Testimony of Kate Coventry, Policy Analyst, At the Public Oversight Roundtable on The Winter Plan: Protecting the Lives of Homeless People in the Winter of 2013-2014

Chairman Graham and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry, and I am a policy analyst with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. DCFPI engages in research and public education on the fiscal and economic health of the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on how policies impact low-and-moderate income families.

I am here today to talk about several concerns the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has for the District’s ability to adequately serve homeless families and individuals. These include: DC’s ability to serve unaccompanied youth through the Winter Plan, the loss of local Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) vouchers through attrition, and our ability to serve families this winter, particularly as it relates to domestic violence victims and progress on DC’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) redesign.

Ensuring Adequate Emergency Shelter Capacity for Youth in the Winter Plan

DCFPI thanks the Department of Human Services (DHS) for identifying funding to add six additional emergency youth beds to help serve youth this winter. This brings the total number of emergency youth beds to 12 and we are hopeful that DHS is correct in its estimation that this capacity will be sufficient to serve youth this winter.

However, we believe that the Winter Plan (Plan) must outline what will happen if need for emergency shelter outstrips this capacity to ensure that the Plan serves its dual purposes of describing how the homeless will be protected from cold weather injury and ensuring that shelter staff know what to do during hypothermic weather. Without including this language in the Plan, youth may end up outside during hypothermic weather, at-risk for cold weather injury and death.

DCFPI urges DHS to work with the Child and Family Services Agency and other Interagency Council on Homelessness members to outline what shelter providers should do if the youth providers have no available beds.

A Loss of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) Through Attrition

Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) provides housing and supportive services to the chronically homeless, who typically suffer from life-threatening health conditions and/or severe mental illness. However, the District is reducing its investment in this proven program to end chronic homelessness by letting vouchers go unused after families or individuals leave the program. As a result, more households are languishing on the waitlist than need to be, many trapped in the emergency shelter system at great cost to the District. And these households are not receiving the supportive services they need to improve their lives.

The US Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) reports that the research is clear: PSH ends chronic homelessness.[1] PSH is also cost effective, reducing reliance on more expensive crisis-related services like emergency rooms, psychiatric hospital, and jail. A Seattle study found that PSH, or Housing First as it’s commonly referred to, saved the city almost $30,000 per person, per year. PSH also improves health outcomes.[2] A Denver study of Housing First residents before and after enrollment in the program found that approximately half had improved health and mental health status, and the program led to a 72 percent decline in emergency-related costs.[3]

Despite these benefits to participants and cost savings PSH can provide for the District, DHS reported at the fiscal year 2013 performance oversight hearing that it was replacing local vouchers with federal vouchers whenever possible and that locally funded vouchers were being reduced through attrition. This led to a loss of ninety-nine locally-funded PSH vouchers in fiscal year 2012. This local funding was then used plug budget shortfalls in other parts of the homeless services system, particularly the hypothermia budget.

DCFPI asks that DHS stop the practice of letting local vouchers go unused through attrition. If we aim to end chronic homelessness, we must continue our local investment in PSH. If other homeless services programs, particularly hypothermia services, consistently have budget shortfalls, this should be transparently discussed and other sources of funding secured.

To read the complete testimony, click here.

[1] USICH.  Opening Doors:  Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. 2010. http://www.epaperflip.com/aglaia/viewer.aspx?docid=1dc1e97f82884912a8932a3502c37c02

[2] National Alliance to End Homelessness. Fact Sheet: Chronic Homelessness. 2010 http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/fact-sheet-chronic-homelessness

[3] Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Denver Housing First Collaborative: Cost Benefit Analysis and Program Outcomes Report. 2006. http://shnny.org/research/denver-housing-first-collaborative/