I agree with the fundamental premise of The Post's May 23 editorial "Rewriting the D.C. Homeless Law," which concerned revisions to Initiative 17, a measure ensuring overnight shelter to the homeless. I also agree that the initiative is vague, loosely written and, at least as implemented, treasury-busting.
However, with the appropriate legislative changes, we can meet the fundamental objective of the initiative: to guarantee overnight shelter to the District of Columbia's authentically homeless population without breaking the city's treasury.
A great deal of the concern with Initiative 17 has been what has been perceived as its costs. To understand what is driving those costs, one must distinguish between basic "overnight shelter" -- a dry, warm place to sleep -- and "related services," which include services such as mental health counseling, substance abuse counseling, job counseling, etc. While Initiative 17 spoke of "overnight shelter," its implementation has included a number of related services. Inclusion of these related services has drastically increased the costs.
The other factor pushing up costs is the granting of lucrative contracts. At a recent hearing, it was revealed that the city has a contract with one for-profit contractor for $1.2 million per year to provide services to 37 families. That averages out to $32,432 per family. It has been said that this contractor has received more than $14 million for city contracts over the past years for various purposes.
Any legislation that the D.C. Council enacts should define who is authentic in his claim of being homeless and must go beyond simply ascertaining whether the claimant came here from elsewhere for the purpose of getting shelter. The bill presented by council member H. R. Crawford suggests several good provisions to effect this definition.
I suggest that Initiative 17 be amended to clearly limit its guarantee to overnight shelter to those who are authentically homeless and then to provide for related social services only to the extent that the budget permits. I believe that this will meet the concerns of the citizens who voted for Initiative 17 and will cut the costs as well.
Also, funds should be budgeted and monitored separately for overnight shelter and for related services to ascertain the expenses in each area. This approach would eliminate confusion over the expenses for basic overnight shelter and expenses for the more costly related services.
To simply continue to try to provide both overnight shelter and related services through a number of fat contracts and then stop everything when the funds are spent would result in the homeless being dumped onto the streets and into the neighborhoods of the city. Assuming that a definition can be fashioned to identify those who are homeless D.C. citizens, whatever their number, they will presumably go to the streets and neighborhoods when ejected from the programs. For families, this would mean that the parents will be on the streets and the children will be put into the already overburdened foster-care system.
I do not believe that this is the goal of the citizens who are critical about Initiative 17. They are humane, and they do not want all the homeless on their streets and in their neighborhoods.
In summary, many would agree that it would be better to ensure the basic level of shelter and protect the public treasury by limiting the contracts for the related social services.
-- David Clarke is chairman of the D.C. Council.