Three constituents who were at the vote hold signs urging the councilmembers to vote no.
credit: Bethany Tuel

The D.C. Council voted 10-2 on Dec. 5 in favor of passing the Homeless Services Reform Act (HSRA) Amendment of 2017. The bill, which has changed significantly since it was introduced in May, awaits the mayor’s signature and, like all D.C. legislation, will be reviewed by Congress.

Several new amendments were introduced to the bill during the legislative meeting that preceded the vote.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, introduced an amendment that clarified language in the bill to ensure that all beds being utilized for medical respite are exempt from the appeals process for residents who are moved out of those beds. Judgment of the medical professional who oversees such beds is final. It also clarified that shelter providers are required to consult with a licensed medical professional before taking a non-medical adverse action against a client. The amendment further ensures that there will be no limitations on the types of documentation the Department of Human Services can accept as potential proof of residency for people applying for assistance, on a case-by-case basis.

Nadeau introduced a second amendment that stipulates that clients being removed from a time-limited housing program have the right to appeal their removal if they did not receive adequate case management support while in the program. Both of Nadeau’s amendments passed unanimously.

At-Large Councilmember Robert White, Jr. introduced an amendment to alter a clause that allows for the redetermination of a person’s eligibility for a program if they are absent from the program for more than four days. The amendment clarifies that only absences without good cause should trigger a redetermination of eligibility and that the administration would be called upon to provide a standard for “good cause” that would be applied to every case. The amendment passed unanimously.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen co-introduced an amendment providing that people who are hospitalized or involuntarily detained for psychiatric treatment for more than four days have the right to appeal any written notice of termination or transfer if their eligibility was redetermined while they were hospitalized. The amendment proposed that the timeline for which a client may make an appeal starts from the time the client is released from the facility in which they were being treated.

Cheh and Allen introduced another amendment that eased eligibility for services such as permanent supportive housing that target “chronically homeless” individuals. The amendment removed an exclusion in the bill that prohibited people who otherwise meet the criteria for chronic homelessness but have been residing in an institution — such as jail — for 180 days or more. Both amendments passed unanimously.

Robert White also introduced an amendment to clarify language stating that a family or individual who is applying for assistance and whose name is on a lease or occupancy agreement must provide credible evidence that it is impossible to return to that housing. The amended language reflects that an individual or family in this situation would have to provide credible evidence that the housing with which their name is associated is unsafe to return to, rather than impossible. The committee deliberately removed this language from the bill during an Oct. 18 markup session, but the language was added back as an amendment introduced by Chairman Mendelson toward the end of the first vote on Nov. 7. Robert White’s amendment to again remove the language passed unanimously.

Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Sr. acknowledged that a number of organizations and residents had voiced opposition to the HSRA bill before re-introducing an amendment that he had put forth during the first vote on the HSRA bill. He noted that it had previously failed by one vote and many of his peers had said they could not support the amendment at that time because it lacked a fiscal impact statement, which he now provided. The amendment would extend the time limit on rent subsidies for the rapid rehousing program from 12 months to 18 months and require that recipients be assessed by the Department of Human Services before a landlord that had been receiving the DHS subsidy could evict them. “So you can’t just put them out without assessing them,” Trayon White said. The family would be assessed on three criteria: the quality of case management they had received, their ability to maintain permanent housing without further assistance, and whether they had been evaluated for other permanent housing options. If the provider concluded at the end of the assessment that the family was not prepared to exit, then the family would be offered six more months in the program.

Trayon White’s amendment was immediately opposed by Nadeau, who noted that the rapid rehousing extension would cost $8.9 million over the four-year financial plan. “8.9 million dollars could fund hundreds of units of targeted affordable and permanent supportive housing, which I think we can all agree is a much more sustainable intervention for folks experiencing homelessness,” Nadeau said. “In fact, this committee—the Human Services Committee—invested almost this much in permanent supportive housing and targeted affordable housing in the current budget. If I had another 8.9 million dollars, I’d much rather spend it on those interventions than giving people six more months in rapid rehousing when they may not be successful there.”

