D.C. Council Probes Fenty Plan to Move Homeless

The apartment above was given last week to a 44-year-old man as part of a plan to move homeless people from D.C. shelters into permanent housing.
The apartment above was given last week to a 44-year-old man as part of a plan to move homeless people from D.C. shelters into permanent housing. (By Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)
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By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 20, 2008

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is moving quickly to place hundreds of the city's chronically homeless into permanent housing over the objections of the D.C. Council and growing complaints from social service providers.

"I am happy that we are rushing. We have to go beyond plans to implementation," City Administrator Dan Tangherlini testified during a council hearing yesterday. He told lawmakers that about 150 men have gone from shelters to apartments since the city implemented the program last week.

The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation Tuesday to halt the closure of the city's Franklin Shelter in Northwest Washington until the Fenty administration demonstrates that it has housing for about 300 people served by the shelter. Last week, the city moved 53 people from the shelter into apartments. Under the city's new Housing First program, city officials say they plan to place about 2,500 homeless people into a program that provides permanent housing with support services by the end of fiscal 2009.

But council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) was not satisfied. He asked Tangherlini how the city determined who would receive apartments and how the city plans to pay for support services.

Clarence Carter, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, told Thomas that the program will first serve homeless people with acute problems. Of the $19 million the city has budgeted for homeless services, $11 million will be used for Housing First, Carter said.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Human Services Committee, praised the city's efforts. "This is a very radical way to deal with chronic homelessness" in the District, Wells said.

This week, Fenty stood in front of the Dunbar Apartments, a 17-unit building being renovated by the city and nonprofit organizations for 17 homeless women. "The days when it was good enough to put our homeless in shelters are no more," Fenty said. "Franklin Shelter houses people in a congregate way, which is outdated: human beings living on top of each other."

But Tom Howarth, director of Father McKenna Center, a nonprofit organization that houses about 100 homeless people, said the mayor is going about things the wrong way.

"There are elements of this plan that could be harmful to people," Howarth said. "Without supportive services, this plan will fail. They have to sit down and work with the provider community and the homeless themselves. They created this thing without any input from us."

City officials estimate that the District's homeless population exceeds 5,000. Of those housed in the city's five emergency shelters, about 14 percent require housing for more than six months and occupy 57 percent of the city's shelter beds. The city, which maintains that it is cheaper to place the chronically homeless in permanent housing and provide them with support services, has created a partnership with the nonprofit community.

The city has contracts with eight organizations that will help locate apartments for the homeless and provide services, including counseling, job training and mental health care. At one apartment in Southeast, a 44-year-old man recently dined on a frozen dinner provided by Pathways to Housing, one of the contracted organizations.

Linda Kaufman, Pathways to Housing's chief operating officer, testified yesterday that her organization has placed 175 people in permanent housing. Kaufman told the council that her organization will furnish apartments, give each resident a $300 gift card for household items and provide ongoing services.

Carter said the city also contacted more than 3,000 landlords in hopes of finding available apartments. About 400 units have been inspected, renovated and brought on line for use, he said.

"As of last evening, we had moved up to 99 people, and we are housing another 53 today," said Carter, who dismissed Thomas's concerns about the city moving too quickly. "I think that it is wonderful that there is a sense of urgency and a sense of speed."

David M. Gatling Sr., 56, who has been homeless since 1996, was skeptical about the city's plans.

"It is a wonderful thing that you are going to put 300 people into housing," Gatling testified. "We need it. But are you going to put the safeguards into place that will allow people to stay in that housing?"

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