A New direction for the Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) -- and it might include affordable housing FINALLY

On February 24th, 2011 Washington, DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) had it's first bi-monthly meeting of the year. The ICH was established in 2006 and is mandated by a local law called the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005 (HSRA). It, by law, is chaired by the city administrator and includes heads of various departments of DC Government along with homeless service providers, homeless advocates and the homeless themselves. The HSRA states that there must be at least 4 meetings per year; but, the ICH has been in the habit of meeting 6 times per year. The bi-monthly meetings are open to the public and there are usually about 100 people in attendance.

Thursday's meeting was the first time this body has convened under the administration of newly-elected DC Mayor Vincent Gray. Furthermore, Councilman Tommy Wells no longer has oversight over Human Services, but has been replaced by Councilman Jim Graham in that capacity. Clarence Carter has resigned as the director of Human Services and awaits confirmation by the Arizona Senate as the director of the Department of Economic Services (DES). Deputy Director of DHS Laura Zeilinger has resigned and is now employed at the USICH as its lead regional coordinator. And Neil Albert has been replaced by Allen Y. Lew as the city administrator. That said, the city's Human Services Dept. is in flux.

It is important to note that Allen Lew has overseen large construction projects for the city which include the $850 million Walter E. Washington Convention Center and the Nationals' Stadium which cost upwards of $600 million. I came to DC in 2005, after the convention center was built. However, I was here for the construction of the National's stadium and know that it was a highly contentious issue with cost over-runs in the tens of millions of dollars and its heavy economic impact on the surrounding poor neighborhoods. In Washington, DC there is an "us vs. them" dichotomy between the rich and the poor in general. More specifically, there is a dichotomy between the homeless, rent-burdened and affordable housing advocates on the one hand and the developers and the local government which kowtows to them on the other hand. This puts Allen Lew in the hot seat, with him having been the middle-man between the city government and developers, a fact which became evident during the ICH meeting.

As has been the custom for about 2 years now, there was a homeless persons'/service providers' roundtable prior to the ICH meeting. During the roundtable, people were asked questions pertaining to how the optimum shelter would function. When asked the maximum amount of time a person should spend in shelter if the system is working properly, most people said 6 months or less. A few insisted that homeless people be given as long as they need to get it together. (I think the latter group misunderstood the question, as the facilitators wanted criteria by which to measure the effectiveness of the system, not to put any restraints on the homeless themselves.) The roundtable then descended into chaos (in my opinion), as people began to make ill-informed statements, throw forth a discombobulated hodge-podge of sometimes-irrational ideas and go off of their mentally-ill rants. (One homeless woman in particular took up most of the meeting time and the facilitator of our small group didn't know how to shut her down.)

A woman named Linda who directs a non-profit that specializes in housing the mentally-ill suggested that transitional housing be done away with. I agreed with her insomuch as it is rather ignorant to put someone in a temporary apartment so that they can await a permanent apartment and we exchanged high fives. (People are sometimes placed in transitional housing for 18 months as they await more permanent living arrangements.) However, I understand that transitional housing might be all that anyone is able to offer due to limited funding and/or the source of the funding.

The roundtable session was eventually brought back to order as the main facilitator gave both groups a final assignment. She told us that it was our job to decide how we would divide the homeless budget between 4 categories if it were up to us: affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, transitional housing and shelter. Each group was given 4 full-size sheets of paper, each with one of the 4 categories written on it. Each person was given 10 post-it notes representing $10 each for a total of $100. We were then told to distribute our post-it notes amongst the 4 sheets of paper according to how we think the homeless services budget should be divided.

I made fast work of it and divided it as such:

Affordable Housing -- $40
Permanent Supportive Housing -- $30
Transitional Housing -- $20
Shelter -- $10

If memory serves, the group as a whole felt that the budget should be divided as such:

Affordable Housing -- 22%
Permanent Supportive Housing -- 26%
Transitional Housing -- 42%
Shelter -- 10%

I was appalled to see that people wanted to put less than 40% of the available resources into the creation of affordable housing, especially since the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in this country. But, on a more positive note, the group seems to understand that, while there is a need for shelter, the goal is to get people in their own residences -- whether said residence is affordable, supportive or transitional. The sad truth is that affordable housing initiatives don't fall within the purview of the ICH. People were reminded of this fact by the main facilitator right before the final exercise.

