A picture of a poster in front of Casa Ruby office of LGBTQ youth housing service
Inside Casa Ruby, one of the services cut. Photo by Olivia Zhang.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration is pulling back funding from local nonprofits that serve residents experiencing homelessness, DCist/WAMU has learned. The funding cuts could force some of the affected nonprofits to shrink their programs, from day centers to street outreach, lay off or stop hiring staff, and pare down on supplies that support their work.

The cuts haven’t been finalized yet, so their full scope is unknown. But according to several nonprofit directors and emails obtained by DCist/WAMU, they’re expected to amount to tens of thousands of dollars per organization.

It’s unclear just how many organizations are facing the funding reductions. But DCist/WAMU is aware of six organizations that D.C.’s Department of Human Services has targeted for grant cuts; only half were willing to speak on the record. All six focus on youth up to 25-years-old experiencing homelessness, with some specializing in LGBTQ and female youth.

These budget reductions, the directors say, will hinder the organizations’ abilities to provide shelter, transitional housing, counseling, and other assistance to some of the city’s most vulnerable people, including youth — all while the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage across the D.C. area, ailing residents economically and driving up the need for social services.

Some of the directors who spoke for this story say this is the first time D.C. is cutting off previously approved grant funding for their organizations. The District is facing a budget shortfall of more than $200 million in the current fiscal year due to lower than anticipated revenues. Meanwhile, Congress has yet to pass another coronavirus relief package that might include funding for local governments. (Under its home rule charter, D.C. must have a balanced budget and legally can’t spend more than it projects bringing in.)

The news comes as local nonprofits struggle to fundraise in a year when many donors are decreasing or forgoing charitable giving and as the District’s finances are sapped by the pandemic. It’s the latter challenge that a staffer at the human services department cited in a recent email announcing the cuts to the affected nonprofits, although the agency has framed them as cost “savings.”

“As you all may know or have heard, the city is facing intense budget pressures,” the email says. “As a result DHS, along with other government agencies, is being asked to identify areas of savings.”

A subsequent email from this employee, who works in DHS’ family services administration, says the department is asking each organization to find 5-10% in “savings” from their overall DHS grants for the current fiscal year, which began in October. The employee also said DHS hoped to minimize the impact of these cuts on the nonprofits’ clients, and that a nonprofit could draw the cuts from however many grants it chose, if it receives more than one grant from the agency.

Some of the groups say they were surprised when DHS contacted them in mid-November to request meetings to discuss their budgets. At those meetings, which were held virtually, nonprofit directors say they were told they had until December to identify expenditures to cut. In one case, a nonprofit learned their entire grant for street outreach services would be terminated at the end of 2020, even though their contract with the city had earlier been renewed.

“D.C.’s most vulnerable youth have experienced immense trauma, and they need consistency and support,” says Natasha Guynes, who heads HER Resiliency Center, the nonprofit whose $175,000 contract for street outreach to young women was terminated by DHS. “It’s so arbitrary how they’re making the cuts. They’re not using standardized measures to make these decisions.”

In other cases, DHS’ youth services division has proposed grant reductions for specific programs. For SMYAL, an organization that serves LGBTQ youth experiencing homelessness, DHS recommended 5% cuts to two transitional housing grants, which would equal more than $50,000. The money supports 26 beds for youth across two sites by helping to cover rent and other overhead costs.

Sultan Shakir, the director of SMYAL, says his team was “incredibly shocked” when they first heard about the funding cuts. Many of the young people his nonprofit serves, he notes, already have a hard time getting jobs because of housing instability and systemic barriers against queer and trans people.

“There’s no way to cut 5-10% out of a program during a pandemic and not have it negatively impact the level of service that you’re able to provide,” says Shakir.

More than 500,000 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the region, and cases are mounting in the District. The city is bracing for a tough winter, with public health experts saying the spread of the virus could be exacerbated by more people spending time indoors and traveling for the holidays.

People who lack stable housing and are forced to stay in congregate settings like shelters or couch-surf between places are especially at risk of contracting COVID-19. And the most promising coronavirus vaccines are still months away from being widely available to the general public.

