Underfunding and Implementation Delays Undermine Progress Toward Ending Homelessness

Chairman White and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Coventry, and I am the Deputy Director of Legislative Strategy 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. 

Homeward DC 2.0, the District’s strategic plan to end homelessness, sets forth the goal of making homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring. Homelessness will be rare when services are in place to prevent as many people as possible from experiencing homelessness. Homelessness will be brief when individuals are helped as quickly as possible. And homelessness will be non-recurring when individuals have the supports they need to maintain their housing. DC has made great strides towards this vision, but underfunding and implementation delays in successful, research-based strategies are undermining progress.  

Black residents bear the brunt of underfunding and implementation delays. Eighty-nine percent of unaccompanied adults counted in the District 2022 Point in Time Count were Black.[1] This is the result of the enduring legacies of structural and individualized racism — such as racist zoning and residential segregation, redlining, restrictive covenants, and practices barring federal employment — that for years prohibited Black families from equitably accessing the housing and employment markets.  

DCFPI has several recommendations to get the District back on track to achieving the goals set out in the strategy plan, including:  

  • That the District ensure that three programs that are critical to reaching this goal—Project Reconnect, Rapid ReHousing (RRH), and DC Flex—are fully funded. 
  • The Department of Human Services (DHS) provides an updated timeline on the expansion of DC Flex to individuals and ensure that the fiscal year (FY) 2022 funds set aside for the expansion are used for DC Flex rather than reprogrammed to another use; 
  • DHS and the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) outline an action plan for implementing the historic local and federal investments in Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) vouchers, given that the government has leased up only 31 percent of the tenant PSH vouchers for individuals made available in FY 2022 and none of the vouchers made available in FY 2023.[2]
  • The agencies commit to timely and regular updates on initiatives in progress, including the release of core implementation metrics, so that stakeholders can monitor implementation.

The District Should Fund Project Reconnect to Meet the Need 

Project Reconnect, the prevention program for individuals experiencing homelessness, plays a key role in making homelessness rare and brief. It helps individuals who are newly experiencing homelessness or exiting from institutions like jail or foster care find alternatives to shelter, such as reuniting with friends and families. Shelter can be traumatic and unsafe—investments in programs that help individuals avoid shelter can benefit them in the long run.[3] Homeward DC 2.0 calls for more robust prevention services for individuals, and given the proven success of Project Reconnect, the District should ensure the program is fully funded, meaning all who qualify can receive services.  

The District Should Ensure Individuals Interested in RRH Can Promptly Enroll 

RRH should be a critical component of making homelessness brief, but because of a lack of funding, the program is not meeting its potential. RRH is a voluntary program that provides housing search assistance, supportive services, and short-term rental assistance, generally up to 12 months. The program aims to move residents out of shelter as quickly as possible, which in turn allows more residents to access emergency shelter. Individuals who would like to access RRH but can’t because a limited number of slots, must wait in shelter until another person exits the program. The District should ensure that all individuals who are eligible and interested can enter the program immediately. 

Lawmakers Should Preserve Funds for DC Flex Expansion  

DC Flex is a five-year shallow subsidy program that provides a fixed amount of cash assistance annually to working households who are struggling to afford rent. The goal of the program is to provide support that households can draw down flexibly as they need it. For example, residents with uneven income over the year, like those who do day labor, can use more assistance during colder months when work is more difficult to get. If the household does not use all the cash assistance that they receive, it can be used in the following year. When the District launched DC Flex, the program was limited to families with children. In FY 2022, DHS set aside $1 million to expand the program to individuals, but the agency has yet to launch this expansion. DCFPI requests this body to require DHS to provide a timeline for implementation and to ensure that the FY 2022 funds are carried over into the DC Flex budget for FY 2023.  

Implementation of Transformative Investment in PSH Is Falling Short 

DCFPI thanks the Council for passing the “Homes and Hearts Amendment Act of 2021,” which imposes a modest increase in the income tax rate for the District’s wealthiest residents to make historic investments in affordable housing, among other transformative programs. In addition to investments in housing for families experiencing homelessness and in affordable housing for other residents, the amendment funded 1,924 PSH vouchers for individuals in the FY 2022 budget. PSH combines tenant vouchers with wrap-around services, including intensive case management and help managing health problems.   

