Rally To Increase Minimum Wage and Expand Paid Sick Days!

On October 28th, the DC Council’s Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs held an eleven hour hearing on raising DC’s minimum wage and expanding the District’s paid sick days law. The Legal Clinic testified in strong support of these measures at last week’s hearing and you can read our testimony below.

Tomorrow at 9:00am, DC workers and advocates will hold a rally at Freedom Plaza to voice support for the passage of legislation that would strengthen DC’s paid sick leave law and raise the minimum wage. Workers will also read testimony they were unable to deliver at the hearing on October 28th. We hope to see you tomorrow morning!

Testimony delivered by Max Tipping, Legal Clinic law intern at hearing on October 28th (You can also watch Max testify by clicking here and going to the 8:30 mark) :

I am here to voice the Legal Clinic’s strong support for raising the District’s minimum wage and ensuring paid sick leave for all District workers. More specifically, the Legal Clinic supports raising the minimum wage to $12.50, tying it to inflation, raising the tipped minimum wage, and mandating paid sick leave in accordance with the Earned Sick and Safe Leave Act of 2013. These measures will not only help to prevent and end homelessness, but will also dramatically reduce the need for DC-funded safety net services.

Please allow me to begin with the story of one of the Legal Clinic’s clients. This client worked her entire life, right up until she got sick. Her symptoms would come in unpredictable spurts and leave her temporarily incapacitated. Since she lacked adequate sick leave she was let go from her job. Eventually, she fell behind on her rent, lost her housing, and was forced to turn to the District government to keep herself and her daughter off the street. She received some housing assistance and was put up in a hotel for several months at substantial cost to the government. This scenario, which is not uncommon among clients of the Legal Clinic, may have been avoided entirely if she had been provided with adequate sick leave at the outset. This client did not want to rely on the District to support herself and her daughter; she preferred to work as she had her entire life. Her story shows the twin benefits of the measures currently before the Council: helping people provide for themselves while simultaneously reducing the burden on DC taxpayers.

Now I would like to move to a more concrete discussion of the benefits of these bills. As you know, rents in the District have skyrocketed over the past decade, resulting in the loss of half of the District’s low cost rental units.[1] Over the same time period, the incomes of the poorest 40% of DC households have stagnated.[2] Taken together, these factors are the root causes of the District’s current affordable housing crisis. DC’s paucity of affordable housing has in turn driven enormous increases in homelessness, particularly for families. On a single night in January of this year, there were nearly 1000 homeless families with children in shelter, an increase of almost 40% since 2009.[3] Solving homelessness begins with solving the affordable housing crisis, and the affordable housing crisis can be addressed in two ways: increasing the supply of affordable housing and increasing income.  As the Gray Administration pointed out in its Housing Strategy Concept Paper that kicked off the reinvigoration of the Comprehensive Housing Strategy Task Force: “By combining affordable housing production with linkages to support services necessary to increase the opportunity for non-wage earners or lower income workers to obtain good paying jobs, there will be more equilibrium between the supply and demand for affordable housing.”[4]

To provide some perspective on just how difficult it is to afford housing here, a single parent in the District would need to work nearly 19 hours each and every day of the year at the current minimum wage to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent of $1,412 per month.[5] That leaves just five hours a day to eat, sleep, see your children, get your children to school, and get yourself to work. If that single parent worked a standard 40 hour week at the current minimum wage, their rent would claim fully 99% of their income. Even a two-parent household would need each parent to work nearly 10 hours a day, every single day of the year, to afford housing. In contrast, if the minimum wage was increased to $12.50, two minimum-wage earners would be able to afford housing by each working about 43 hours per week.

Besides helping to prevent homelessness by allowing people to afford their current housing, raising the minimum wage will also help people who are currently homeless regain their housing. Contrary to common perception, a substantial number of people experiencing homelessness are also employed. For example, as of last January, 20% of single homeless individuals were employed, as were 25% of all homeless adults with children.[6] Given that the family shelter at DC General is consistently full to capacity, this is a point worth emphasizing: these measures would be able to significantly improve the situations of fully a quarter of all homeless families. Indeed, there are few pieces of legislation that come before this council that could have such a dramatic positive impact on such a substantial number of people experiencing homelessness.

In addition to benefiting District workers, these measures will allow the District government to either save money on safety net services or enable it to serve a greater number of DC residents in need. A worker receiving the current minimum wage is still forced to substantially rely on direct financial benefits like TANF and housing benefits like the local rent supplement program. However, a family with one or two living-wage earners could significantly reduce its reliance on public benefits programs, and depending on the size of the family, could move off of public benefits entirely. A living wage would also result in the District’s affordable housing programs being able to pay significantly lower subsidies, thereby helping to make affordable housing available to more DC residents.

