Blame empty D.C. homeless shelter beds on the ‘fiscal cliff’

October 8, 2012

Nkechi Feaster, 39, stayed at the D.C. General homeless shelter earlier this year with her son. (Michael S. Williamson/TWP)

The Post’s Annie Gowen writes today about area homeless families who have found themselves in dire straits, thanks to stretched government services that have not been able to keep up with demand.

Advocates are particular outraged at the situation here in the District, because about 120 of 271 units in the city’s family shelter are going unused due to a lack of funding. Bloggers at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and Poverty & Policy have been all over the situation in recent weeks.

The city explained to the Legal Clinic that the approximately $150 per night it takes to house a family at the D.C. General shelter is “better invested in these same families but for supports that meet their needs more effectively.” From Nov. 1 to March 31 — aka “hypothermia season” — the city is obligated by law to house all who seek shelter when temperatures fall below 32 degrees. But for the rest of the year — e.g., as temperatures drop over the next three weeks — the city is pleading poverty to the poverty-stricken.

Now the advocates, and at least a couple of politicians, are wondering why the city is turning folks away when finance officials estimate the city ran a $140 million surplus in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

“This is good news for poor people,” D.C. Council Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) told me on the day the surplus projection was announced more than a week ago.

But it isn’t — at least not automatically. The council voted earlier this year to obligate any new projected revenue to homeless services first. So if Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi had revised his estimates to account for an additional $7 million in revenue this fiscal year, the shelter beds could be open right this moment. However, despite the projected surplus in the past fiscal year, Gandhi didn’t touch his estimates for the current  year, citing the uncertainty over federal budget cuts.

Graham and others are pushing to use last year’s surplus on the homeless shortfall, among other social service needs, but it doesn’t look like that is going to happen. Both Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) say they intend to keep the money in the bank, in case Congress does in fact go over the “fiscal cliff” and economic matters get very, very bad around here.

If a critical mass of council members wanted to spend the $140 million, they could try. Under the District charter, the mayor must submit a supplemental budget request if the council votes to request one. That, however, would be unlikely to happen before Nov. 1.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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Mike DeBonis | October 8, 2012