Testimony of at the Budget Oversight Hearing on the Department of 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). DCFPI is a non-profit organization that shapes racially-just tax, budget, and policy decisions by centering Black and brown communities in our research and analysis, community partnerships, and advocacy efforts to advance an antiracist, equitable future.

I am here today to ask the DC Council to:

  • support the proposed, simplified DC Healthcare Alliance (Alliance) recertification process;
  • pause Rapid ReHousing (RRH) terminations for 913 families;
  • fund Targeted Affordable Housing (TAH) for 1,040 families;
  • ensure Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable People (PEP-V) sites are fully utilized, fund 24-hour shelter access in the fiscal year (FY) 2022 supplemental and FY 2023 budgets, and sanitation stations for encampments;
  • add $300,000 to Project Reconnect;
  • investigate the need estimates for Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) and add funding if needed;
  • add funding to end youth homelessness; and
  • invest in the Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) program.

DCFPI thanks Mayor Bowser for fully funding the Permanent Supportive Housing asks made by The Way Home Campaign to end chronic homelessness. These investments will end homelessness for 500 individuals, 260 families, and 10 youth.  Racism and other systemic barriers to opportunity have left Black residents at a higher risk for evictions and homelessness. We are urging the Council to add additional funding that take aim at both longstanding racial inequities and inequities related to the pandemic.

Council Should Support Proposed, Simplified Alliance Recertification Process

DCFPI urges the Council to support the FY 2023 budget proposal to simplify the recertification process for the DC Healthcare Alliance—a program that provides critical health care coverage to residents with low incomes who do not qualify for Medicaid, most of whom are immigrants. The FY 2023 proposed budget includes $4.2 million in recurring funding so that the Alliance recertification process matches the Medicaid process.

Given their shared purpose, the Alliance and Medicaid should have identical, low-barrier eligibility requirements. But, unlike Medicaid, the Alliance has required participants to recertify every six months rather than annually and normally does not allow participants to do so online. These restrictive rules contribute to a high rate of turnover in the Alliance. Prior to the pandemic, only 55 percent of Alliance participants renewed their eligibility when it came time.[1] Given that many Alliance members work at jobs without paid leave and that visiting a DHS center can take an entire day or longer, it is not surprising that many are unable to renew their benefits.

Council Should Pause Family RRH Terminations

DHS has reported that up to 913 families will be terminated from RRH due to time limits in FY 2022. Although the proposed FY 2023 budget adds approximately $45 million to the family RRH budget, the budget is still not sufficient to delay these terminations. We ask the Council to add the funding needed to delay these terminations, which can lead to evictions, through the end of the fiscal year. With evictions comes trauma, disruption of education and employment, and poorer health outcomes. They’ll also likely cause a surge in family homelessness, interfering with the progress towards DC’s goals of ending homelessness and preventing community spread of COVID-19. RRH extensions also promote a racially equitable recovery as people of color, especially Black people and immigrants, have faced higher risk of coronavirus infection, unemployment, and eviction during the pandemic.

Council Should Add Funding for TAH

The Mayor’s FY 2023 budget proposal offers no new funding for TAH for families, which combines a permanent tenant voucher with light touch services. TAH helps families who do not have high service needs but struggle to afford DC’s high rents. DCFPI and our partners ask the Council to add $27.7 million to end homelessness for 1,040 families with TAH.

Council Should Ensure PEP-V Sites and 24-Hour Shelters Are Utilized and Funded in FY 2022 and FY 2023

As we face the possibility of another COVID variant, the Council should ensure that the District is fully utilizing PEP-V motel sites to serve all those deemed high risk for COVID-19. These sites act as non-congregate shelter to reduce exposure to COVID-19. In addition to protecting individuals from COVID, the program has made it easier to connect high-need individuals with services and has made it much easier to help individuals move into housing. Providers have reported they spend much less time trying to find individuals who are matched to housing.

DHS has limited these beds to only individuals who have been matched to a housing resource. This excludes many high-risk individuals who should be placed. DCPFI asks the Council to ensure these beds are used and that they are adequately funded. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay 96 percent of the costs associated with PEP-V sites through September 30th so funds should be sufficient in FY 2022, but the Council should add funding if needed to the FY 2023 budget.

The Council should also ensure that DHS can continue to offer 24-hour shelter access. Prior to this policy change, individuals had to leave shelter in the morning, dragging their belongings with them, spending the day trying to meet their needs for food, showers, and services. Individuals would have to line up to access a shelter bed each evening, often spending hours in line. Allowing individuals to remain at shelter sites for 24 hours reduces these stresses and makes it easier to connect individuals with services. Additionally, like with PEP-V, providers have reported they spend much less time trying to find individuals who are matched to housing. The agency has announced it does not have the funding to continue 24-hour shelter operations. We ask the Council to add the needed funding.

