Mayor Muriel Bowser’s homelessness budget gives advocates hope

Mayor Muriel Bowser has made so many promises to end homelessness in DC that it can be hard to keep them straight. But after years of missed deadlines and broken promises, advocates say his budget investments are finally starting to match his rhetoric.

As the 2023 budget debate begins, Bowser once again promises the city is on track to end chronic homelessness, possibly as early as 2028. His deputies say DC could become one of the first major cities in the country to manage this. achievement, with $31 million in proposed spending to get people off the streets and another $114 million to improve local shelters.

That vow will sound familiar to anyone after her first term as mayor, of course, when she pledged to end family homelessness by 2018 and house every resident by 2025. Those deadlines all proved elusive and the goals changed a bit. Bowser’s new pledge to end “chronic homelessness,” defined as someone going more than a year without a home, is a much narrower goal than his original pledge to end homelessness entirely.

But even though Bowser hasn’t delivered on some of those grand promises, people working on this issue still feel more optimistic than they have in years. Taken in concert with new investments from the DC Council last year (via a new tax on the wealthy), many campaigners say it’s not unreasonable to expect major progress in the next few years to house people. Bowser’s proposal still contains major shortcomings (and it’s worth wondering if some of those investments will stick around when it’s not an election year) but, for once, supporters don’t fear an uphill battle as the season budget starts.

“Homelessness is the result of 50 or more years of cutbacks in social safety net programs, compounded by 400 years of white supremacy,” says Jesse Rabinowitz, Senior Policy and Advocacy Officer at Miriam’s Kitchen, providing helpful context. “So we’re not going to end homelessness in one budget cycle. But thanks to the sustained investments of the Mayor and Council over the past seven to eight years, we are in a good position right now.

The budget proposal is still preliminary, as Council will spend the next few months slicing and dicing it, but to start with the good news: for now, it includes enough money to fund permanent housing vouchers with support services for 500 individuals, 260 families, and 10 children. These vouchers are specifically intended to cover the rental costs of people who have been homeless for over a year and who suffer from some sort of disabling condition that makes them susceptible to becoming homeless again without intensive support – essentially the most difficult tenants in the Marlet.

This $31 million investment fully responds to the request of the Way Home Campaign, a coalition of organizations working to end chronic homelessness. Ward 1 council member Brianne Nadeau, the chair of the Social Services Committee, says it’s the first time in her eight years on the board that there hasn’t been “additional demand” from advocates for PDH vouchers ahead of the budget season. And Kate Coventrya senior policy analyst focused on homelessness at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, believes it’s the biggest investment in vouchers for individuals in at least the past decade.

“I would say it’s a fair assessment that this gets us to a place where we end chronic homelessness,” Coventry said. “We don’t know what the future holds, there could always be another COVID variant…but we were pleasantly surprised here.”

Nadeau, a leading proponent of last year’s wealth tax, is quick to note that such a development would likely not be possible without the Council’s $65 million investment in new vouchers last year (half of which was specifically for PSH). And Coventry issues an even starker warning: “By the time people enter PSH they are often so ill that they die soon after.”

It is therefore not enough to pour all the resources of the city into PSH. That’s why Coventry was also delighted to see investment in building and renovating shelters to help people survive until they can find accommodation. Bowser’s budget continues to fund improvements for the city’s New York Avenue Low Barrier Shelter, as well as the complete replacement of the Adam’s Place facility in the Northeast and the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter in Hill East.

In the latter two cases, Coventry notes, the city hopes to build two smaller facilities to replace existing shelters, a strategy Bowser has also adopted with some success as it seeks to build replacements for the DC General Family Shelter. There’s still no money to replace the downtown Federal City Shelter, even though such an expense is explicitly highlighted in Bowser’s “Homeward DC 2.0,” his second crack in a comprehensive plan to fight back. homelessness.

And that’s not the only place where Bowser’s budget fails to meet the critical needs of homeless people, advocates say. Of particular concern is the city’s rapid rehousing program, which is designed to help people pay rent for up to a year while they find work or stabilize their lives.

The basic idea of ​​the program is to allow people to leave shelters quickly by obtaining housing right away, and then to help them pay their own rent. But campaigners note that many people are often pushed out of quick rehousing before they can afford to pay their bills without a municipal subsidy. Bowser halted those phasing outs at the height of the public health emergency, but restarted them last summer; 596 households were phased out of the scheme between October and February, according to figures provided to the Council by the Department of Social Services. In the full fiscal year 2021, 751 households were eliminated.

So while the mayor wants to increase his rapid rehousing investment by about $44 million in his new budget, that’s not enough money to keep everyone in the program who can’t pay rent through them. themselves. About 913 families will have their subsidies cut this year, the director of the Department of Social Services says Laura Zeilinger told council at a March 31 hearing, and the vast majority will not be able to pay the rent without help.

Amber Harding, senior attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, observes that approximately 500 families participate in the program each year. If the city is already pushing people out with this level of funding, the problem is likely to get worse without significant change.

“It’s just an incredibly destabilizing and cruel policy that is inextricably tied to our budget priorities,” Harding says. “[The city has] says in all other public benefits that arbitrary delays are unjust and unfair, except this one.

Zeilinger, whose office did not respond to requests for comment for this article, assured lawmakers that his agency had already worked to find solutions for all but 273 of those families. Some were able to get PSH vouchers. Others joined related programs to keep them housed.

But for the remaining families, Zeilinger admitted that many had “no plans” once their rapid relocation grant ran out because they were not eligible for other aid.

“We are in a very difficult situation based on the reality that our budget is not unlimited,” Zeilinger said.

Kathy Zeisel, a senior supervising attorney at the Children’s Law Center, says the best solution is to fund Targeted Affordable Housing Vouchers, a program that helps pay the bills of people who don’t qualify for PSH or other assistance. She suspects there is a need for another 1,040 such vouchers, priced at $27.7 million.

Bowser hasn’t spent a single dollar on targeted affordable vouchers in his budget, and Nadeau says it will be a real challenge to hit that number. Additionally, Nadeau expects that she likely needs to find more money for emergency rental assistance to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place (a battle she’s managing at almost every year). Supporters have suggested adding $100 million or more to Bowser’s proposed budget for each of the next two fiscal years to meet growing demand.

“It’s unlikely that we can redirect that much, but we have to aim high,” said Nadeau. “It all depends on how much money I have to move around in the budget.”

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