To conclude, the Legal Clinic strongly supports raising the minimum wage and mandating paid sick leave for District workers. While none of the measures discussed here will end homelessness tomorrow, they do present a unique opportunity to relieve the structural pressures that drive people into homelessness, and to help individuals and families that are currently homeless literally earn their way out of shelters and back into housing.

[1] DC Fiscal Policy Institute, Disappearing Act: Affordable Housing in DC is Vanishing Amid Sharply Rising Housing Costs at 3, 4 (May 7, 2012).

[2] Id.

[3]Metro Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington: The 2013 Point-in-Time Count at 8 (May 2013).

[5] National Low Income Housing Coalition, Out of Reach 2013: America’s Forgotten Housing Crisis at 43 (March 2013).

[6] Metro Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington: The 2013 Point-in-Time Count at 11 (May 2013).

Posted in Clients, DC Budget, DC Policies and Plans, Homelessness, Poverty, Take Action, Wealth Gap | Leave a comment

Food Stamp Cuts Go Into Effect

As of today, DC households that rely on food stamps will experience a decrease in their monthly benefit amount as a result of a change in federal law.

The Food Stamp program, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is the largest federal nutrition program and serves millions of Americans annually. The cuts that go into effect today will impact all households that rely on food stamps, and as reported by the Washington Post, in DC alone the cuts will affect more than 144,000 people, or nearly 1 in 4 District residents.

The amount of the decrease will vary depending on household size, income, and expenses, but it will be significant for those who rely on the benefit as their only protection against hunger.

Many of the Legal Clinic’s clients rely on food stamps to feed their families and struggle to do so even without the cuts. DC has the third highest poverty rate in the nation; the number of residents receiving food stamps has increased by more than half since since 2006.[1] As we’ve highlighted on this blog before, low wages and the high cost of living in the District contribute to residents’ reliance on food stamps. The cuts to SNAP benefits threaten all households and will likely lead to increased numbers of children going hungry in the District. For more information about the impact of the SNAP cuts on DC households, visit dcfoodstampinfo.org.

Because SNAP households will not receive individual notices about the cuts, it’s important for all of us who work with low and no-income DC residents to help spread the word. Here are some action steps recommended by DC Hunger Solutions on how you can get the word out on the SNAP cuts:

  1. This video explains the changes to SNAP and provides food and nutrition resources. Embed the video on your website, share it with SNAP families (e.g., play it in your waiting rooms, educational programs, etc.).
  2. Distribute the “What You Need to Know” flyer – English (pdf) and Spanish (pdf) – to SNAP families. This flyer includes information on the cuts and resources for families.
  3. Distribute the Questions and Answers flyer (pdf) to staff, volunteers, or interested SNAP families. This document provides more in-depth information on the end of the stimulus boost in SNAP benefits.
  4. Review the Deductions Checklist flyer (pdf) to learn about allowable deductions that SNAP families can take to potentially increase benefit levels.
  5. Contact D.C Hunger Solutions at 202-986-2200 or info@dchunger.org if you have any questions.
Posted in Benefits, Clients, Poverty, Wealth Gap | Leave a comment

One of the Best…

The Legal Clinic is honored to announce our inclusion in the 2013-2014 Catalogue for Philanthropy as one of Greater Washington’s best community-based charities. We were selected to be refeatured in the 11th annual Catalogue, which has, since 2003, raised more than $21 million for featured nonprofits. The Catalogue’s vetting process is rigorous: members of a 120-person review team, made up of foundations, corporations, peer nonprofits and the philanthropic advisory community, evaluate charities on the basis of program impact and fiscal soundness and each featured charity is visited on-site by at least one member of the review team.

Having the Catalogue’s endorsement is vital to the Legal Clinic. We receive no public funding, in order to ensure our freedom to advocate aggressively on our clients’ behalf. We must rely then upon the generosity of community members, foundations, law firms and corporations who share our vision of a more just DC. The Catalogue for Philanthropy helps us to tell our story to a broader audience than we might otherwise reach.

Catalogue President Barbara Harman has noted that “the Washington, DC region ranks third in wealth disparity in the nation – having one of the most affluent (and well-educated) populations in the country, and also one of the poorest. We are in a unique position to help our neighbors by connecting donors and volunteers to worthy, local nonprofits working to strengthen the D.C. region. The Catalogue makes it easy to learn about community needs and to help meet them.”

You can find our listing here and request a Catalogue here. As always, many thanks for your partnership and support!


