Archive for Shelter

D.C.Proposed Bill Would Help Pay Rent for Low-income and Very-low-income Seniors

Washington D.C. council member Tommy Wells has introduced legislation to help pay rent for “low-income and very-low income seniors.”  The Housing Assistance Program for Unsubsidized Seniors Act of 2013 would provide assistance to D.C. residents over the age of 65 whose rental payments exceed 35 percent of their income.

Wells said:

Because of the rising costs of living and the rising costs of health care, District seniors are more and more frequently confronted by homelessness. It is unacceptable that they are being forced to choose between paying for medicine and food or paying their rent.

Too many longtime District residents have been forced to move away from the city they’ve helped build or worse fallen into homelessness. It is time for the District to step up and provide the preventative assistance necessary to ensure our seniors do not end up homeless.

Recently, the National Health Care for the Homeless Council (NHCHC) reported that “strong demographic trends, economic insecurity and lack of affordable senior living have contributed to increased housing instability among seniors.
A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 26 percent of the senior citizens who live in the nation’s capital, about 25,000 men and women, live at or below the poverty level.

A 2011 study by the Homeless Research Institute of the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimated that the number of homeless senior citizens will increase by 33 percent in 2020 (44,172 in 2010 to 58,772 in 2020) and will double from the current number by the year 2050, with 95,000 older people expected to be living without stable housing.

According to AARP:

A great contributor to this phenomenon is the fact that the baby boomer generation is now hitting 65. Already, about 45 million Americans are considered senior citizens and according to U.S. Census projections, that number is expected to grow to 60 million, topping off at 90 million by the year 2050. These numbers mean that added services such as housing, health care and nutrition will greatly be needed.

The NHCHC reports that the age composition of the homeless population has shifted significantly over the past two decades, with the median age of single adults increasing from 35 years in 1990 to 50 years in 2010. Still, the majority of unstably housed adults over 50 are between 50 and 64 years old, with only 5 percent age 65 and over.

While a number of safety net programs exist for the elderly, those between ages 50 and 64 often fall through the cracks, despite having similar physical health to those much older, due to daily stress, poor nutrition and poor living conditions.

The D.C. council members who proposed and have expressed support for the rent-assistance measure believe the number of homeless senior citizens can be reduced if they are given assistance through this program and another proposed effort proposed to exempt senior citizens who are long-time residents of the District and earn less than $60,000 from paying property taxes.


In 37 States, 180,000 Female Ex-drug Offenders, Particularly Minority Women, are Subjected to a Cruel Lifetime Embargo on Welfare Benefits

English: Logo of the .

English: Logo of the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 12 states, felony drug offenders face lifelong exclusion from most public benefits, even after serving prison time.   In 25 other states, women incarcerated for drug offenses are subjected to a partial embargo of benefits.

This is because of a hastily added provision to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), also known as the Welfare Reform Act, which aimed to reduce welfare dependence. Not only are women with drug convictions unlikely to get the help they need before or during their incarceration, but thanks to this provision many of them, after serving their time, will also face being barred for life from receiving most forms of public benefits—including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The purpose of the prohibition, supposedly, is to deter drug use and the criminal behavior that sometimes arises from it by making it harder for addicts to trade food stamps or use cash benefits for drugs. However, a new report by the nonprofit Sentencing Project, titled “A Lifetime of Punishment,” examined the impact of the PRWORA provision and found no evidence that this goal was being achieved. On the contrary, by denying benefits to those most in need, the ill-conceived embargo may be having a particularly devastating impact on women and children of color and is more likely to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and addiction that leads people to abuse or sell drugs in the first place.

Minority women are feeling the brunt of the prohibition. Today nearly one-third of women in state prisons are incarcerated for drug offenses, and approximately two-thirds of them are black or Hispanic, even though data collected by the Department of Health and Human Services have shown that white women use drugs at roughly the same rate.

Over the past 30 years, the female prison population has increased at nearly twice the rate of the male prison population, an unprecedented development primarily attributable to the war on drugs.

