Advocacy Performance Oversight Hearing: Interagency Council on Homelessness and Department of Human Services
Nechama Masliansky, Senior Advocacy Advisor At SOME
Good morning, Committee Chair Nadeau, members of the Committee, and staff. My name is Nechama Masliansky, and I am Senior Advocacy Advisor in SOME, also known as So Others Might Eat. SOME is a 50-year-old nonprofit organization that provides comprehensive social services—from emergency food to permanent housing—to District residents who lack homes or are at risk of homelessness.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify at this Oversight Hearing on the FY2021 Performance of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) and the DC Department of Human Services (DHS).
ICH: We thank Kristy Greenwalt, her small but effective ICH staff, and numerous non-government partners, for their in-depth leadership on multiple dimensions of the District government’s responses to homelessness, from shelter operations to future supportive housing. We applaud the ICH’s deepened engagement with regional efforts to address cross-jurisdictional issues.
One of the wisest decisions of the ICH in 2020 was to take additional time to refine Homeward DC 2.0, the updated District plan to reduce homelessness. I want to highlight four of the 12 Goals, or detailed sets of strategic recommendations:
- Racial equity. The ICH conducted a thoughtful study that has led to creation of a new Racial Equity Work Group within the ICH. The Work Group will hold its initial meeting on March 3, and SOME will participate.
- Public Awareness. Together with The Community Foundation and the new PTEH “The Partnership to End Homelessness,” the ICH initiated this month a Public Awareness Work Group. SOME is participating in this Work Group as well. We hope it leads to (a) greater public understanding of the systemic causes of homelessness; and (b) positive public engagement with solutions to prevent and reduce homelessness in every neighborhood of the city.
- Employment training. Approximately 19% of homeless persons in DC are employed but are not earning enough to maintain housing. Many others who are physically able to work have been asking for work at every opportunity. They have requested peer educator opportunities-- such as the temporary vaccine-related positions that have just started-- but for a long time they have pleaded for other jobs, such as construction work, too. We urge DHS and DOES to establish comprehensive services that offer robust on-the-ground services to link persons at risk of homelessness or already homeless to career training and career-track employment. The current system is not answering their needs. SOME’s own Center for Employment Training recommends that DHS and other partners connect homeless residents with training that is aligned to the WIC’s high demand sectors. These agencies should also work with the WIC to identify entry-level positions in these sectors that are appropriate for individuals who lack transportation and adequate housing. [For an example of a program that is working, see SNAP E&T, page 4 below.]
- Discharge planning for persons in hospitals and in the criminal justice system. The Homeward DC 2.0 plan includes sensible recommendations, such as a pilot program for homeless services liaisons in hospitals and targeted housing for returning citizens.
We want to bring another issue to the Committee’s attention, i.e., access to identification documents needed to access housing. A few years ago, the ICH contacted the Vital Records Division of the Department of Health to arrange to make access to identification documents somewhat easier for persons who lack homes. Unfortunately, during COVID our social workers and clients are facing a conundrum: To get into housing through DCHA, clients need birth certificates, Social Security card and DMV ID or license. Our social workers cannot complete the move-in paperwork. During COVID, many government offices are not open for in-person services or have reduced their hours; not all of our clients have online access or know how to apply online; there is more emphasis on online processes and additional required online steps; and Wi-Fi services at the public libraries are closed. The economic fallout from the pandemic has resulted in clients’ phones being disconnected and frequent turnover of case managers. In addition, fees for essential records are still an issue: $23 for birth certificates and $20 for DMV are beyond the ability of our clients or us to pay, and there are only 20 slots a week to get appointments for a voucher [at Foundry Methodist Church]. We urge the ICH to re-engage with this issue.
Turning to DHS, we thank Laura Zeilinger and her team, including Larry Handerhan, former Chief of Staff, and David Ross, the new Chief of Staff.
During COVID, DHS has provided regularly scheduled live updates to the community as well as new informational websites.
Disease prevention. DHS has led efforts to lower the likelihood of disease spread, by “de-densifying” the low-barrier shelters, opening the isolation program ISAQ, and housing hundreds of vulnerable persons in PEP-V. It has kept the District-contracted shelters open 24 hours a day 7 days a week during the pandemic and offered three meals a day in the shelters on staggered schedules.
Despite these efforts, more than 500 persons in the Homeless Services system have contracted COVID-19, and 25 persons in the system have died of the disease. There are more applicants for PEP-V than there are beds to take them. As very significant additional federal funds reach the District through Congressional legislation or Executive Directive, and as the District’s revenue surpluses exceed $500M, sufficient funds should be allocated during the crisis for additional beds and alternative services to reduce the spread of the disease and keep people alive.
