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The winter months this year presented major challenges to the District’s ability to shelter and care for the city’s homeless population. The disappearance of a homeless child from the city’s shelter at the old D.C. General hospital pushed issue into an even harsher spotlight. David Berns, the director of the city’s Department of Human Services, joins Kojo to chat about the District’s strategy on homelessness and its immediate plans to help families access housing.
- David Berns Director, D.C. Department of Human Services
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later on the broadcast, how disease and even drug cartels are driving up the price of limes, and what this means for growers, grocers, and everyday consumers. But first, the state of homelessness in the district. This past winter was harsh on all of D.C., but it was a particularly rough season for the city's homeless population, which often overwhelmed the District's capacity to provide adequate shelter for the men, women and families without it.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINights passed when the city housed more than 4,000 people in emergency shelters, including the hundreds of families at D.C. General, an abandoned hospital that now serves as a shelter year round, and a place thrown into the national spotlight this winter season, when a young girl who lived there for two years disappeared. The city is moving ahead with plans to accelerate efforts to find housing for homeless families, but it's also clear that when it comes to this particular issue, winter isn't quite over yet.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWe're joined this hour by the director of the city agency that handles homelessness issues, David Berns. He is the director of the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services. David Berns, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
MR. DAVID BERNSGood afternoon. It's good to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850, you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. What responsibility do you think the District should bear for sheltering the city's homeless? David Berns, the weather caught a lot of people off guard this year, but the winter brought about levels of homelessness to the city that it had not seen since, well, Ronald Reagan was president. Why do you think the city was not fully prepared to meet these challenges this winter, and the challenges that the city continues to face this spring?
BERNSVery good question. Now we actually had sufficient capacity and the ability to shelter any of our homeless adults and young -- including young adults, in our system. So even though the weather was harsh and severe, we had adequately planned and had sufficient facilities. Where we had the most difficulty was with homeless families, which is the largest and fastest growing population, or segment of the homeless population. We actually have a slight decline over the last few years in the number of homeless adults that you see on the streets, but the number of homeless families has been increasing.
NNAMDIOutside of the weather, what do you think explains the flood of challenges you faced so far this year, particularly when it comes to families seeking shelter?
BERNSYou know, last year we had a declines in the number of homeless families, a modest decline from about 509 that we had housed in shelter the previous year, we went down to right around 460 in 2013. For this year, we planned for a modest increase, just to be on the safe side, our planning committee members said, well, it looks like we're going down, maybe we could plan for even less. But we took a cautious view and planned for a ten percent increase in the number of homeless families for this year. Unfortunately, by the time we got to near the end of January, we had by far exceeded those expectations and had placed already over 700 families just by the end of January, from November 1 to the end of January.
BERNSSo we planned, we had facilities and the ability to serve those that we expected. What happened -- and this is really quite complex -- is that we have a lot of people that are doubled up, a lot of families that are living with other relatives and friends, and we didn't anticipate the number of those that would be moving out of those doubled up situations and coming in and seeking shelter.
NNAMDIThose doubled up situations seem to be a source of some controversy. Bob McCartney of "The Washington Post" writing this past weekend that the administration's approach showed more, quoting here, "tough love than urgency on this issue." It is clear that you and the Mayor seem to feel that one aspect of this problem is, if you will, my words, not yours, a certain opportunism among maybe a small number of parents. People who you describe as having been doubled up, but saw the fact that the shelter was crowded and the city was moving people into motel rooms, as a kind of opportunity for a better accommodation.
BERNSYeah, I wouldn't quite call it an opportunity...
NNAMDILike I said, that was my word.
BERNSExactly. But it is a realism that we -- we also run the TANF program, you know, the temporary assistance to needy families. We've asked our 17,000 families that we serve there where they're living. Over half of them, or right around half of them, are doubled up with somebody else. So that's a number of people living on somebody's couch or sharing facilities that are less than ideal. It is something that we all want to avoid.
BERNSAnd so I don't see it just as an opportunity or certainly as opportunism, but when the option became available that they could move out of those doubled up situations, we did see a large influx, sometimes 30, 40, 50 families a day coming in, and seeking a shelter on hypothermia nights, and moving into hotels. A hotel is far from ideal, but it's probably better for a great number of families than sleeping on the couch or multiple individuals in living rooms or just one spare bedroom someplace.
