Thursday, April 14, 2011

DC Mayor Vincent Gray's Proposed Budget Cuts Human Services Spending Disproportionately

Well, it looks like Congress is formulating an agreement on where to cut spending in the federal budget. A government shutdown has been averted once again, though we're not out of the woods yet. They've decided to slash $38.5 billion from the FY 2011 budget (with less than 6 months remaining in this fiscal year). The numbers are still subject to change and the details have not been finalized, though we can be certain that domestic spending on social services will take a hit. The question is "How big of a hit will social services take?". They continue to work on the FY 2012 budget (and hack away at much- needed services).

Here in the nation's capital (which many locals call "the last colony" due to Congress having oversight of what the local government does) DC Mayor Vincent Gray submitted his 2012 budget proposal on April 1st, in accordance with DC Law. On April 8th the DC Fiscal Policy Institute (DCFPI) issued its analysis of his proposal. The DC Council will vote on it on May 24th and again on June 7th. The next 7.5 weeks promise to be rife with contentions over the mayor's budget proposal as advocates for different causes fight to get funding for things that are important to them reinstated.

Of particular interest to DCFPI (which, among other things, aims to protect funding for programs that assist the Districts low-income residents) is the fact that more than two-thirds of the budget cuts come from Human Services, even though the Human Services budget only comprises one-fourth ($1.5 billion) of the city budget of about $6.3 billion in local funds, not counting federal funding for Washington, DC. (With federal funding, DC's annual budget is about $9 billion annually; but, the federal money is earmarked by congress for what THEY think is important.)

The District is grappling with a projected budget shortfall of $320 million in FY 2012 (which begins on October 1st, 2011). The mayor has proposed revenue enhancements of $135 million (mainly through tax increases) and seeks $190 million in budget cuts. If he gets his way, $130 million in cuts will come from Human Services.

Being that understanding budgets is nothing less than a science, many people get lost as I attempt to go into any further details on the budget. So, I'll try to make this as simple as possible. just this morning (April 14th) I was in a meeting with about 3 dozen homeless and housing advocates as well as "budget experts" and nobody was sure as to how things are going to pan out in terms of housing and homelessness. All we could do is take guesstimates.

Not counting money for housing programs, DC spent $55 million on homeless services for FY 2011. $15 million of that is federal TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) money which the District will not have next year. The city is replacing $4 million of that with local money, for a net loss of $11 million or 20% to homeless services. When we factor in the increase in the baseline budget (what it costs to deliver the same amount of services as in the previous year), this means that what appears on its face to be a 20% cut is actually deeper. (For example, the "living wage law" for city employees goes into effect next year,meaning that a greater amount of the remaining $44 million will go towards wages.)

Within DC's budget, housing money and money for homeless services are separate line items. and, while we are losing $11 million in homeless services next year, we are losing much more in funding for affordable housing and other housing programs. In addition to losing $15 million in federal TANF funds, DC will also lose $10 million in federal funds for Permanent Supportive Housing (a program begun in 2008 which houses the District's most vulnerable). They will also reduce the city's commitment to PSH by $4 million and transfer the number of people served by that money to HUD housing (a federal program).

Funding for the Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP) which helps people who are in imminent danger of becoming homeless will go from $8 million to $2.7 million and the number of households it serves will drop from just shy of 3,000 to 880.

The DC Council recently passed legislation limiting TANF recipients to a combined 60 months in the program over the course of their lives. This law is retroactive and applies to those who've been in the program for 60 months or more even before the law was passed. Other states have implemented the time limit proactively, giving recipients 5 years from the passage of the law to get off of TANF. Benefits for a family of 3 who've exceeded the time limit were just cut from $428 per month to $348 per month as of April 1st, 2011 and will be cut to $257 per month on October 1st.

The District will altogether eliminate the Interim Disability Assistance (IDA) program which gives $270 a month to 1,500 people who've applied for federally-funded SSI benefits while they wait for their federal claim to be processed (which can take up to 2 years). This means that some of the most vulnerable residents of the District will have absolutely no funds as they await federal benefits.

Mayor Gray's budget cuts $18 million from the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF) which currently makes money available for the creation of affordable housing.

So, as you can see, the city will spend much less on homeless services, housing and cash assistance for the needy. There is concern amongst homeless and housing advocates that DC is slowly but surely moving toward only providing a bare minimum of services to the poor and homeless of the city. Local law only requires them to provide shelter when it is 32 degrees or colder and 95 degrees or hotter. Furthermore, this law can be satisfied by giving a person a cot in the hall of a government building. April 1st is the official end of hypothermia season. The city has already begun to turn families away from shelter, some having children 5 years old and younger.

DC counted 6,546 homeless people this past January, an increase of 7 people over last year. the DC Metro area which includes the 8 surrounding counties has seen a 10% increase in homelessness since January of 2007 and a 2% increase since last year. But the slower rate of increase can be attributed, at least in part, to the fact that almost 1,000 people in DC Metro were put in Permanent Supportive housing within the past year. With funding for homeless services and housing programs decreasing and many of those housed by these programs in danger of eviction, the number of street homeless in the nation's capital is bound to increase exponentially come April 1st, 2012.

As if the humanitarian crisis that the DC Council is creating is not enough of a concern, there is the federal HEARTH Act to consider. The HEARTH (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) Act is federal legislation which, among other things, will require jurisdictions that receive HUD funding to transition newly-homeless people back into housing within 30 days. With much less funding committed to shelter as well as housing assistance or the creation of affordable housing, the city will be unable to meet its federal mandate. This will result in them becoming ineligible for future HUD funding, which will result in them serving less low-income residents. I'm inclined to think that this is all part of their grand design.

The time to fight is now!!!!!

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