This investment, in addition to 532 new PSH slots for individuals using federal Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs), created a total of 2,456 new PSH tenant vouchers in FY 2022. Given this was by far the largest number of total and newly funded PSH slots ever available in the District, DCFPI and other advocates expected that implementation would be challenging, anticipating that agencies would need an extra three months — the first quarter of FY 2023 — to help all clients to lease up. But implementation delays are much worse than anticipated, with only 369 of the 1,924 locally-funded PSH vouchers and 393 of the 532 EHVs leased up, or just 25 percent of all available vouchers. At this pace, the agencies will need 36 months to lease up all FY 2022 vouchers and an additional 10.5 months to lease up the 500 locally-funded PSH tenant vouchers available in FY 2023.[4]

First, DCFPI acknowledges that DHS and DCHA are facing a number of challenges: COVID-19, monkeypox, and providing humanitarian aid and shelter to migrants other states are bussing into the city, among other challenges like the phase down of the federal public health emergency that are consuming staff capacity. But District leaders must treat these implementation delays seriously because they have real costs for the individuals experiencing them, such as spending more time not knowing where they’re going to spend the night and struggling to receive needed services like medical treatment or counseling. As they wait on a voucher, these residents who are unhoused are often forced to stay in places that are unsafe or make their illnesses worse.

DCFPI asks DHS and DCHA to release an action plan informed by stakeholders to fully utilize all FY 2022 and FY 2023 resources. The action plan should include specific steps each agency will take to connect residents who are unhoused to PSH vouchers and services, and it should include deadlines for each step and updates on initiatives that have been announced but not yet implemented. 

In the action plan, DHS should outline how they are addressing delays related to the switch to Medicaid funding for PSH services. Medicaid requires all new and existing clients to undergo a conflict-free assessment by an agency that is not a PSH service provider. DHS has decided it will perform all the assessments. Many PSH providers have shared that this is causing delays—both for receiving new referrals and for facilitating client-requested provider changes. DHS must ensure they have sufficient staffing to do these assessments in a timely fashion. If they do not have the staffing capacity due to workforce shortages or if it appears that this process is causing significant delays, DCFPI recommends that clients be moved into housing first, perhaps using funding from FY 2022 underspending, and undergo the conflict-free assessment after they are stably housed. 

DHS should also consider giving PSH providers a one-time boost that can be used to provide much-needed staff wage increases as providers adjust to the new billing system. It is anticipated that the switch to Medicaid billing will lead to higher funding for providers—which could make it more affordable to provide salary increases—but uncertainty remains at this stage in the switch because providers will only be able to bill for the services provided. This uncertainty has made providers hesitant to raise salaries. A one-time wage supplement could help address this need in the short-term until providers have a better understanding of whether the switch produces savings. 

Additionally, the agencies should implement a new 100-day boot camp, a practice that DC used to speed up the housing placement process for veterans experiencing homelessness. The boot camp brings together decisionmakers in government agencies, service providers, and individuals with lived experience to systematically investigate issues and quickly develop solutions. A coordinated effort is key as only by acting together can the lease up process be improved. 

DHS and DCHA Should Regularly Provide Data so Stakeholders Can Monitor Progress 

DHS has just released a public-facing Voucher Dashboard so that the DC Council and other stakeholders can monitor implementation. This Dashboard includes: 

  • the total number of vouchers by type; 
  • how many vouchers are matched to a client; 
  • how many clients are preparing an application; 
  • how many clients have a pending application; 
  • how many clients have approved applications; and, 
  • how many clients have leased up. 

This is a great start, but the Dashboard is missing some key information. For example, the Dashboard reports total time from match to lease up by voucher type but lacks specifics on each step of the lease up process that would help stakeholders understand delays. The agency should add information to the existing dashboard so that the Council, DC Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) stakeholders, and providers can pinpoint problems and bottlenecks. Each major step of the process should be listed. At a minimum, the dashboard should include the number who: 

  • have all the required documents readily available; 
  • are missing documents according to the DCHA system; 
  • have identified a unit to rent; and, 
  • are waiting for a unit inspection by DCHA.

The dashboard should also document the average amount of time spent at each step. As part of the action plan, DHS and DCHA should create target outcomes by month for the number to have achieved each step as well as create target outcomes for length of time each household spends at each step. These agencies should submit a monthly written report on data and outcomes to the Committee on Human Services and the DC ICH for their review and input.

The dashboard should also document the racial and gender breakdown of those receiving resources to ensure equity in the distribution of vouchers. 

DCFPI envisions a future where no one is homeless for a long time and no one dies without the dignity of a home. The new resources will bring us much closer to this goal but only if we speed up current implementation.  

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

[1] Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington: Results and Analysis from the Annual Point in Time (PIT) Count of Persons Experiencing HomelessnessMay 2022.

[2] Computed from data pulled on 2/20/2022 at A Path to Ending Chronic Homelessness in DC. The DC Department of Human Services.  

[3] “Diversion,” National Alliance to End Homelessness, August 10, 2010.

[4] Computed from data pulled on 11/2/2022 at A Path to Ending Chronic Homelessness in DC. The DC Department of Human Services. https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/993e532a43bd4af3a2bf1b69d54dc704