The facilitators emphasized that they were not asking people to discuss what needs to be improved within the existing system, but were trying to get people to think outside of the box and consider possibly revamping the entire system, in effect changing how the District delivers homeless services. I observed people having considerable difficulty following that particular instruction, as they delved right back into the usual litany of complaints about homeless services. Getting people to understand that the city is willing to try something new and what that means for how homeless services are delivered could take some time.

Immediately after the roundtable discussion, officials from DC Government and others who didn't choose to attend the roundtable entered for the actual ICH meeting. With City Administrator Allen Lew being new on the job, Fred Swan of the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) assumed control of the meeting. Various members gave committee reports as Police Chief Cathy Lanier, Dept. of Mental Health (DMH) Director Steve Baron and many others just listened. (When a complaint was raised pertaining to how the National Park police treat the homeless, Chief Lanier said she would extend another invitation to NPP in an effort to get them to send someone to future ICH meetings.) Most of the 90-minute meeting was a working meeting during which ICH-members spoke amongst themselves with others just looking on. But there were 5-10 minute public comment sessions at the beginning and end of the meeting during which the homeless and others could speak. (not counting the hour-long roundtable).

During the public comment session that followed the meeting, a homeless homeless advocate named Donald called Mr. Lew out on the fact that he had overseen some very expensive developments that were built with tax dollars and challenged him to get into the business of building affordable housing for the poor rather than only building things that benefit the well-to-do. (This idea would align perfectly with Mayor Gray's campaign promise to make DC "one city" that works for all citizens of all strata.) It was as if Donald had read my mind, as I'd decided during the meeting that I would stand up at the end and mention the need for affordable housing.

I spoke immediately after Donald and stated my agreement with him. I also pointed out that we must consider the objective realities of our economy and those whom we're trying to help. I explained that there are some people who will never make enough money to pay their own rent. I explained that there are men who've lived at the Emery Work-bed Shelter for 2 or 3 years while working, as you have to have a job to get in there, and that they didn't make enough money to pay for their own places. I then reiterated the need for affordable housing.

Then another homeless homeless advocate named Angie stood up and accused the city of maintaining homelessness rather than ending it. She said that, if they were serious about ending homelessness, they should invest in affordable housing. (Let's remember that affordable housing doesn't presently fall into the purview of the ICH.)

After the meeting was adjourned, I stated my agreement with Angie that the city does too much to maintain homelessness and not enough to end it. Linda reminded me that DC has done more than any other city in the country to end homelessness, having housed 1,300 formerly homeless people in Permanent Supportive Housing. I then explained that, while there is a city agency that deals with homelessness, I don't know of any city agency that is charged with creating affordable housing. While I commend the city for housing many of the homeless, I challenge them to create an agency that is charged with creating affordable housing and has a cabinet-level director. This is how governments show that they are serious about solving a particular problem.

As the new administration takes shape, the Inter-agency Council on Homelessness seems to be taking on a new sense of direction. The new administrators have yet to prove themselves. many questions remain to be answered. But it seems that some of the homeless homeless advocates and homeless service providers know what is needed -- affordable housing. Let's hope that their pleas don't fall on deaf ears.

NOTE: I was also able to speak with the director of the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) after the meeting. Since DCHA receives federal funding through HUD, we discussed her feelings pertaining to the federal budget cuts that are being considered by Congress. She stated that HUD landlords would receive their March payments, but that April payments were in question. Nonetheless, she is holding out hope that Congress will resolve the budget crisis by mid-March,which would leave her ample time to distribute April payments to landlords.


Diane Nilan said…
Thanks for the thought-filled summary of the meeting. At first I thought you were talking about the USICH...ha! Fooled me.

Glad to hear at least a shred of positive news from somewhere!

Be well.

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