NNAMDIAnd what you and Mayor Gray seem to be saying is that that is not something you anticipated.
BERNSWe didn't anticipate the volume that would come in under those circumstances. When the option was D.C. General, which we all agree is not a real pleasant place, we didn't have near that volume coming in. And then after -- what happened is that during the early months of the winter, the families came in, we placed them into hotels. It cost us about $150 per night, per family, including the price we pay to the hotel operator plus the support services that those families get, so we placed those families, we exhausted all of the hotels in D.C. that were available for long term placements for our clients.
BERNSAnd I'm not saying every hotel room in D.C. was filled, but we were looking at the two stars hotels, those that rent for $100 to $150 a night, and that were willing to take clients that might stay there for a year, and that's...
NNAMDIAnd it was when you started putting people in those hotels that you saw the dramatic expansion?
BERNSYeah, and that's when we saw the dramatic expansion. But we were willing to do that, it wasn't really a budget issue at that point. When we exhausted all of the hotels in D.C., we placed 110 families over into Maryland, into hotels there. Then we got a legal opinion saying that we did not have the legal authority to place our families out of state, so we had to stop that. And we just were at the wit's end on what to do. So we started placing families in rec centers and emergency shelters, far from ideal, far from anything that we wanted to do, but it gets down to -- when you've exhausted all of your available facilities, that's what you do.
BERNSAnd so that was when the crisis was called, when it was noted, and as we continued our efforts to find more and more housing for the families. Shelter is not the solution to homelessness for adults or for families, a shelter is a very place to have children...
NNAMDISupposed to be a temporary situation. They're all looking for housing. Our guest is David Berns, he is the director of the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services. He joins us in studio. you can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What responsibility do you think the District should bear for sheltering the city's homeless. You can also send us email to email@example.com. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIBefore we get to the phones, let's start at the beginning, for those who are not familiar with this process, what are the rules in place when a person or a family approaches the city seeking shelter? The city has a so-called right to shelter law on the books for nights when it's dangerously cold.
BERNSThat's right. And certainly it is our obligation as a city, especially on those cold nights and a hypothermia night is defined as one where the temperature is 32 degrees or lower, including the wind chill index. And on those nights in particular, we have to find a place to put any and all of our homeless residents. We try to anticipate -- we have a center called the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center for families that come in and look for other alternatives, but if they come in late in the day, or in the evening, then we don't have a chance to go thought a process really for figuring out if there are any other alternatives. And we place them immediately until we can find other arrangements.
NNAMDII know there are other cities around the country with similar rules, and I think that's what Jonathan in Washington, D.C. wants to talk or ask about. Jonathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Put on your headphones, please, David.
JONATHANThank you, thanks for having me. Yeah, so my question is relating to -- the state of Mass. is right to shelter, and they were dealing with many of the same problems in terms of, you know, once shelters were getting overcrowded, they were housing homeless families in hotels and motels as well. But more recently, they started to adopt the practice of encouraging HUD subsidized properties and multi-family owners of setting a preference for homeless families. So that, you know, even if there's a wait list, homeless families will jump to the top of the list, and they're actually having the shelters refer homeless families over to different HUD subsidized properties. I'm wondering if D.C. has considered that as an option.
BERNSYeah, there's a number of different ways that we're approaching that. We have, and are using a model called Rapid Rehousing.
NNAMDIYes, Mayor Gray had a public kickoff last week for that effort. Rapid Rehousing is supposed to house -- find housing for 500 families in 100 days.
BERNSAnd we will pay a substantial -- the most of the rent for people to move into apartments of reasonable rent levels, and to assist them with that subsidy for at least four months and renewable for at least two times. So for a whole year. So the families sign a year lease. We subsidize them as long as they're participating and working on their plan for permanent housing. And even after a year, we're willing to continue some of those subsidies if the families are making progress. So...
NNAMDIWhat's the distinction between those who can get the subsidies continued for four months and those who can get the subsidies continued for a year, because Petula Dvorak of "The Washington Post" wrote that the word inside of the shelters is don't do it, don't get involved in this program, that you might end up back in the shelters, and who wants that, because if after four months you cannot afford to pay the rent because you make less than, oh, 40 or $50,000 a year, you could find yourself back in the shelter.
