Officials Squabble, Service Providers Scramble
No Matter How You Do the Math, Advocates Say, Less Money Means More People on Streets

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Fenty administration official denied Monday that $20 million has been cut from services to the homeless, asserting that a D.C. Council member was "flat wrong" when he made that claim Friday.

Clarence Carter, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, and council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) argued about the budget cuts during a hearing before the council's Human Services Committee, which Wells chairs. There was widespread disagreement among officials and service providers about the size of the cuts and what their effect would be.

Carter said Wells misunderstood the budget when he said Friday that $11 million in local funding has been trimmed along with $9 million in money from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Carter said that about $12 million -- $1 million in local funding along with $11 million in TANF funds -- was cut for fiscal 2010, which began Thursday. That was largely because an account from which the city withdrew the TANF money has been depleted.

The current homeless services budget, managed by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, is about $54 million for the 2010 fiscal year, about the same as last year, Carter said. He said DHS directed the partnership to reduce its budget only by $11.5 million because of the loss of TANF funds.

But Wells and homeless advocates disputed that, saying DHS cut the community partnership's budget by much more, about 30 percent, lowering it to less than $39 million. The reduction was distributed across the board last week to the city's network of homeless providers.

Homeless shelter providers said that neither Carter nor the Community Partnership informed them until Sept. 28 that TANF funds would be unavailable and that their budgets would be dramatically reduced. They said they would have to close shelters and put hundreds of people onto the streets regardless of whether the cuts are $12 million or $20 million.

"Let me be clear," said Edward Orzechowski, president and chief executive of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, "cuts of up to 30 percent will have drastic effects for an overwhelming number of men, women and families who have no other option but the streets."

Melba Arrington, 37, who attended the hearing with her 2-year-old daughter, said she did not have "anywhere to go" if the House of Ruth shelter stops paying for the two-bedroom apartment where she has lived since June with a 16-year-old who is autistic and an 8-year-old who has attention-deficit disorder.

But with DHS spending reduced by $24.5 million to help plug the city's budget deficit, cuts were inevitable, Carter said.

Wells demanded to know why homeless providers were given so little time to respond, forcing them notify hundreds that their beds might be lost within months.

"We started having this conversation back in July," Carter replied.

Christel Nichol, executive director for the House of Ruth, said there was no official notification of a budget reduction from DHS or the partnership in July. In June, she said, the partnership informed providers that it would dole out funds month to month after a contract with them expired in May.

"But when you added up the monthly amount," Nichol said, "there was no budget cut."

It was not until Sept. 28 that official notices from the partnership went out, sending a shiver through homeless services providers, who realized they would have to reduce capacity before the hypothermia emergency season begins Nov. 1.

The city puts funding for its homeless services budget into a line item, making it impossible to track changes in how money is allocated and spent, said Katie Kerstetter, a policy analyst for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

The federal government requires the city to provide emergency shelter to the homeless during the winter, and Wells said he could not determine whether those costs would wipe out funding for the homeless after the hypothermia season ends March 31.

Ricardo Flores, director of advocacy for the Latin American Youth Center, said that his clients might hold onto their beds but that such services as transporting young adults to job interviews and doctor's appointments or providing educational opportunities and money to young mothers for child care while they work will be lost.

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