Making Justice Real

The Official Blog of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia

Legal Aid Urges the Council to Vote ‘No’ on Homeless Services Bill

Tomorrow morning, September 20, the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services will vote on the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017, a package of policy changes that will deeply affect services for members of our community struggling with homelessness. Legal Aid opposes this legislation, urges the members of the Committee to vote against it, and urges you to contact the Council via the action alerts at the end of this post.

Taken as a whole, the bill narrows the door to shelter for families while also leaving those in the homeless services system more vulnerable to being cut off from services, even when they are at high risk for cycling back into homelessness. Without significant changes, this bill will harm District families – from those who have just fallen into homelessness and need a safe place to stay, to those struggling to maintain housing in the District’s troubled Rapid Re-Housing program.

At a public hearing in June, Legal Aid testified in detail about the range of problems that this bill presents. You can read our testimony here and here. Legal Aid has also worked closely with our legal services partners, including Children’s Law Center and Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, who used the June hearing to raise similar concerns. Today, though, we want to focus on two ways in which the bill has the potential to harm District families.

Homeless Families Should Not Have to Show Twice As Many Documents to Get Into Shelter

Under current law, homeless families seeking shelter have to present documentation that shows they are D.C. residents. As our colleagues at Washington Legal Clinic have discussed, under this requirement, some families are turned away from shelter, even if they have longstanding connections to and roots in the District. The bill, as introduced, would double — from one to two — the number of documents that families would have to show to get into shelter, and restricts the documents that they can use to a pre-determined list. A D.C. Driver’s license, a D.C. ID card, proof of enrollment in D.C. schools, or a utility bill with a name and District address would not, on its own, be sufficient to show District residency for the purpose of getting shelter.

Given that families who have just lost their housing are living in or fleeing dangerous or chaotic situations, raising the number of documents they have to show risks screening out some of our most vulnerable families. Additionally, certain groups within the homeless population (for example, young adult applicants with limited or no histories of living on their own), are also less likely to have many of these documents, which tend to be dependent on either a significant history of stable housing, living independently, or both. We understand that the Committee may be considering creating a limited exception to the proposed 2-document requirement for public benefits recipients. However, the Department of Human Services’ systemic failures in maintaining its computer systems and providing timely and stable access to public benefits leave us with little confidence that families can depend on this single exception to the onerous two-document policy.

The Department of Human Services has provided no reliable evidence to suggest that a tightening of shelter residency requirements is necessary, and our colleagues’ experience suggests that current law already screens out families who are, in fact, District residents. If anything, we should be looking at ways to address policies and practices that keep people out of shelter when they need it, not turn more families away.

The Committee should not vote for a bill that makes it harder for families at one of the most difficult moments of their lives to get into shelter.

The District Should Not Push More Families Off of the Rapid Re-Housing Cliff

Each day, our Housing Unit attorneys are in Landlord & Tenant court, working with tenants in eviction proceedings. Not surprisingly, they see many tenants who are former Rapid Rehousing recipients who have gone through the program but are now facing eviction. Our experience is that these families could not afford their apartments’ rents without the subsidy, but were moved out of the program anyway, making eviction inevitable. With affordable housing in short supply, it’s not clear where these families will go and, thanks to the evictions that they will soon have on their records, it will be harder for them to rent an apartment in the future.

This bill codifies the practice of terminating Rapid Rehousing families due to time limits and streamlines the termination process by a newly-proposed process called a “program exit.” The bill does not adopt safeguards to ensure that families cannot be terminated if they are unable to afford housing without assistance, or that while in the program, they actually received the assessments, referrals, and case management that DHS has promised to provide participants in order to prepare them for stable housing. The bill does everything to shepherd families out of the program, even if they will fall right back into homelessness, and does nothing to hold the District Government responsible for effectively administering the program or delivering on its obligations to families.

The Committee should not vote for a bill that formalizes time limits for Rapid Re-Housing while failing to protect families from cycling from Rapid Re-Housing back into homelessness.

What Can You Do?

There is still time to contact the members of the Human Services Committee and tell them to vote “NO” on the Homeless Services Reform Amendment Act of 2017. Our colleagues at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the ACLU have set up two ways you can E-mail members of the Committee. You can also find contact information for individual Committee members here.

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