BERNSYeah. During the first two renewals, the main criteria is that they're actually participating. Everybody has an individualized plan that they negotiate on how they're going to be working towards employment, training, those kinds of conditions. If they pass those plans, do what they have negotiated and intend to do and what we help them to do, then it's virtually automatic that it's renewed for the whole year.
BERNSAt the end of the year it's an exception process. And, again, it's individualized. We are quite flexible in working with those families, as long as they're making sufficient effort and progress towards their self-sufficiency.
NNAMDIDavid mentioned Massachusetts. We also know that New York has similar laws that this city has, the right-to-shelter laws. But are there other jurisdictions in our region with similar rules?
BERNSWe only know of the three jurisdictions in the whole country that have this by law. There are a couple of them that have it by administrative rule, but for the most part there's only three major jurisdictions, all in Massachusetts -- New York City. Not all of the state of New York, just New York City and Washington, D.C., with right to shelter.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll be continuing this conversation with David Berns. He is the director of the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services. If you have questions or comments for him -- what do you think the city should be doing to help connect the families living in shelters with permanent housing? What do you see as the relationship between the District's homelessness challenges and the affordability of housing in the Washington region? 800-433-8850. Shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with David Berns. He is the director of the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services. Give us a call if you have comments or questions. 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. We got this email from Larry. "The problem of increased family homelessness," says Larry, "is related to the absence of affordable housing.
NNAMDI"As the District appears to be doing nearly nothing to counteract the increase in luxury, expensive housing, what are the recommendations to concretely and aggressively balance the tide? Families also left the doubling-up situations due to leasing agreements, which tenants were violating by having individuals who were not on the lease. The city's lack of response," writes Larry, "is a disgrace."
NNAMDIWhat else do you think, David Berns, that the city could be doing to increase the stock of affordable housing? Some, like Larry, would say that unless there are more affordable options for these families in shelters, it's tough to break that cycle that puts them in the shelters in the first place.
BERNSI agree totally. The problem really is having enough affordable units and the mayor is addressing that. He put $187 million into the expansion of affordable housing just this year. Another $100 million proposed in his budget for next year. But that will not stem the tide, and those apartments will not necessarily be built for a year or two. So right now, our goal and our process is to recruit as many landlords as we can that's willing to rent to our families on the temporary or on the basis of a temporary voucher.
BERNSBecause we know that the vast majority of our families -- by some of the evaluations nationally and locally -- will be able to maintain and not come back into the homeless system if they can get into stable housing to begin with. So we're right now concentrating on getting at least 500 apartments in three months' time or in 100 days that we can rent.
BERNSWe have sufficient money to pay those vouchers for the families to move out of shelter, to move out of hotels. We just need more landlords that are willing to enter into this agreement with us and with our customers so that they can move out and get on their feet.
NNAMDII'd like to ask you whether or not there should be a long-term plan for affordable housing in the District. But that does not exactly fall under your jurisdiction, does it?
BERNSNo. But we're all very, very responsible and responsive and certainly there is a need for long-term solutions. The mayor had a commission last year that had dozens of recommendations. Many of them are well underway. Some of them are completed. Ways to reduce some of the administrative nightmare and the regulations. And ways to finance better the housing options. So those are on the table. Right now our emergency and our priority though, is to get the families out of the shelters, out of the hotels, into housing. And actually that saves money.
BERNSIt costs $150 a night to keep a family in D.C. General or in a hotel. We can house them in apartments for $50 a night, including their support of services. Right now our biggest hang-up and difficulty is finding those apartments where the families can move into. There are apartments. There are apartments within…
NNAMDIYou told Aaron Wiener, of the Washington City Paper, that without legislation to give the city more control of the system, there's no guarantee that next winter won't be another crisis. The mayor floated a plan to have tighter control over the system this year. He, however, walked it back. A judge put an end to housing some families in rec centers.
NNAMDIWhat kinds of controls do you think are necessary before next year's cold season? And when you talk about controls, does that have anything at all to do with the availability of apartment spaces? Is that why you mentioned legislation?
BERNSWell, the legislation or the controls that we're looking at is to make sure that we're assisting families to be stabilized, where they've been living without having to come into shelter or into hotels. Sometimes if we can provide some assistance to the people where they've been sharing accommodations or to help with emergency rental assistance so they can stay where they've been living, those are the preferred options, especially if we can get them into another apartment using rapid rehousing within the next 30 to 60 days.
