Testimony of Kate Coventry At the Budget Oversight Hearing on the DC 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 is a non-profit organization that promotes budget choices to address DC’s economic and racial inequities and to build widespread prosperity in the District of Columbia, through independent research and policy recommendations.

I would like to focus my testimony on six areas of the budget that fall far short of the need—Permanent Supportive Housing, Project Reconnect, Street Outreach, Emergency Rental Assistance Program, and youth services.

Proposed Budget Makes Investments in Chronic Homelessness, But Much More is Needed

Housing is healthcare. Every day individuals experiencing chronic homelessness die from preventable and manageable diseases. Now, the connection between housing and healthcare is even more evident when one of the keys to staying healthy is staying at home. Individuals who are homeless are particularly likely to acquire COVID-19 because of their age, vulnerability, exposure to many people while living in dormitory-style shelter, and/or inability to keep clean while living outside. And because of their health conditions, they are twice as likely to need to be hospitalized and two to three times likely to die from COVID.

DCFPI is a member of The Way Home, the campaign to end chronic homelessness in the District, which sets budget targets each year to meet the goal of ending chronic homelessness. The proposed budget adds nearly $5 million in new funding to provide Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) to 96 individuals and 54 families. PSH provides long-term housing and case management to residents facing chronic homelessness who would otherwise have difficulty remaining housed. The Way Home campaign called for at least 1,500 PSH units for individuals and 302 units for families. The DC Council should invest an additional $66 million to end chronic homelessness for 1,650 households.

Street Outreach

The proposed budget does not replace $2.1 million in one-time funding that lawmakers allocated to street outreach services in FY 2020. Street outreach provides critical services to residents who do not stay in shelters. Outreach is particularly critical during this pandemic as workers monitor the health of homeless residents and help meet their medical and other needs. Residents are more dependent on these services now because many daytime service centers are closed because of the pandemic. DHS reports they hope to partner with the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) to replace some of these services with local or federal funding. Services from DBH are generally limited to residents with a confirmed mental health problem. This may leave some homeless residents without outreach services. Given the critical nature of street outreach, DCFPI recommends the Council add $2.1 million to ensure that residents do not fall through the cracks if they cannot get more details on how much resources DBH has and how they can be used.

Project Reconnect

The budget reduces funding for Project Reconnect budget by $1.2 million. Project Reconnect helps individuals who are newly homeless find alternatives to shelter such as reuniting with friends and families. DHS reports fewer individuals than anticipated have enrolled in Project Reconnect. DCFPI asks the Council to explore why individuals are not enrolling in Project Reconnect and what might boost enrollment. If it seems possible to increase enrollment, the Council should restore funding to the program.

Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP)

The Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) local budget remains flat at $7.9 million, but the Mayor plans to supplement these funds with additional federal dollars.[1] 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. To meet higher need for rental assistance due to COVID-19 driven economic hardships, the agency plans to use the additional federal funding for housing and homeless services to supplement the local ERAP budget. DCFPI urges the Council to explore how much demand the administration is anticipating as well as the amount of federal funding available. If federal funding is not sufficient, the Council should add local funding to the budget.

Youth Homelessness Budget Needs a Small Boost

Many youths who are experiencing homelessness do so without their parents or guardians and do not have children of their own. These “unaccompanied” homeless youth fall into two broad categories: those under age 18 and those who are 18 to 24 years old. In DC, youth under age 18 can only access housing and shelter dedicated to this population. Older youth, often called transition-aged youth (TAY), can access both TAY programs and adult housing and shelter.

The proposed budget for youth services anticipates $1.6 million in cost savings in contract and grants. It also continues the $1.32 million in one-time funding that was included in the FY 2020 budget. This funding will maintain shelter beds for TAY through FY 2021.

DCFPI, as a member of the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA), had requested that nearly $3.5 million be added to the youth budget. But once the downturn hit and spending increased in other parts of the homeless service system because of COVID-19, we reduced our ask to the include only the essential need for FY 2021—a $1.79 million increase for Extended Transitional Housing (ETH). ETH combines affordable housing with intensive services to serve our youth with the deepest needs. These youth have among the greatest histories of trauma, instability, substance abuse or behavioral health challenges. The current budget per youth is only $34,236 in both FY 2020 and FY 2021, far short of what it takes to meet the need. By increasing the investment to $55,000 per youth, programs can add needed staff and clinicians.

Domestic Violence Survivors Need Shelter

Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness and the incidence of domestic violence is anticipated to increase with the pandemic. An investment of $3 million in crisis shelter will help survivors of domestic violence stay safe.

If DC’s Richest Households and Giant Corporations Pay Their Fair Share, DC Can Fund These Critical Needs

By asking DC’s richest households and giant corporations to pay their fair share, we will have more revenue to provide targeted recovery support to the individuals and local businesses who have been hardest hit. Closing loopholes for corporations and requiring those with income above $350,000 to pay their fair share of taxes is far preferable to underinvesting in critical needs, like housing and human services.

Thank you, and I am happy to answer any questions.

[1] The FY 2021 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan mistakenly reported that one-time funding that was allocated in the FY 2020 budget was not replaced in the FY 2021 budget. The Mayor’s Budget Director reports that the soon-to-be-released budget errata letter will correct this error.