March 6, 2013 at 7:39 pm EST | by Mark Lee
Graham disrespects taxpayers, the homeless

A reasonable reaction would have been “you’re kidding, right?”

Or, perhaps, “that’s outrageous!”

Even more appropriate: “We can do better than this on both performance and cost – what are successful solutions in other cities?”

What was notable, however, is that neither homeless families nor taxpayers heard any of that from D.C. Council member Jim Graham.

Instead, there was merely a reflexive response conjecturing only a “let’s spend more money doing what we’re currently doing” – without regard for whether it makes sense. It represents nothing more than the syndrome of the lazy, mistaking money for concerned commitment.

Two inescapable facts stood out last week when Graham, chair of the D.C. Council Committee on Human Services, conducted a special public oversight hearing on Thursday evening at the former D.C. General Hospital. The facility has been utilized as a city-run homeless family shelter for the past several years.

First, the city’s warehousing of homeless families at the site is an embarrassment. Shelter occupants testified regarding heating and ventilation problems, lack of hot water, infectious disease outbreaks, rodents, spider bites, a bed bug infestation and other problems. The city stopped serving lunch a while ago. Nearly 300 city employees work at the shelter.

Most astonishing, however, is the fact that D.C. is spending more than $50,000 per family per year to cram each into former patient rooms at the building. A $14 million annual cost to accommodate approximately 280 families, in a place originally designed to temporarily house only half that number.

What was Graham’s reaction? Spend even more money, of course.

He also wants to change the name of the building, to something more uplifting and positive. Whatever.

Is this what passes for “oversight” these days? It’s an insult to the homeless and taxpayers alike.

Ponder the cost. District officials could rent modern new luxury apartments in any of the city’s more expensive neighborhoods and have a pile of money left over.

In fact, it typically costs the city only $15,000 per year to support a family moved out of shelter by means of subsidized housing. A recent national survey indicates that shelter provision costs four-to-five times more than subsidies, while fostering an ongoing dependency among the homeless. The 40-percent of D.C. General occupants who return mirrors the experience of other urban areas for shelter consumers not provided housing subsidies.

Not only does D.C. spend more per capita served, District programs produce the lowest percentage reduction in chronic homelessness among 40 cities.

There is a shortage of low-cost rental housing, particularly for large families, in D.C. However, homeless families do not generally differ from the housed poor when measuring unique obstacles to housing stability.

But the bigger question is this: How can it cost the city so much to provide so little?

In an era of intensifying competition for government revenues, why is the city not redirecting current overspending from what doesn’t achieve larger objectives to that which has been successful elsewhere?

District residents shouldn’t tolerate irresponsible service delivery costs and a lack of effective strategies improving outcomes for those in need. Neither should Graham.

In the short term, better management of program costs is required. A waiting list of hundreds of additional families should compel Graham to reduce ridiculously excessive expenditures in order to provide temporary emergency shelter for a greater number of the homeless with available funds.

More than that, he and his Council colleagues should be focused on best approaches. Implementing proven practices – not prolonged pontification. It will take political will and efficacious oversight – exactly what we pay elected leaders to provide.

If this city program were a private sector endeavor, the people in charge would have been shown the door a long time ago. The status quo of a crippling service dependency mentality needs to be replaced with innovative business principles.

Following Graham’s ethics reprimand last month by his colleagues and being stripped of oversight of alcoholic beverage regulation, the Council member indicated he had a full plate of remaining responsibilities overseeing programs for the poor and needy.

It’s time he did.

Mark Lee is a local small business manager and long-time community business advocate. Reach him at

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