BERNSSo that's what we're looking for, is ways to screen out, make sure that any of them that truly don't have any place else to go are going into shelters while we're finding the apartments. But if they have a way to be stabilized where they've been living for several months, to assist them with that, so that they don't take up the resources on an option that we all agree isn't great, like moving into D.C. General or into hotels.
NNAMDIOn the issue of affordable housing we got several emails. I'll try to read a couple of them. One from Lisa, says, "I have a hard time believing that someone with low-skill level would be able to make enough money after a year to afford market-rate rent for an apartment in the District. My husband is a department director at a local nonprofit, yet we pay more than a third of our income in rent in a neighborhood that is, shall we say, up and coming. How does DHS expect people to go from homeless to financially independent in just 12 months, given the high rents around these parts?"
NNAMDIAnd this we got from Maggie, who says, "Building off the affordable housing, a compounding issue is that the way in which affordability is determined in the District of Columbia is based on an area median income that includes some very affluent suburban communities. Can Director Berns explain why this is the metric to determine affordability, and thus subsidies, and what can be done to change this?"
BERNSYeah, we haven't had an opportunity to change. This is a federal definition of the average mean. And about the average median income in the metropolitan area is right around $100,000. So 60 percent of that is $60,000 a year. So I agree with the person that wrote that. It's not a very good way to define affordability. And that's why we haven't been looking at the 60 percent, which is pretty much a standard, but actually 30 percent, in finding homes or apartments that are affordable for those that are 30 percent of the average median income or less.
BERNSAnd families that are receiving the TANF benefits are probably at closer to 10 or 15 percent of the average median income. So we really need to concentrate on finding units that are affordable for the lowest income, most vulnerable families.
NNAMDIHere is Vernon, in Washington, D.C. Vernon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
VERNONThank you, Kojo. And I'm glad you're having this topic. Part of the reason I voted against Gray was because of his policies against the homeless families. You go all through this city, you see housing complexes all over the city, fenced out. Okay. They're vacant. The city has available housing spots. The city has all of a billion dollars. They refuse to renovate. Gray refuses to renovate the housing stock and to move the people in.
VERNONAnd, also, on the campaign trail, Tommy Wells said the mayor could have legislated that the private developers put aside housing stock for families I need. And Wells said -- Tommy Wells said when he brought it up, Gray laughed at him and refused to do it. So this is mindboggling stupid, this problem in this rich city, that this mayor is doing this to this population of people. And it's strongly -- 75 percent of the reason I voted against him was because of his attitude on this one issue. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd, Vernon, before you go, I'm assuming you voted for Tommy Wells, who did not win in the primary. And whom will you…
VERNONNo. I did not for vote for Tommy Wells.
VERNONI said on the campaign trail at a mayoral debate, you know, when they…
NNAMDIOh, okay. Well, who are you hoping -- now that the mayor has been defeated in the primary, who are you hoping will be the person who will take the kind of interest in affordable housing that you'd like to see?
VERNONI see no hope on the horizon. I really don't see any hope on the horizon. If you can't be outraged over this situation, a rich city, with the money that it has, with the available housing stock -- and it's fenced-up. It's just -- the housing stock is just vacant and the mayor refuses to renovate them. And I see nobody made about it.
NNAMDIVernon, thank you very much for your call. I hear, at least one person mad about it, Vernon, and that would be you. You sound very passionate on this you. We got an email from Mike, in Baltimore, who says, "It is nothing short of idiocy and inhumanity for a rich, modern society to let anyone be homeless. We should scrap shelters and devote all money and efforts to permanent low-cost housing or institutionalization of those with long-term mental disorders that prevent reintegration into society.
NNAMDIWhich brings me back to this, David Berns. We have come to think of shelters as housing. When shelters are essentially supposed to be for emergency purposes. Right?
BERNSExactly. I agree with a portion of what was said there about really concentrating on affordable housing. That really is the solution. And that's why we want to invest in things like rapid rehousing, and even for those that need permanent vouchers, permanent support of housing that comes, not only with a voucher, but with the services. And so where I would disagree is increased institutionalization. I think that we really can have a lot more of our residents it the community, as long as there's those supportive services.
BERNSAnd that's part of the package. I would say that the mayor has not neglected the affordable housing. That's why he's put $187 million just this year into expanding the affordable housing stock. And also encouraging through tax breaks and other means, the private sector coming forward and renovating as much of that property -- so that we can rent it within an affordable range where our clients will either initially be able to afford it or be able to get jobs that would allow them to be paying that rent.
