needs a plan to move families out of the shelter and motels and into stable living arrangements.  This will free up space to meet emergency need throughout the year and prevent our reliance on expensive motel rooms that do not meet the needs of families.  We can improve the lives of these families and the city’s pocketbook by making a strategic investment in homeless services. We ask Mayor Gray and the DC Council to fully fund homeless services and move these families and our city forward.