There has been quite a bit of confusion lately about whether DC has cut homeless services spending, by how much, and what the effects will be on people who depend on those services (the short answers are yes, by $12 million, and devastating). Mayor Fenty’s Administration has only exacerbated the confusion by giving conflicting information to the press, the DC Council, and the community. While we are still a little confused ourselves, let’s look at what we do know.
Is there a cut or not?
Yes. A big one: about $12 million or 20% of homeless services funding has been cut. Despite Mayor Fenty’s statement that the concern about cuts was “either a miscommunication or a distortment of the facts,” we think the Mayor is the one distorting facts here. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2009, DC’s Department of Human Services (DHS) spent $50.8 million on homeless services through its contract with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), approving about $12 million in additional funding above the $38.5 million in the initial contract in order to provide much-needed homeless services. (This is not as unusual as it may sound—DHS had done the same thing the year before.) The programs covered in this contract include emergency shelters, severe weather shelter, street outreach services, transitional housing programs, and other key, often lifesaving, services. For FY 2010, DHS decided to cap homeless services spending at $38.5 million instead of $50.8 million, choosing to spend that $12 million “supplement” elsewhere. That’s a severe cut—no matter how much the Mayor may wish to spin his way out of this one.
How will the cut affect DC residents this winter?
After providers, advocates, and recipients of services protested that shelters would have to close and lives would be lost if these drastic cuts went into effect at the beginning of the cold weather season, DHS announced a short and partial reprieve—to hold off on instituting major cuts until April 1 and to keep expenditures in the winter at the same level as last year. Unfortunately, DC may still be in trouble this winter. First, demand for shelter has increased significantly over the last year. Every DC-funded shelter is at or over capacity and there are 382 families on the waiting list for shelter (111 more than at the beginning of this year). Second, DC’s Winter Plan includes a modest (and perhaps inadequate) increase in beds for this winter. Common sense dictates, though, that DHS cannot fund a planned increase in capacity without an increase in their winter shelter budget.
How will DC residents be affected the rest of the year?
If DHS is unable to find more than $12 million to fill the spending gap before April 1, we anticipate that homeless services providers will be asked to cut their spending by 50-75% for the remaining half of the fiscal year (April 1-September 30), because more than half of the $38.5 million available to direct services will already have been spent by April 1. Cutting each direct-services program by 50-75% will result in severe reductions in beds, housing and services, if not complete closures of programs.
Who dropped the ball here?
DHS was responsible for both the additional spending (good for them) and the subsequent cuts (bad for everyone). DHS Director Clarence Carter, testifying at the DC Council oversight hearing on October 14, stated that the increased funding from prior years came from roughly $10 million in federal money from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grant and $2.5 million from a local source. Director Carter later stated in an email exchange that he made the decision to use these funds to supplement homeless services spending, expand the program and meet the needs of the community, particularly homeless families: “[t]he gap in spending is the additional dollars I added to homeless services during my tenure.” None of the $12 million used last year for homeless services was cut by the DC Council or the federal government. Rather, the Administration has chosen to use the funding for other as-yet unspecified purposes.
Why didn’t anyone know about these cuts until now?
Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, said that the Council had been repeatedly assured by Clarence Carter at oversight and budget hearings that homeless services would be “held harmless” by any FY10 budget cuts to DHS. Mr. Wells also said that he had no idea that DHS planned to divert some of its federal TANF dollars used in previous years for homeless families away from homeless services this year. Finally, he has made clear that if he and his colleagues on the Council had known about the planned cuts, they would have found the necessary dollars to fill the gap. We may never know if Director Carter purposefully misled the Council and community. We do know that a decision to cut 20% of homeless services funding should never have happened behind closed doors.
What does the Administration need to do to fix this now?
Restore the money. Although we are certainly open to other possibilities to fill the gap, here are two that would work: 1) DC kept a $50 million pot aside for critical spending needs in FY10 and we believe that the $12 million gap is a critical spending need; 2) DHS should apply for all possible TANF Emergency Contingency Funds (about $45 million) from the federal government and use at least $12 million of these funds for shelter.
 Arguably the increase is not sufficient given the increase in the number of DC residents facing housing crises this year over last.
Amber W. Harding is a staff attorney at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.