A policy that denies those with drug convictions access to food and cash benefits for life starts to look especially cruel when you examine the lives of women who end up in prison. As of 2003, 74 percent of women in state prisons had substance-abuse issues, 57 percent reported having been sexually or physically abused prior to their incarceration, about 73 percent had some kind of mental-health problem and almost a quarter suffered from a psychiatric disorder. Sixty-four percent of women in state prisons did not graduate from high school, almost half were unemployed a month prior to their arrest and nearly two-thirds were mothers of minors.

Marc Mauer, a co-author of the Sentencing Project’s report and an expert on criminal-justice policy reform, comments:

It’s really irrational for Congress to have passed something as significant as this ban is for re-entry and life prospects of prisoners and not to have allocated any funding to evaluate its impact or to see if the legislation is meeting its goal.

The provision allows states to opt out of the prohibition if they wish, but so far, only 13 have done so. Twenty-five states have modified embargoes that either impose time limits or allow benefits contingent on completion of drug-treatment programs. Twelve states—including ones with high poverty levels and large prison populations like Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas—still have outright lifetime embargoes in place.

Bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal the prohibition, but none have gained enough support to change the policy. Meanwhile, a recent Farm Bill amendment introduced by Louisiana Republican Sen. David Vitter that sought to expand the scope of the embargo to retroactively include other felony convictions was approved by the Senate. Congress has yet to realize that in helping prisoners reintegrate into society, especially the most vulnerable among them, the carrot approach is much more beneficial than the stick.

When Martha Stewart left prison in 2004 after serving a five-month sentence for conspiracy and obstruction of justice, she issued an emotional plea on behalf of the women she did her time with, many of whom were locked up for nonviolent drug offenses:

I beseech you all to think about these women. They would be much better served in a true rehabilitation center than in prison, where there is no real help, no real programs to rehabilitate, no programs to educate and no way to be prepared for life out there.

Stewart realized that many women with drug convictions were victims of lives crippled by poverty and hardship and that a little assistance from the state would be much more beneficial to them than a heavy dose of punishment.

PRWORA was a cornerstone of the Republican Contract with America and was introduced by Republican Rep. E. Clay Shaw, Jr. Bill Clinton signed it into law on August 22, 1996, fulfilling his 1992 campaign promise to “end welfare as we have come to know it.” Immediately, three assistant secretaries at the Department of Health and Human Services resigned to protest the law.
They believed that the 1996 welfare reform law destroyed the safety net, increased poverty, lowered income for single mothers, put people from welfare into homeless shelters and left states free to eliminate welfare entirely. It forced mothers with children from welfare to work, but many of them did not earn enough to survive. Many were just pushed off welfare rolls because they didn’t show up for an appointment, could not get to an appointment for lack of child care or were not notified of the appointment.

Feminist critic Barbara Ehrenreich charged:

PRWORA was motivated by racism and misogyny, using stereotypes of lazy, overweight, slovenly, sexually indulgent and ‘endlessly fecund’ African-American welfare recipients. PRWORA dismissed the value of the unpaid work of raising a family and insisted that mothers get paid work, no matter how dangerous, abusive, or poorly paid.

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“Housing First” Approach is Saving Money and Providing Homes for the Most Vulnerable Homeless People

English: A homeless man in New York with the A...

A homeless man in New York with the American flag in the background. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the early 1990s New York University School of Medicine prof Sam Tsemberis and the Gotham organization Pathways to Housing pioneered the “Housing First concept” which focuses on the chronically homeless, without requiring them to first give up alcohol or substance abuse.

Housing First is an alternative to a system of emergency shelter/transitional housing progression. Rather than moving homeless individuals from the streets to a public shelter, from a public shelter to a transitional housing program, and then to their own apartment in the community, Housing First moves the homeless individual or household immediately from the streets or homeless shelter into their own apartments.

Housing First, when supported by HUD, does not only offer housing but also provides wraparound case management services to the tenants. This provides stability for homeless individuals, increasing their success, accountability and self-sufficiency. The housing provided through government supported Housing First programs is permanent and “affordable,” meaning that tenants pay only 30% of their income towards rent.

