Testimony of Kate Coventry at At the Public Hearing on Bill 22-293, Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017 DC Council Committee on Human Services

Chairperson Nadeau and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry and I am a senior policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI promotes budget and policy choices to expand economic opportunity and reduce income inequality in the District of Columbia, through independent research and policy recommendations. I am also a voting member of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.

I am here today to make recommendations for improvements to the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017 and to point out areas that would benefit from further discussion.

Some New Definitions Need Refinements

The proposed legislation includes changes to the definitions of a number of key terms, in many cases to align with federal law and thus to reduce the monitoring and reporting burden of providers who receive both federal and local funding. While we agree this is a valid purpose, some of these definition changes may have unintended negative consequences and should be modified.

The proposed changes to the definition of “homeless,” to match the federal definition, would include people fleeing violence but would no longer include people trying to leave housing that is unsafe because of poor housing conditions or lack of utilities. DCFPI recommends modifying the proposed definition to add back a clause that includes people without access to safe housing.

The proposed new definition of “permanent supportive housing (PSH)” limits the program to residents who are or are at-risk of being “chronically homeless,” meaning the head of household must have a disability. This is narrower than the District’s current practice of also serving families where a child has a disability and the family needs intensive services to remain housed. We suggest the definition be expanded to ensure that these families in this situation can receive the services they need.

Finally, the definition of “individual” should explicitly include “unaccompanied youth.” Most protections in the HSRA are given to “individuals” and/or “families.” During a previous administration, there was no policy regarding unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness during hypothermic weather because they were not considered “individuals” or “families.” DCFPI recommends that the Council clarify that “individual” includes unaccompanied youth or explicitly name “unaccompanied youth” in each of the protections.

Clarification Needed Around How Program Parameters Will Be Set

The proposed legislation states that the “parameters of programs to assist individuals and families with obtaining and maintaining permanent housing shall be set forth in rules or in contracts with the Department.” DCFPI is concerned that setting major program parameters via contracts, like length or amount of assistance, could lead to clients receiving vastly different services. DCFPI recommends striking the phrase “in contracts with the Department” from this section to clarify that major program parameters can only be set in rules.

Proposed Residency Requirements Could Be Burdensome

DCFPI is concerned that meeting the proposed residency requirements could be impossible for some vulnerable residents and burdensome for others. The District should exempt those who lack documents, such as refugees and undocumented residents, from these requirements. To reduce the burden on others, the legislation should require the Department to search government databases to verify residency without requiring written proofs, a practice that DHS reports it already does. Additionally, the District should exempt people who have already proven residency recently to a DC agency, such as those who obtained identification from the Department of Motor Vehicles or enrolled in school or public benefits. Also, the current list of documents is far from exhaustive and should be expanded. For example, it does not include Veterans Affairs benefits as a proof of residency. We recommend that DHS be given authority to accept other documents for proof of residency at its discretion. Finally, current law allows DHS to exempt survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and trafficking from proof of residency requirements but the proposed law does not require this. The Council should change the bill to require the agency to do so, rather than simply allowing it to.

We also ask the agency to create written guidance on determining residency as well as the agency’s policies around serving survivors of domestic violence.

New Safe Housing Assumption Could Lead Families to be Wrongfully Turned Away

The proposed legislation requires a resident listed on a lease or occupancy agreement to provide “clear and convincing evidence” that they cannot return to that housing in order to be placed in shelter. This may lead to residents being wrongfully turned away as being listed on a lease or occupancy agreement does not give a person the right to stay there and clients may not be able to get evidence to show they cannot stay there. Additionally, “clear and compelling evidence” is a very high legal standard which many residents would not be able to meet. We suggest this provision be removed from the bill.

Redetermining Eligibility Needs Some Boundaries

DCFPI agrees with DHS that it would be acceptable that clients in homeless services programs, like other public benefits, be subject to redetermination of eligibility. We also agree with DHS that solutions need to be developed for the three major problems that DHS hopes this provision is intended to address. These are:

  • motel rooms that are provided to families but then are unused for three consecutive nights;
  • difficulties moving residents out of youth PSH and into adult PSH after they age out of youth services; and
  • difficulties moving parents who lose custody of their children out of the family shelter system and into the singles shelter system.

At the same time, we have concerns that the proposed language is too broad and could lead to abuses. We recommend the Council add specifics about how frequently clients can be reassessed and what eligibility requirements will be assessed, such as age, income, homeless status, etc. Without these specifics, DCFPI is concerned that DHS would have the authority to re-determine eligibility frequently, even daily, as a previous administration did for family shelter. Additionally, the Council should add specifics about due process for residents found who are found ineligible.

Legislation Should Reflect the New Bathroom Ratios Planned for DC General Replacement Shelters

The proposed legislation removes the requirement for DC General Family Shelter replacement shelters to have multi-fixture bathrooms, reflecting the administration’s decision to provide family bathrooms instead. Family bathrooms include one toilet and one tub and are intended to be used by one family at a time. The legislation does not include language to reflect these replacements, leaving a very low minimum requirement of 1 family bathroom per every 5 families, reflecting the ratio that would be used if DHS were providing multi-fixture bathrooms. DCFPI recommends that the Council add language reflecting the planned ratio of family bathrooms to families.

Medical Respite Provisions Would Benefit From Additional Discussion

DCFPI agrees with the Interagency Council on Homelessness that medical respite beds need customized provisions related to transfer and termination. Legal providers would like to have additional discussions about these provisions to explore ways to protect residents’ due process rights. DCFPI thinks these conversations would be helpful to look for a solution that balances the rights of those served in medical respite with the needs of those who are waiting for an opening in these services.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify and I’m happy to answer any questions.