Cuts in D.C. Homeless Services Budget

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 3, 2009

D.C. Council members and shelter providers were stunned to learn this week that the Fenty administration has cut $20 million from the city's homeless services budget for fiscal 2010. Advocates said the funding decrease likely will result in shelters being closed, forcing hundreds of adults and children onto the streets within months.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said Friday that the $11 million cut in local funding and $9 million cut in federal funding for homeless services was revealed to him Thursday as he prepared for an oversight hearing.

"Obviously, I was taken by surprise and furious because we have a tenuous relationship with the community as it is," said Wells, chairman of the Human Services Committee, which oversees the city agency responsible for serving the homeless. "You have to have honesty and transparency in actions, and this undercuts the relationship we've developed with the community."

Wells said that because of the recession, he had expected budget cuts at the Department of Human Services. But he said department officials had assured him that the cuts would be spread across the agency's budget. "The budget . . . I asked the council to vote on showed zero cuts for homeless services," Wells said. Asked if he thought the administration action was a sleight of hand, Wells said, "You can call it whatever you want."

Mafara Hobson, spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), said in a statement that there was essentially no change in the homeless services budget.

Wells was scheduled to hold a Monday committee hearing on stimulus funding but said he was shifting the agenda to discuss the budget cuts to give human services officials a chance to explain why the reductions in homeless services were so deep.

Earlier this week, House of Ruth, the largest District nonprofit organization serving victims of domestic violence, lost nearly $500,000 in city funding because of the Human Services cuts, leaving it scrambling for new sources of money for its programs.

A coalition of homeless service providers that receive city funding released a statement Friday saying that more than 100 families in temporary and transitional shelters run by the Community of Hope and House of Ruth are at risk of being removed if the cuts are not restored. An additional 480 women would face eviction; about half of them are housed by Catholic Charities.

"With these cuts, none of us can continue to serve the number of people we serve," said Christel Nichols, president of House of Ruth. "We're all talking about this being imminent. We're being faced with cuts within the month. This is going to happen a whole lot faster than people think. There is no money to make up for this. Nobody has extra money sitting around to tide us over."

According to a yearly count by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, there were more than 6,000 homeless people living in the District in August.

That group includes about 703 homeless families with about 1,400 children. The District has 164 city-funded beds for families. At least 285 families were on a city waiting list for homeless shelters in July, a number that kept growing as heads of households lost jobs in the recession. Wells vowed then to investigate why so many families were waiting for beds.

"At a time when so many people are struggling and becoming homeless, it's irresponsible of the District government to cut lifesaving services to people who are homeless," said Amber W. Harding, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "If these deep cuts result in D.C. residents going without shelter this winter, not only will residents suffer, but the District will be in violation of its legal obligation to provide shelter during severe weather and may incur significant costs for resulting damages."

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