With Obama Administration support (and 30% of HUD homelessness funds), Housing First resulted in an unprecedented 29.6% drop in the number of chronically homeless living on the streets (175,914 to 123,833 people)—from 2005 to 2007 alone. Today, Housing First programs successfully operate in New York City, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Denver, Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles and smaller cities, such as Anchorage AK, Plattsburgh NY and Quincy MA.

Housing First is currently endorsed by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) as a “best practice” for governments and service-agencies to use in their fight to end chronic homelessness. These programs are all parts of the communities’10-year plans to end chronic homelessness, as advocated by USICH.

In Los Angeles County, the Home For Good project hopes to house all the area’s chronic homeless by 2016. Robert Harper and Charles Miller of Americorps make daily rounds of LA’s Skid Row seeking the most vulnerable homeless and working with other agencies to find them housing fast.

Harper declares:

A person is out here about to die and you tell them ‘Sign a waiting list and wait for a year? Come on, now. We’re known as the 90-day people.

When Home For Good case managers meet someone on the street, they create a vulnerability score from items like income, medical history, substance abuse and usual whereabouts. That info is computerized and made available to all participating agencies.

Considerable research has shown that the Housing First approach can save lots of money by keeping the chronically homeless out of jails, shelters and emergency rooms.

Housing First is now growing in popularity in Canada and is in many communities’ ten year plans to end homelessness. In Calgary, fewer than 1% of existing clients return to shelters or rough sleeping, there are 76% fewer days in jail and there is a 35% decline in police interactions This demonstrates improved quality of lives for those in the program, along with a huge cost savings on police, corrections and shelters

The Denver Housing First Collaborative, serving 200 chronically homeless, found a drop of 34.3% in emergency room visits, a 66% decline in inpatient costs, an 82% plummet in detox visits and a 76% reduction in incarceration days. Two years after entering the program, 77% of participants were still housed through it.

In Seattle, the Housing First program for alcoholics saved taxpayers more than $4 million in its first year. Thanks to Housing First, Boston was able to close some homeless shelters and reduce the number of beds in others.

The US Congress appropriated $25 million in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants for 2008 to show the effectiveness of Rapid Re-housing programs in reducing family homelessness. On May 20, 2009, President Obama signed the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, which allows for the prevention of homelessness, rapid re-housing, consolidation of housing programs and new homeless categories.

The Housing First methodology is also being adapted to decreasing the larger segment of the homeless population, family homelessness, such as in the LA-based program Housing First for Homeless Families, which was established in 1988.

Dennis Culhane, a University of Pennsylvania homeless researcher, says:

There’s a lot of policy innovation going on around family homelessness, and it’s borrowing a page from the chronic handbook—the focus is on permanent housing and housing-first strategies.



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Efforts Underway to Fight Student Homelessness in Nevada, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and the U.S. Congress

1.6 Million Homeless American Children

1.6 Million Homeless American Children (Photo credit: Occupy* Posters)

There were 1,065,794 homeless students in the U.S. in June 2011, The U.S. Education Department estimates. Recent data show that the number of homeless students rose in 44 states, and that 15 states saw increases of 20% or more. Kentucky had a 57% rise in homeless students over one year. The U.S. homeless student count rose 57% since the start of the recent recession, in 2007.

Prominent homelessness expert Diana Nilan (who once was homeless herself) says:

The government estimate of over a million homeless students is horrifyingly high, but it probably is half of what it would be if all the kids were counted. The count doesn’t include homeless infants, children not enrolled in school and homeless students that schools simply failed to identify.

Seventy-one percent of the kids identified as homeless by the Education Department listed the homes of family or friends as their primary residence, but these kids aren’t counted as homeless by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which means they can’t apply for subsidized housing. That’s bogus!

Many parents fear losing custody of their children who sleep on the street, so they seek alternative living situations (such as in motels, sleeping on friends’ couches and moving around a lot). Efforts are underway in Congress to pass HR 32, which would broaden HUD’s current very-narrow definition of homeless children (those on the streets and in shelters only) and permit more of them to receive government assistance.

