By Mary Otto
Individuals and families staying in some District shelters will be required to start placing money in an escrow account under a new city plan intended to move homeless people toward self-sufficiency.
The initiative, backed by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, was approved by the D.C. Council as an amendment to the District’s Budget Support Act for fiscal year 2014.
In its original version, the plan raised concern among homeless advocates who feared the savings requirement might cause the city’s poorest residents to lose their shelter beds if they failed to make the required contributions to savings.
In response, the council revised the legislation. Homeless program clients who fail to save will no longer face the loss of their shelter placements, though they may face other sanctions. The escrow plan will be tailored to the needs and circumstances of each participant, with exemptions given to those who can prove they need the money to meet other reasonable expenses. The amendment was one of several to the city’s Homeless Services Reform Act that the council modified following a letter from nearly 200 advocacy organizations expressing concerns.
In addition, the council entirely eliminated a controversial “provisional shelter” amendment that would have allowed families and individuals to be placed in shelters on a temporary basis while the city determined their eligibility for homeless services. Advocates, who worried that families would lose shelter without a hearing or a chance to appeal, expressed relief that the amendment was dropped.
Amber Harding, staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, expressed satisfaction at the outcome of the vote, praising the “strong coalition” that worked for constructive changes to the amendments. She said she hoped the same shared sense of purpose would be sustained in the continuing effort to address the needs of the city’s poor and homeless residents.
“I hope there’s some kind of momentum going forward,” said Harding. “I hope people keep the energy up.”
D.C.’s Department of Human Services Director David Berns said he was disappointed with the loss of the “provisional shelter” amendment, which he defended as a tool to free up beds in the city’s overburdened family shelters for those who had nowhere else to turn.
“This critical amendment allowed the targeting of resources to those most in need by diverting those who may have other housing options,” said Berns. He added that the department would “continue to develop ways to divert families from shelters into sustainable housing and reconnect them with community support.”
Overall, however, Berns said he was pleased by the passage of the city budget that he said included funding for “enhanced supports and services for low income and homeless individuals and families,” such as an additional $7 million for homeless services and an increase of $25 million for helping families on welfare with case management, job training, and other supports.