Testimony of Kate Coventry at the Performance Oversight Hearing on the Interagency Council on Homelessness

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 nonprofit organization that promotes budget choices to reduce economic and racial inequality and build widespread prosperity in the District of Columbia through independent research and thoughtful policy recommendations.

I am here today to testify on the District’s tremendous progress on youth homelessness and how additional investments are needed to ensure that progress continues. I’m also here to testify on chronic homelessness and the funding needed in the fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget.

The District Receives “A” Grade on Youth Homelessness, Investments Needed to Continue Progress

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.

True Colors United and the National Homelessness Law Center annually evaluate the District and the 50 states on laws and policies related to preventing and addressing youth homelessness. This year, they gave the District the first “A” grade in the program’s three-year history, deeming it “an incredible accomplishment.”[1] This achievement reflects the hard work and collaboration of the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), the ICH Youth Subcommittee, the Department of Human Services, the DC Council, this Committee, youth providers, and youth experiencing homelessness.

Looking forward, the District must continue making investments to make more progress. And it is particularly important because youth experiencing homelessness on their own are particularly vulnerable and need programming that meets their developmental needs. As a partner of DC Action, DCFPI endorses their priorities for the FY 2022 budget:

  • Preserve existing programs by maintaining the budget at the FY 2021 level. In December, the Department of Human Services asked some programs to propose cuts that would have led to cuts in hours and services, forcing youth to find a safe place to stay in the middle of the day during the pandemic, when most places have been closed. This was at the same time as low barrier shelters for single adults were open 24 hours per day rather than their regular 12 hours so they could reduce their COVID exposure. Fortunately, the budget outlook improved for FY 2021 and these cuts were not made. The District needs to ensure that all programs get fully funded for FY 2022.
  • Pay for a cost analysis on the true costs of providing youth programs with $75,000 in one-time funding. Funding levels across youth programs vary greatly depending on the provider. This creates inconsistency in the quality and depth of services provided. An external cost analysis will help DHS and service providers create an ideal program model and budget accordingly.
  • Invest $574,000 in workforce programming for homeless youth. In FY 2021, the Department of Employment Services (DOES) cut this amount from their year-round youth employment program. By restoring this cut with local funds and specifically targeting these resources to homeless youth, the District can increase the number of homeless youth earning living wage jobs they need to afford housing.
  • Fund $70,000 for professional development so agencies can hire youth who have experienced homelessness. Many youth who have experienced homelessness would like to work in the field to help others who are experiencing homelessness but most providers lack funding for training. This investment would pay for a series of year-long trainings that prospective staff at any provider could attend.
  • Create a mobile behavioral health team that can meet youth where they are for $558,000. 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.
  • Pilot ten adult Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) slots for youth aging out of the youth system for $345,000. Right now, youth with high needs age out of the youth system and become homeless again. They are then competing with highly vulnerable adults who are older and have more severe medical needs for limited PSH slots. This pilot will allow the youth system to explore how to best transition high need young people from the youth system into the adult system.
  • Invest $350,000 for a mentoring program pilot for 70 homeless youth. This is a request from youth experiencing homelessness. Access to mentors and supportive adults is critical to long-term success, but homeless youth face unique barriers to cultivating these kinds of connections.

The District Must Make Bold Investments in Ending Chronic Homelessness and Other Life-Saving Services

Housing is healthcare. Every day individuals experiencing homelessness die from preventable and manageable diseases. Now during the pandemic, the connection between housing and healthcare is even more evident when one of the keys to staying healthy is staying at home. This is particularly true for residents who are chronically homeless, meaning they have been homeless for years and suffer from life-threatening health conditions and/or severe mental illness. In fiscal year 2021, the District funded only 214 additional vouchers for individuals experiencing chronic homelessness. This is one-third of the new vouchers funded in FY 2020. Without bolder investments, District residents will be homeless for years.

As a member of The Way Home campaign, the campaign to end chronic homelessness in the District, DCFPI envisions a future where no one is chronically homeless and no one dies without the dignity of a home. The fiscal year (FY) 2022 budget is a tool to make this vision a reality. The Mayor should:

  • Invest $96.1 million to fund Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) for 2,761 individuals and 432 families experiencing chronic homelessness. By providing affordable housing coupled with intensive case management services, PSH helps people stay in housing and improve their health, and it saves a substantial amount of money as a result.

The Way Home estimates that this investment will ensure almost all individuals who are assessed as needing PSH will receive it. In November 2020, 5,009 unique individuals touched the homeless services system. Of these individuals, 63 percent were assessed for housing options. Of those assessed, 53 percent or 1,689 scored for PSH. Assuming the same percentage of those who were not assessed need PSH, an additional 982 individuals need PSH, for a total of 2,671 slots.

The Way Home campaign estimates that 432 additional families will need PSH based on historical trends.

  • Help 1,820 individuals to exit homelessness quickly by increasing the budget for short-term assistance. This assistance should include rental subsides, high-quality, client-centered case management, and support in finding housing.
  • Ensure that every person who is at high risk of dying of COVID-19 is offered a placement in non-congregate shelter. Right now, the majority of single adults are sheltered in large rooms with bunk beds, exposed to many other people. Approximately 650 single adults who have risk factors associated with severe health outcomes or death if they were to contract COVID-19 are currently sheltered in motel rooms through the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals (PEP-V) program, and there are 550 waiting for openings in the program. Up until early 2021, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paid for 75 percent of most costs of this program with the District paying the other 25 percent. Now FEMA will pay for 100 percent of most costs, though not case management or behavioral health services. The District should immediately expand the program so all in need can access it. The Department of Human Services (DHS) should assess the need for case management and behavioral health services and, if deemed essential, should allocate local funds or federal recovery dollars for these services.
  • Purchase bankrupt hotels. These buildings can be used as non-congregate shelter during the pandemic and then be converted into PSH. The District has invested heavily into tenant based PSH, in which recipients receive vouchers to rent apartments. These former hotel buildings would be fulfilling a great need cited in the forthcoming “Homeward DC 2.0 Plan,” which documents the need for sites that are all or mostly PSH that can provide even more intensive services like meals, personal care services, and services related to aging. Other jurisdictions have been able to purchase buildings for lower-than-normal prices because of the pandemic.[2] The District should do the same.
  • Maintain Street Outreach at FY 2021 Funding Level. Outreach services primarily target hard-to-reach individuals who do not seek shelter or other homeless services. Outreach workers help these individuals to apply for housing and gain necessary documentation. They also help them connect with vital services like mental and physical healthcare.
  • Grow Project Reconnect, the program that helps individuals who are newly homeless find alternatives to shelter, such as reuniting with friends and families. Shelter can be traumatic and unsafe so avoiding shelter can benefit individuals.[3] Additionally because of budget limitations, only about 1 in 10 homeless individuals receive housing assistance in any one year so shared housing may be the best option for an individual.
  • Invest at least $100 million of local resources in the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) to support tenants who have been unable to pay rent as a result of the pandemic. DC’s ERAP program helps residents avoid eviction by paying for overdue rent and related legal costs.

With the right investments, the FY 2022 budget can save lives and move DC towards a future without chronic homelessness.

[1] Samantha Schmidt, “As homeless shelters brace for funding cuts, LGBT youths take desperate measures to get by,” The Washington Post, December 29, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2020/12/29/dc-covid-lgbtq-homeless-shelter-funding-cuts/

[2] “Program to buy hotels for homeless people could get another influx of cash,” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2021 https://www.latimes.com/homeless-housing/story/2021-01-08/program-to-buy-hotels-for-homeless-people-could-get-another-influx-of-cash

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