By Mary Otto
When District Mayor Vincent Gray unveiled his proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2012, the administration offered assurances that in spite of a looming $322 million budget deficit, there would be enough money to keep emergency homeless shelters open year round.
But figures provided to city Councilmember Jim Graham at a grueling May 6 hearing on the human services budget raise doubts about the future of the city’s safety net for the homeless.
The spending plan, which still must be approved by the city council, contains roughly $59 million for homeless services. But largely due to the loss of millions in non-recurring federal funds in the coming year, shelters and other homeless programs “face a shortfall of $20.5 million,” acting human services director David Berns testified.
After paying for “priority services” such as keeping more than 1,000 homeless individuals and families in apartments provided through the city’s permanent supportive housing program and maintaining a resource center for homeless families, there would be scant funds remaining for other needs.
“The biggest cuts would come in the shelters that operate in non-hypothermia season,“ Berns testified.
Closing beds for the more than 100 families normally housed at the former DC General Hospital at the end of next winter would save $7.1 million. Closing emergency shelters that serve more than 1,200 single men and women at winter’s end would save an additional $10.3 million, human services officials estimated.
Graham, who chairs the council’s human services committee, reacted with alarm.
“This is the devastation of the homeless programs of the District,” Graham said. “I don’t know how I can approve a budget that in order to save $7.1 million, as soon as hypothermia season is over, we empty DC General,” added Graham. “Little babies in stairwells, bus stations and cars. That will save us $7.1 million. Or that we won’t have non-hypothermia services for adults. That will save us $10.3 million.”
“This is incredible,” agreed District Councilmember Marion Barry, who stopped in for parts of the day-long hearing.
During hours of testimony, dozens of poor and homeless witnesses and social service providers spoke of the importance of preserving year-round services for the city’s poorest residents who have nowhere else to turn for help.
“If I had a plan B, I would have been there,” said Tanika Gyant, a homeless mother of three. She and her family had spent time sleeping in their car before being placed by the city in a motel room. She said that during the worst of their ordeal, she tried hard to protect her children from the despair she was experiencing.
“I tried to make it like an adventure so they didn’t feel like Mommy was feeling,” she said. The soft-spoken mother, who recently found a job, told Graham the city’s help has been a godsend.
“I plead with you to help families like mine in seasons other than hypothermia season,” she said.
As of March, more than 540 families with temporary sleeping arrangements were on the pending case list awaiting shelter. A shelter “is important in a crisis” added Alquanita Williams, of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. “Your family is together.”
Teneisha Davall, also a mother of three, described “bouncing around from place to place” for four harrowing months before finally getting a room at DC General.
“I don’t know what is going to happen to the Teneisha Davalls,” said Graham. “With the budget I suspect there will be more of them.”
The human services budget will receive a markup by the city council on Thursday, May 12.