Access to COVID vaccinations is the basis of everyone’s hope for reducing such spread. DHS and its partner Unity Healthcare are in the process of completing the administration of the first doses of the vaccines in the low-barrier shelters and in PEP-V. This will be followed by the second doses at those sites over the course of another 8 weeks. After that, in weeks 9-16, it is hoped that supply will be adequate to start to administer the first doses to persons who are unsheltered and in other sites. The provider community and consumers are eager for those administrations to start even earlier, if possible. All those persons are very vulnerable.
We join with other providers who urge that when a single-dose vaccine becomes available, our clients who live on the streets or under similarly chaotic circumstances be eligible immediately. This group will eliminate the concern that they may not be able to return for second doses.
We also implore DOH and DHS to expand the categories of local medical providers eligible to administer the vaccine: SOME’s Primary Medical Clinic, for example, is a Federally Qualified Health Center and is eligible under federal rules. We interface daily with homeless persons who are on the streets, and we are eager to administer the doses to them.
Eviction prevention. An estimated 22,000 to 45,000 District households are at risk of eviction, and the shortfall in rental payments as of January 2021 is estimated in the range of $66M - $130M. We obviously need robust emergency rental assistance and eviction-prevention programs in the District both now and into the medium-term future. Some—but not enough-- federal funding for this purpose is on its way. However, we agree with those who testified that the current system is inefficient and could not handle 2,000+ applicants for federal and local assistance in the last two quarters of 2020, that prospective applicants are stymied, that actual applicants are frustrated, and that emergency help is delayed.
The single-portal system that DMPED, DHCD, DHS, and DOEE are developing seems to be the right way to go. We urge the Council to require that whatever entity is contracted to handle the newest emergency rental [and utility] assistance programs will be qualified to do so by experience, competence, integrity, and transparency. We also agree with previous testimony that each landlord should be able to complete one application per property that would include all the tenants who are behind on rent.
We agree with the testimony that five months’ worth of rental arrears assistance will be inadequate to avert eviction for those who have endured a year’s worth of economic suffering and are facing the prospect of further inadequate resources with which to maintain housing. We agree with Kate Coventry of DCFPI that the Council should pass new legislation requiring DHS to provide more assistance so that the local ERAP can perform at high enough levels to meet the predictable eviction crisis once the federal and local moratoria expire.
The pandemic has underscored the need for additional government investment in homelessness prevention, services, and affordable housing for persons at 0-30% of Family Median Income. It would be wise to take some of the $552M revenue surplus—the 50% that is mandated to be used for housing—for one-time funding into the Housing Production Trust Fund and for Public Housing repairs. Many are also recommending the purchase and renovation of underused hotels into affordable housing if construction is of high quality and supportive services are guaranteed.
We want to highlight several other DHS programs:
Completion of the final Short-Term Family Housing site. The opening of The Terrell in Ward 1 marks the fulfillment of Mayor Bowser’s promised initiative to replace DC General and the concept of long-term emergency shelter for families with short-term housing throughout the city, robust on-site services and subsequent movement of families to long-term/permanent housing. We celebrate the sharp reduction in the number of families in the Homeless System, as recorded by The Community Partnership and reported to the ICH Shelter Capacity Work Group and soon to be reported no doubt via the 2021 Point in Time Report.
DHS’s web portal for SNAP and for the SNAP training programs. Applying or recertifying for SNAP and for SNAP training programs is much easier than in previous years. We hope that these improvements will continue beyond the current health crisis.
SNAP Employment & Training (SNAP E&T). SOME’s Center for Employment Training (CET) reports the positive impact of SNAP E&T on our clients. This training program supports the most-vulnerable DC residents: individuals who have no source of income other than SNAP. The program has supported tuition, job-training materials, and Internet access for SOME CET students in the past year. This program is working, and we encourage DHS to promote it to persons without homes.
IDA . The Interim Disability Assistance program provides a modest cash benefit to adults who have applied for SSI or SSDI and are awaiting a federal eligibility decision. The District is reimbursed when an application is approved, and the likelihood of that success turns on access to volunteer lawyers or persons trained and hired to provide SOAR assistance to prepare the federal application. In the meantime, IDA enables persons who (by definition) cannot work to pay for basic needs such as transportation, medicine, and toiletries. Many are enabled to contribute to their housing situation so that they do not become homeless. At its height, in FY2009, approximately 2,750 persons received IDA, but currently fewer than 1,000 do. SOME joins with other providers and advocates in recommending additional funding