Posted in Events, Homelessness, Housing, Law | Leave a comment

Major Concerns With Winter Plan for Shelter

The following is testimony delivered by Scott McNeilly at today’s Winter Plan Roundtable. In addition to being a Legal Clinic staff attorney, Scott is also a member of the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) and a member of the ICH’s Operations and Logistics Committee and Capacity Subcommittee, both of which were involved in developing the Winter Plan.  

Our Winter Plan process has continued to evolve and this year’s Plan contains some significant improvements in the way alerts are called and communicated, as well as some additional resources to address significant needs. Because this is an oversight hearing, I wanted to highlight some of the concerns that were discussed during the development of the Plan and some of the areas that we’ll need to monitor closely during the course of the season.

For the past few years, the ICH Capacity Subcommittee has been responsible for developing the number of beds or placements needed for the Winter Plan. For the past couple of years, the Capacity Subcommittee has been concerned about a shortage of beds for women on non-hypothermia nights. We’ve been quite accurate in identifying and providing enough beds for women on peak usage hypothermia nights but we’ve consistently had turnaways on non-hypothermia nights when it can still be dangerous to sleep outside. Although it’s not reflected in the current version of the Winter Plan, the 10 alert-night beds at the Open Door shelter will be converted to seasonal beds on November 1st, which should be enough to meet the need.

For single men, there are two primary concerns. First, last winter the Sacred Heart and St. Luke’s shelters were regularly over their stated capacities, often by significant margins. The understanding of the Committee is that this reflects, at least in part, an unwillingness of some men to leave the Northwest area and travel all the way across town for overnight shelter. The Committee and the Community Partnership tried unsuccessfully to identify an additional site in Northwest to relieve this stress on those facilities. We’ll need to carefully monitor the usage of these two facilities to ensure they aren’t becoming dangerously overcrowded.

Second, one of the church sites for men identified in the version of the Plan voted on by the ICH has since fallen through, which has resulted in a loss of 25 beds. This means that the first identified overflow site, Kennedy Recreation Center, will be converted from overflow to an alert-night facility. However, the capacity stated in the Plan for Kennedy is incorrect and is in fact 25 not 40. Therefore, we are 45 beds short of the total beds the Capacity Subcommittee determined we would need to meet the anticipated peak demand this winter. Last winter, for the first time in many years, the demand for beds by men exceeded the number identified in the Winter Plan. Given the turnaway data the Capacity Subcommittee has tracked through the summer, the demand this winter is likely to be comparable to last winter. It’s essential that the District identify the additional overflow capacity for men before the anticipated peak usage in January. Another cause for concern is our increased reliance on District recreation centers which are usually unavailable until 9 p.m.

You’ll hear from a number of people today about the concerns and issues related to serving families. This year, the Capacity Subcommittee and the Operations and Logistics Committee decided to focus on the anticipated need for family placements through the course of the hypothermia season, without specifying how those placements would be made. This reflects an acknowledgement that past projections of placements through the various anticipated housing resources have consistently been inaccurate – we’ve never placed as many families as past Winter Plans have promised. Rather than furthering our preparation, including these unrealistic housing goals in the Winter Plan has distracted from focusing on the real anticipated need. This also reflects the unfortunate reality that, due to the ongoing family shelter crisis, we will have to rely extensively on motels again this year.

There are major concerns this winter for families – the possibility that we may run out of motel rooms. Last winter, 421 “Priority 1” families were placed in shelter between November and March, an average of 84 per month. The Capacity Subcommittee could identify nothing that would indicate that this winter will be better. Over the past five months, the District has managed to exit an average of just 22 families per month to transitional or permanent housing. If those numbers hold, we may be adding approximately sixty families per month to the system. The Department of Human Services has indicated that the maximum number of available motel rooms may be between 225 and 250. We’re starting the season with approximately 20 families in motels who were placed last year and some unknown number placed by the Child and Family Services Administration. If we place sixty families per month in motels, we may exhaust the existing supply by sometime in February.  As far as I know, there is no plan in place for that possibility but it might require the District to procure motel space outside of the District with all of the logistical challenges that would entail.

It is also important to note that because of the District’s ongoing affordable housing crisis and the disproportionate impact that crisis is having on families, DC has essentially no emergency shelter response for families in need outside of hypothermia. We need a Spring, Summer, and Fall Plan that can keep pace with the need.

Finally, you are probably aware that the Interagency Council on Homelessness rejected the draft Winter Plan’s language addressing unaccompanied minor children. I was among those voting “no” on that language and my primary reason was that the proposed language did not answer basic questions about whom someone concerned about a minor should call and who is responsible for responding to that call. I understand that there are a variety of complicated assessment and referral issues involved with unaccompanied minors but the Winter Plan should be able to describe in simple terms the plan for preventing a youth from freezing to death during an alert.