At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman supported the amendment and added that she would support the bill as a whole. “I know this is disappointing to some of the legal aid advocates and others. They are doing their job representing their clients, and I appreciate their vigorous advocacy. They have done a good job highlighting the pitfalls of this bill, and I do think they have made it better,” Silverman said.

“I don’t quite understand Councilmember Nadeau’s point here,” Silverman continued, “because what rapid rehousing is, is a subsidy for housing, so, if we spend it in rapid rehousing or somewhere else, we’re still going to spend the money to get them into permanent housing. I think Councilmember White’s amendment is not ideal, like the bill itself, but it acknowledges that most families exiting the shelter system through rapid rehousing need more time.”

Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray voiced support for the rapid rehousing amendment. He saw it as a relatively small investment with a plan for assessment-driven implementation.

Chairman Mendelson joined Nadeau in opposing the rapid rehousing amendment. He read the beginning of a sentence from what Trayon White had put forward. “‘…A family shall be entitled’ — so this is creating an entitlement,” Mendelson said. “The cost reflects that this is adding a burden to the homeless system.”

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso supported Trayon White’s amendment. “One of my biggest frustrations with this debate has been this constant claim that we don’t have enough money to provide services to the people that need the services. And this is an example where this entitlement, if that’s what we are creating, although that’s an inflammatory word, is worth it, and we should spend the money to make sure that people have the time to get to the kind of permanent housing that they need in order to make it in our city.” He added, “[We need to] recognize that we are a city that has lots and lots of money and savings, we invest in tax cuts, we invest in subsidized parking, and the fact of the matter is, at some point I think we all have to just take a deep breath and draw a line and say the money that we’re making through revitalization in the District of Columbia needs to be invested differently, and we need to invest it in the people.”

Grosso had previously criticized a large expenditure for parking, calling it a poor use of government funds. Earlier in the legislative meeting, the D.C. Council had passed an unrelated measure to give $82.4 million to developers for infrastructure improvements in the Union Market district of Northeast, $36 million of which was earmarked for parking. Silverman was the only councilmember to vote against that investment, saying that she supported the money for infrastructure but opposed such high spending on parking, an amount that several government agencies have deemed excessive.

The rapid rehousing amendment, which had a tied vote of 6-6, failed. Silverman, Robert White, Trayon White, Gray, Grosso, and McDuffie voted in favor of it. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd was absent.

Before the full HSRA bill was voted on, Grosso voiced his opposition to the bill. “I believe that we’re making a mistake here. I believe that we have an obligation as elected officials to stand up for the people that most need us to stand up for them,” Grosso said. “That means that we should be investing in homeless services to the furthest extent possible. And so, for that reason, Mr. Chairman, I cannot support this legislation.”

Robert White said he would support the bill but wanted to clarify why. He said that when the the HSRA Amendment Act of 2017 was originally introduced, it seemed as if the government’s approach to fixing the homelessness system would be simply to serve fewer people and spend less on services.

“The bill as it is today is not the bill I would have drafted,” White said, asking his colleagues to take more time to consider the proposals brought forward that day and to imagine what else might be done before the law is finalized. “I wish we could have done more on rapid rehousing and made access to shelter easier. I wish we could have had a more robust conversation about how we might get creative and do more with more. It is still clear, though, that this bill is far better than it was when it was introduced. It is better than it was when we marked it up, and it is better today than it was two weeks ago.”
The bill passed with Grosso and Trayon White voting no and Todd absent.

Many advocates and residents expressed disappointment in the bill as it was passed. “They’ve created an unworkable standard for families to get into shelter, and I think there will be consequences to that,” said Amber Harding, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and one of the bill’s most vocal critics. “It’s shortsighted. There were a lot of things that aren’t mutually exclusive that were presented as joined. The idea that we could take the 8.9 million dollars in rapid rehousing and we could spend it on permanent housing instead — I don’t see them doing that. This was their opportunity to fix the program, and they didn’t.”

A homeless man who attended the vote and asked to remain anonymous added, “It’s like they’ve made this bill, fixed it up a bit, and said it’s good enough. And I think it’s a sad standard to have, that a legislation is ‘good enough,’ instead of working to improve it and waiting to vote later on it.”