D.C. counted 485 youth ages 18 to 24 as homeless in its annual homeless census this year. The total was essentially flat relative to 2019, but up relative to each of the three previous years. (In 2016, 201 youth were recorded as homeless.) Young people experiencing homelessness are notoriously hard to count because of different definitions and methods for determining who is “homeless,” which results in data discrepancies: Last year, the separate D.C. homeless youth census found 1,328 such youth.

The number of unhoused people in the U.S. is expected to increase significantly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A report by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found there could be as much as a 40% spike in homelessness nationwide in 2020, based on unemployment forecasts.

“It would be hard to imagine a scenario that we won’t see an increase in homelessness,” the head of D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness told the Washington Post when the report came out in June.

This prediction worries Ruby Corado, who founded and directs Casa Ruby, a nonprofit dedicated to LGBTQ youth that is also being affected by DHS’ grant cuts. Corado says the agency has asked her nonprofit to reduce its grant budget by about $83,000, which could lead to reductions in staffing and daytime services.

“The decision to reduce already thin budgets [that] help keep people alive in this city is out of touch with reality,” she tells DCist/WAMU. “Across this country, we have already seen during COVID an increased amount of people entering the shelter system, and next year we are expecting more people to enter the homeless system.”

Corado points to ongoing renovations at downtown’s Franklin Square as a project the city could pause in order to redirect money to more essential services for people experiencing homelessness. The $13 million project has displaced homeless people from the park while the renovations are completed.

“I want the city to seriously reconsider this, because there are programs who can’t afford to lose this money,” Corado says of the funding reductions. “This is saying to homeless people, people in need, many of whom have been hurt by the system, ‘now we’re going for you.’”

In an interview on Dec. 8, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the D.C. Council’s human services committee, said she hadn’t heard from DHS about the grant cuts but learned of them from a nonprofit that reached out to her office. She says she’s concerned about their potential impact on service providers and clients, and will push back against any proposed cuts to the agencies in her purview.

“I don’t think the human services cluster, and specifically the Department of Human Services, is where we should be making cuts right now,” Nadeau says. “We’re talking about the most vulnerable residents who are already at greatest risk from COVID.”

Mayor Bowser is expected to send the council what’s known as a “supplemental budget” in the next few months, given the likelihood that D.C.’s projected revenues for this fiscal year (fiscal year 2021) will continue to shift because of the pandemic. That budget will probably contain significant cuts to city agency budgets, but the council will have the chance to review it and make changes.

In a statement issued after this story was originally published, Laura Zeilinger, the director of DHS, said her agency expects that a future supplemental budget will “address District-wide reductions as the continued operation of DHS programs is not possible without the dedication and support of our community partners, nonprofits and businesses in the District.” The statement doesn’t specify how many nonprofits are facing grant cuts, how the 5-10% target was set, or the amount of money DHS hopes to save by reducing grant funding.

“I’m interested in raising revenue again,” says Nadeau, who voted in favor of a failed amendment to raise marginal taxes on high-income earners in July. “I think it’s time to ask those who are doing OK and have more to contribute more.” (The amendment failed 8-5, but a similar proposal could pass in 2021 owing to new, more progressive lawmakers set to join the council in January.)

Kim Perry, the director of D.C. Action for Children, an organization focused on the needs of District youth, also says she supports increasing taxes for D.C.’s wealthiest residents. While her organization won’t be directly affected by DHS’ grant reductions, it belongs to a coalition of local groups that aim to reduce youth homelessness.

She questions why the Bowser administration has dipped into the city’s reserves to fund a new $100 million program offering aid to local businesses but hasn’t made a comparable move to maintain the funding for community-based nonprofits serving homeless people.

“Businesses are important, of course — many of the workers are parents and D.C. residents — and nobody could question that our local businesses need support right now,” says Perry. “But there has to be a way to do both. There has to be a way to take care of our most vulnerable residents, like our kids and our homeless families. It can’t be one or the other.”

This story was first published by DCist on Dec. 9 and updated with comment from DHS. Reporting about the community letter responding to the situation added by Street Sense Media.