The District's welfare program is failing to address the needs of homeless families who are struggling to get or keep jobs but are unable to afford child care or transportation, according to a report released yesterday by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
The study of 44 homeless families found that 43 percent of the mothers surveyed said they had to miss work or a job interview because of a lack of affordable transportation, while 18 percent reported missing work or a job interview because of a lack of child care. About 400 families are in the District's shelter system at any given time, Department of Human Services officials said yesterday.
Homeless families also are losing benefits or receiving reduced benefits because D.C. welfare offices lost paperwork when transferring family records from one office to another. About 34 percent of homeless families reported their benefits had been stopped or reduced because of paperwork problems, and 50 percent said their benefit checks had arrived late, according to the study.
Kate Jesberg, acting director of the city's welfare program, sharply disputed the report's findings, calling it "inaccurate, misleading and displaying a terrific unfamiliarity with the services delivered to the homeless in the District."
Jesberg said the report, for example, criticizes welfare workers for not helping homeless recipients find jobs, when in fact that responsibility now lies with outside vendors who have contracts with the Department of Human Services. Jesberg also said the city provides child-care services for nearly 14,000 children.
Three years ago, the federal government replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, marking the end of welfare as an entitlement and the creation of welfare as a temporary block grant program.
In the District, as in many states, this program not only has time limits but strict conditions for receiving benefits: Recipients must work for at least 30 hours a week after the first two years of receiving support from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and they are only eligible to receive the benefits for a lifetime limit of five years. More than two years already have passed since the clock started ticking in the District.
"Homeless parents and their children often lose out on both benefits and work opportunities--because of their homelessness," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, she said, "is often a prescription for further destitution."
Advocates for the homeless say that homeless families can't stay in contact with prospective employers because they don't have phones. The study found that several D.C. shelters do not allow phones in families' rooms and that homeless families must compete with others to use pay phones.
Shelter curfews also are a barrier to employment for the homeless because they keep people from taking night jobs, the report said.
But Rick Lyles, of the city's Family Services Administration, said that shelters will bend curfews for people with night jobs.
The study recommended that the District's welfare program provide on-site child care to families in shelters, provide transportation assistance to help homeless families find employment, coordinate with local shelters to ensure that paperwork is not lost when families move into or out of the shelters, and establish a voice-mail system to help potential employers reach members of homeless families.
Phyllis Campbell-Newsome, the director of community relations and advocacy for the Washington Council of Agencies, said that Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has done little to improve conditions for the homeless since he took office in January. She also criticized the lack of funding and attention given to the homeless by the D.C. Council and the presidentially appointed D.C. financial control board.
"We've just heard a bunch of rhetoric," she said.
Williams said in a statement that he was saddened by the report, and noted that the city's budget for next year includes $13 million to expand child-care services.