A new report shows that only 52% of homeless students who took standardized tests were proficient in reading and only 51% were in math. In Virginia, 21.2% of students who are homeless at some point during their high school years drop out, compared with 14.8% of all poor children. In Colorado, the high school graduation rate is 72% for all students, 59% for poor students and 48% for homeless students,

“When “you don’t have a permanent place to stay, you have to change schools a lot,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “It sets you far behind and is socially and emotionally disruptive.”

When Sherrie Gahn became principal of Whitney Elementary in Las Vegas, she was shocked to find students eating ketchup from packets and learned that 85% of them were homeless.
So she told parents:

Give me your children and let me teach them, and in turn I will give you food and clothes and we will take them to the eye doctor. I will pay your rent and your utilities, but you must keep your child here.

Funded by organizations and private donors, she meets a wide range of homeless student needs, from haircuts to financial assistance—and as a result those kids have doubled their standardized test scores. She is now working with Nevada’s First Lady, Kathleen Sandoval, to create an after-school program that will make the children feel productive. Gahn has also promised her homeless students that if they graduate from high school and cannot afford college, she will help pay their tuition.

In Minnesota, where 9% of students were homeless last year (and at least one was regularly sleeping in a public toilet), the legislature is considering a $50 million boost in homelessness programs, plus $50 million in bonding for affordable housing. Last year the state spent $8 million transporting homeless students.

In Pittsburgh, between 2005 and 2009, black homeless families made up 56.3% of residents in family homeless shelters, even though they only accounted for 12 %of the city’s population. Educational disparity is one major reason. So after-school programs are being introduced in homeless shelters.


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D.C. Approves Winter Shelter Plan for the Homeless

Homeless man in snowWinter is coming, and that is a bad time to be without shelter. The further north you go the harsher the climate, and thus the harder it is to survive unsheltered. Think about it when you run from your front door to your car, from island of heat to island of heat. Now think about that moment in the cold and stretch it out to days, weeks, months. For many, especially the very young and the very old, it can be the last season they will ever see.

Barely a week before the worst weather is to set in, Washington, D.C., has finally approved its winter plan for the homeless. The law in D.C. states that emergency shelter must be provided by the city to homeless people during the harshest  months of the year, between Nov. 1 and March 31. This is quite the task considering the area is home to over 800 homeless families with more than 1,500 children. The total number of homeless in the D.C. area is roughly 6,500. (These numbers were drawn from a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments census performed earlier this year. )

Nathan Rott, a staff writer for The Washington Post, noted some concerns in his blog a few days ago:

Advocates for the homeless and shelter providers expressed concern about the plan’s lack of an overflow emergency shelter that would be used during extreme cold. An earlier version of the plan, which proposed adding 100 apartments and rooms to the Family Emergency Shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, was rejected after advocates and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said that adding beds would lead to overcrowding. District officials refused to consider a proposal to convert a former nursing home and mental health center on Spring Road into a shelter.

A total of $2.2 million has been budgeted by the city for housing the homeless through these bitter months. Here is a synopsis of how it will be spent, also by Nathan Rott (excerpted from his full Washington Post article that followed the prior blog post):

The plan approved by the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a coalition of D.C. agencies and nonprofit groups, lists 185 units that will be used for families when emergency shelters are full. Some advocates for the homeless say they are worried that number will be insufficient, but D.C. officials say it’s a better use of city money to put people in more permanent housing instead of temporary shelters.

As the ice and snow approach, the immediacy of warmth and shelter takes precedence over the more long-term goal of getting these folks back on their feet. Shelter is all too often the only thing people consider when the subject of homelessness arises. In order to keep that shelter though, the person must be able to reintegrate with society and the job force. Programs that address the underlying ills must be enacted in order to make any lasting difference to those living in the streets.

Source: “Winter plan for homeless approved,” The Washington Post, 10/27/10
Source: “D.C. approves winter shelter plan,” The Washington Post – Post Now, 10/26/10
Image by brownpau, used under its Creative Commons license.
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