NNAMDIOn to John, in Washington, D.C. John, your turn. Go ahead, please.
JOHNThank you very much, Kojo. A lot of this problem is something that is manufactured. And I think that the cause can be related to the situation whereby in D.C. you have to have a business license to have a roommate. That's absurd.
NNAMDII'm not sure I understand. You rent an apartment and you -- the apartment on the lease says that you're supposed to be the sole occupant. But in order to get a roommate you have to have a business license?
JOHNThat's according to D.C. government. Plus, which if you are a homeowner…
NNAMDII'm not sure I understand that regulation. Allow me to have David Berns respond to that. What is he talking about?
BERNSIt's way out of my league on the answer to that. I really don't know.
NNAMDINever heard about that one, John, but go ahead.
JOHNWell, it's the truth. And if you're a homeowner and you've got an empty room…
NNAMDIHow would a business license -- how would a business license allow you to get a roommate?
JOHNYou have a business license in order to rent out that room.
NNAMDIOh, I see what you're saying. In order to rent the room.
NNAMDII see. Not in order to have a roommate. Gotcha.
JOHNWell, roommate who's going to be -- who may be able to afford to pay a modicum of rent.
NNAMDIOkay. In that case, you have become a landlord yourself.4
JOHNAnd then you have inspections and the whole nine yards that the government puts on people. It's almost as bad as the tyranny against automobiles in D.C.
NNAMDIIt's the issue of subletting, David Berns. And I'm not sure if that was involved or if that was the kind of legislation that you or Mayor Gray had in mind when you talked about dealing with this situation.
BERNSAgain, that's not my area of expertise, but we are encouraging -- and there are many instances where people are in shared accommodations. So we do support that. We do help on the financial side, but on the regulation side, that's Nick Majett and others that run that part of the city.
NNAMDIThere's also the question of conditions and the safety at city shelters, particularly at D.C. General. Police still have not found Relisha Rudd who disappeared from there weeks ago. They did find the body of the man who worked at the shelter who was suspected of abducting her. How are the people who work at D.C. General screened? There are a lot of obviously vulnerable people living there, particularly children.
BERNSThat's right. Well, we don't operate the shelter directly. We have a contractor that operates that. That's The Community Partnership to Prevent Homelessness. They have -- they follow the D.C. laws and regulations in terms of the types of positions that have to have background checks. And we've done the evaluations and find those background checks have been done are in the files. There are a number of positions that, by law, do not preclude having somebody with a felony or some type of a criminal background (unintelligible)…
NNAMDIBut people can understand that because there's a lot of sentiment in this city for what is now known as returning citizens. I guess people have a bigger problem, though, with the supervisor of the lack of appropriate supervision because in this particular case, this individual had been apparently violating all kinds of regulations by interacting with residents and the children of residents.
BERNSI can't get into the specifics of the case. But…
BERNS…I'm not aware, before the fact, that any of that was brought to the attention of the management.
NNAMDIWhat concern do you have about conditions at D.C. General? People read stories about rats, bedbugs, lack of hot water.
BERNSThat's right. The facility is old, it's antiquated, and it needs to be replaced. And we're working on some plans this year for figuring out what the new accommodations would look like, where they need to be located, what kinds of facilities and support services would be in there. In the meantime, the facility is actually owned and under the operation of the Department of General Services.
BERNSThey are in full agreement that the facility needs to be replaced, but they're doing what they can to hold it together with the repairs and the maintenance to make it livable. Again, it's not perfect, but we think that given the antiquated facilities that there's a pretty good job of trying to keep it operational.
NNAMDIWhat do you think the city has learned so far from this episode about its safety net and how a child can slip through the cracks like this?
BERNSWell, I think one of the biggest lessons is one that we've known, is that shelter is no place to raise a family. It should be definitely, uh, 30 and certainly no more than 60 days that a family's there, so that they can get into their own housing. And that's the long-term solution. Certainly we're looking at each and every aspect of the of the individualized instances related to this case, but I can't go into that.
NNAMDIDavid Berns is the director of the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services. Thank you so much for joining us.
BERNSMy pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, a shortage of limes? Prices are going up and it may have something to do with organized crime. Food Wednesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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