The Winter Plan should be able to answer the question: if someone comes across a youth in a doorway at 1 a.m. on a freezing night, what happens? Who does what to make sure that child doesn’t freeze in that doorway?  DHS has focused on the various assessments and interventions that may need to occur the next day or later but we don’t have a clear answer to what happens that night. Although I think the law is clear that the child must be sheltered by the District during the alert, the law can’t be that we leave the child in the doorway, so what happens?  That and nothing more is what we need to answer for the Winter Plan.

Posted in Clients, DC Policies and Plans, Housing, Hypothermia, Law, Shelter, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Winter Plan Roundtable: Rough Season Ahead for Families and Youth

Today, Councilmember Jim Graham, Chair of the Committee on Human Services, is holding a public oversight roundtable on “The Winter Plan: Protecting the Lives of Homeless People in the Winter of 2013-2014.” You can tune in to the roundtable here

Amber Harding and Scott McNeilly of the Legal Clinic testified before the Committee earlier this morning. The following is testimony delivered by Amber Harding and we will post Scott McNeilly’s testimony later today.

On January 7th 2013, a hypothermia alert was called at about 3PM. About an hour later, a seven month pregnant 23 year old woman completed her interview for family shelter at the Family Resource Center. The intake worker noted that she was seven months pregnant (and therefore qualified as a “family” under the HSRA), that she had slept on the corner of 7th and H Street NE the night before and had nowhere safe to sleep that night, and that she needed emergency housing assistance that day. She received a housing stability score of “0.”

I met this woman, now with an infant daughter, nine months later. She was not placed in shelter that night or any other night last winter when she had nowhere to go. She was given no lawful notice, nor any reason for the refusal to place her. A simple paper review of this file would have turned up this wrongful denial.

When I raised this case to the attention of DHS and the Community Partnership, they agreed to place her immediately. This family, like the other families we highlighted in our report last winter, was wrongfully denied on a night where she could have developed hypothermia, or even died, sleeping outside. Like the other families we represented last year, who comprised 20% of the placements during hypothermia, she was only placed when a lawyer got involved.

When I reviewed this client’s file, I felt anger and frustration, even sadness, but not surprise. All last winter we expressed concern that the cases we were seeing indicated a much more widespread problem. Because DHS and the Partnership almost always agreed with our assessments of cases when we brought wrongful denials to their attention, we assumed that the problem lay with the contractor, and so we tried to work collaboratively and constructively on a solution. We drafted policies and protocols we thought would be helpful at increasing compliance. We released our mid-season report detailing many of the legal violations we had seen so far and giving concrete recommendations for preventing further violations. But, as far we can tell, none of our recommendations was adopted.

When this Committee held an oversight hearing at DC General last winter, what was striking was that almost every family who was questioned about their experience prior to entering DC General revealed that they had spent multiple cold nights outside, despite pleading their case with the Family Resource Center, before they were finally placed in shelter. With past as prologue and with no sign of major reform to interrupt these patterns, we are heading into a rough winter season for families. We have tried to work in partnership with the government and its contractors, but our obligation to our clients is to pursue the most effective strategies, not necessarily the most collaborative ones, particularly when our clients are trying to access basic lifesaving services to which they are legally entitled.

As we’ve testified about repeatedly over the last few years, we have seen DC slowly whittle away at the right to shelter. First, the policy baseline that families should have access to emergency shelter year-round was dropped to the legal baseline of access only on freezing nights. Then, the Council scaled back the right to access shelter even on those nights by creating several new eligibility hurdles that are only (and discriminatorily) applied to families.

Now, this Administration is attempting to chip away the right to shelter even more by reading the Homeless Services Reform Act as excluding unaccompanied youth under the age of 18 from its protections. We find this interpretation of the law not only legally unsustainable, but also deeply concerning for what it foretells about the response to homeless youth this winter. For every other population represented in the Winter Plan, the understanding is that the plan represents the floor of what will be done to ensure access: if more space must be found because the need is greater than anticipated, then more space will be found. But if the Administration believes that youth are not legally entitled to shelter on freezing nights, will they provide the space needed to ensure that every youth has a safe place to go this winter, even if it ends up being more space than the Winter Plan contemplates?

We agree that comprehensive plans must be developed to better serve all who are homeless. But in the meantime the District must make sure that it meets the very basic goals outlined in the Mayor’s Order 2001-161, dated October 31, 2001 (Purpose):

… to identify vulnerable homeless people living in exposed, unprotected areas and provide immediate access to shelter and services… to save lives and prevent serious injury that can be caused by extended exposure to severe winter weather conditions.

DC residents should not be risking life and limb while they wait for more enriched services.


Posted in Clients, DC Policies and Plans, Homelessness, Housing, Law, Shelter | Leave a comment