The agency also announced that they will cease providing handwashing stations and portable restrooms for encampments. These services are urgently needed, particularly as we face the possibility of another COVID variant. It is not clear if this change is because of a desire to change this policy or a lack of funding. The Council should ensure that the Department continues to offer these services and add funding if needed.

Council Should Add $300,000 for Project Reconnect

Project Reconnect helps individuals who are newly homeless find alternatives to shelter, such as reuniting with friends and family. Shelter can be traumatic and unsafe; avoiding shelter can benefit individuals.[2] Additionally because of budget limitations, not every individual receives housing assistance in any given year, which means that shared housing may be the best option for an individual. The proposed FY 2023 budget adds nearly $727,800 to Project Reconnect but more is needed. Given that the end of the eviction moratorium could lead to increased homelessness, the Council should invest an additional $300,000, allowing 171 more individuals to receive assistance.

Council Should Consider Adding More Funding for ERAP

ERAP helps residents facing eviction pay for overdue rent and related legal costs. The program also provides security deposits and first month’s rent for residents moving into new homes. Preventing evictions is a key to avoiding significant socioeconomic setbacks for adults and children and preventing community spread of COVID-19. DCFPI thanks the Mayor for making large investments in ERAP: adding nearly $74 million to the proposed FY 2022 supplemental budget and including $42.7 million in the proposed FY 2023 budget. While these investments are significant, they will likely fall short of the need. Approximately 20,000 DC households were behind on rent between December 2021 and early February 2022.[3] The Council should ask the agency how they identified the need for ERAP in FYs 2022 and 2023 and add more funding if the budget does not seem sufficient.

Council Should Make Progress on Ending Youth Homelessness

Many youths experience homelessness without their parents or guardians. These “unaccompanied” homeless youth fall into two broad categories: those under age 18 and ages 18 to 24. The FY 2023 budget proposal misses several key investments to support unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness:

  • $3.15 million to right-size existing youth homes program contracts. Most youth contracts have remained flat or seen decreases in the past two years. Additional funding is necessary to keep up with rising operating expenses and maintain the quality and capacity of services. This figure accounts for inflation and staffing cost increases.
  • $1 million for workforce programming. DC lacks job search, job match, and job retention programs that are designed to support unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness.
  • $558,000 to create a mobile behavioral health team that can meet youth where they are. Timely access to prescriptions and regular participation in therapy can be challenging for homeless youth who often lack funds for transportation and must wait for months for appointments. A mobile behavioral unit can visit youth sites to ensure easier and regular access.

Council Should Invest in IDA as Need is Likely to Increase

IDA serves as a vital lifeline for DC residents with disabilities who cannot work and have no other income or other means to pay for basic needs such as transportation, medicine, toiletries, and food. It provides modest, temporary cash benefits to adults who have applied for federal disability benefits (Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)) and are awaiting an eligibility determination. The wait time for federal benefit determination has skyrocketed in recent years, from 350 days in 2012 to nearly 600 days in 2017, leaving residents both unable to work and lacking benefits.[4]

IDA is paid for with a combination of local funding, reimbursement from the federal government, and funds from the SSI Payback Fund. When an individual is approved for SSI, the federal government reimburses the District for the IDA benefits the individual received. These reimbursement dollars are used to support the annual budget, and unspent funds are put into the SSI Payback Fund at the end of the year so that the District can provide benefits for future IDA applicants.

The total proposed FY 2023 budget for IDA remains relatively flat at $3.2 million, combining $2.5 million in local funds with $700,000 in federal reimbursements. While funding is flat, the number of IDA recipients is projected to decrease because benefits are adjusted for inflation. In FY 2022, 637 individuals could receive benefits each month. In FY 2023, this will fall to 632.

In addition, the Social Security Administration (SSA) anticipates a large increase in SSI applications now that SSA offices have reopened after being closed due to the pandemic and because of the effects of long COVID.

DCFPI recommends that the Council double the IDA budget with $3.3 million investment to serve an additional 632 individuals, with the goal of expanding the program to serve all in need within five years.

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

[1] Ed Lazere, “No Way to Run a Healthcare Program: DC’s Access Barriers for Immigrants Contribute to Poor Outcomes and Higher Costs,” DC Fiscal Policy Institute, revised March 17, 2019.

[2] “Diversion,” National Alliance to End Homelessness, August 10, 2010, https://endhomelessness.org/resource/diversionexplainer/

[3] Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analysis of Census Pulse Data provided to DCFPI.

[4] “597 Days and Still Waiting.” Terrence McCoy. The Washington Post. 11 Nov. 2017. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2017/11/20/10000-people-died-waiting-for-a-disability-decision-in-the-past-year-will-he-be-next/