D.C. Vows to Shelter Homeless Despite Budget

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 15, 2009

A top D.C. official pledged again Wednesday to shelter all the city's homeless during the coldest winter months despite sharp budget cuts to providers who have expressed fears they will have to close some of their facilities.

Human Services Director Clarence H. Carter told a D.C. Council committee that "whatever the demand for emergency shelter is this coming winter, the District is committed and prepared to meet" it.

A city law requires the District to shelter the homeless during the hypothermia season, from Nov. 1 to March 1, and Carter had previously promised the government would meet that obligation. His statement at the hearing on the city's plan for the winter seemed to reassure some providers who had feared the impact of the city's 30 percent reduction in their funding.

"With this pledge, I am relieved as it seems the crisis we faced has been temporarily avoided," said Edward Orzechowski, president and chief executive of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, the city's largest provider of services to the homeless. "Catholic Charities will be able to provide its much needed services this winter."

Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who is on the Human Services Committee, was not prepared to accept Carter's assurance on its face. "You keep saying 'trust us'. But it's getting cold outside.

"We want, Mr. Carter, to give you another opportunity to bring more clarity . . . a little more detail and less ambiguity," Brown said.

Brown asked how Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) would find the money to pay for extra emergency beds if demand exceeds capacity during a difficult period of high unemployment and foreclosure rates. Carter said the council had Fenty's word.

When Brown pressed for specifics, Carter said the answer was "above my pay grade."

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) opened Wednesday's hearing with a blistering statement that criticized the Fenty administration for contradictory and confusing explanations of a deep cut in the homeless services budget.

"It undermines our ability to house the homeless," Wells, the committee chairman, told Carter.

In all, about $12 million has been cut from the budget for providers.

Wells said the council voted for a budget that decreased homeless services by only 2 percent, then was blindsided by a 20 percent cut. "Over the past 30 days, there has been a great deal of confusion and chaos" over the budget, Wells said.

Under a hail of questions from Wells, Carter offered a clearer account Wednesday. The Human Services Department paid a contractor, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, about $49 million last year for homeless services. The contractor received only $38.5 million for fiscal 2010, which began Oct. 1, because a federal fund that had augmented city spending is depleted. Because of the shortfall, the partnership informed homeless shelter providers that their budgets would be cut by about 30 percent.

After his testimony, Carter said providers had overreacted to news of the cuts, sounding alarms that they would have to immediately shutter shelters and cut staff without giving him a chance to work out a solution.

Carter said the Fenty administration has done more than any other to help the homeless. It has cut homelessness among single individuals by 15 percent by placing at least 500 people into permanent housing, an effort he said should have earned providers' trust.

Outside City Hall before the hearing, homeless advocates continued to characterize the situation as dire. The Washington Legal Clinic distributed data showing that shelters were filled nearly to capacity Tuesday night.

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