Mayor Marion Barry has offered legislation putting new dollar limits on emergency payments to keep families from being evicted or having their heat or electricity cut off.
The bill also would make single persons and childless couples ineligible for the aid and would restrict the assistance to certain specified needs. Elderly or disabled persons would be eligible.
Other parts of the proposed bill, which the mayor sent to the D.C. City Council last week, would implement Barry's plan to end the current $14 million General Public Assistance program and instead fold $6.6 million of it into the curtailed emergency assistance program.
The proposed new emergency aid limits include: $500 for mortgage or rent payments to prevent foreclosure or eviction, $300 to pay utility bills if service is about to be cut off, and aid equal to five days' worth of food stamp allotments to buy food.
Relocation assistance could be given if a move is necessitated by condemnation, eviction, overcrowding, bodily abuse by a household member, opportunity to move to subsidized housing or to reunite a family. Such assistance could equal up to $200 in moving costs, up to $300 for a security deposit, and the first month's rent.
A household could receive emergency aid only once a year and would have to show a loss of at least 25 percent of household income.
There currently are no limits on how much people can receive under the emergency assistance program. A survey done by the Department of Human Services last year found that mortgage assistance under the program averaged more than $800 and payments for "miscellaneous" items, which no longer would be allowed, averaged more than $500.
Only a few individuals have been granted more than $1,000 in emergency assistance in the past, according to DHS, but in at least one case the aid has been more than $2,800.
A separate part of the legislation would give monthly benefits to people who are unemployed because of temporary physical disabilities. This is intended to pick up some of those who would lose their General Public Assistance payments because of the end of that program. Monthly benefits could be no more than what the household would receive under Aid to Families with Dependent Children formulas.
Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), chairman of the Human Services Committee, said she has not had time to analyze the emergency assistance proposal yet. "I'm not sure if that's the way we're going to go," she said. "We're just looking at it now."
But community groups dealing with the needy immediately criticized the plan, saying the limits make the program inflexible and ineffective for significant numbers of families in crisis.
"I should think it would mean a lot more evictions," said Cheryl Fish of the Coalition on Financial Accountability.
"Under the proposal, a family that needed $525 to avoid eviction wouldn't be able to get it, and that family would be out on the street," said Christopher R. Whittingham, staff attorney with Neighborhood Legal Services. That family could end up having to get long-term public assistance at greater government cost, he added.
Whittingham has filed suit in U.S. District Court over alleged delays in processing applications under the emergency assistance program. Other community groups also have criticized the staff administering the program for being arbitrary in their decisions on how much aid to allow.