Mr. Fred Swan
Our Spotlight for the month of April 2013 is someone that I’ve known for a number of years. He is Mr. Fred Swan and is the Administrator of the DC Department of Human Services’ Family Services Administration. The Family Services Administration protects, intervenes and provides social services to assist our city’s vulnerable adults and families. We will talk with Mr. Swan about exactly how this is achieved and as well about what brought him to this place and time in his life’s journey. (Click on photos to enlarge them)
Destiny – Pride: Good afternoon, Mr. Swan.
Mr. Swan: Good afternoon. Glad to be here.
Destiny – Pride: I thank you for agreeing to be our Spotlight for April 2013. We have had previous conversations with the Department of Human Services Director David Berns and as well with Economic Security Administrator Deborah Carroll, and we are just delighted that you will now help our visitors to understand the role that Family Services Administration plays in lives of some of our most vulnerable population. However, before we get into what you and Family Services are doing now, it is customary that we give our visitors a glimpse of what you, Fred Swan, were doing before now. So to that end, please tell us a little about yourself. First, where and to whom were you born?
Mr. Swan: I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, which most people know of as the birthplace of basketball; it’s where the Basketball Hall of Fame is. Born and raised and spent most of my life there before coming to the metropolitan area here in Washington, DC. I am one of seven siblings and I’m sort of in the middle. I come from a family of educators, preachers, teachers, social workers, so, yeah, being in this field is not a surprise in that I come from a family that is in the helping profession, so I knew from a young age that that’s what I wanted to do.
Destiny – Pride: Okay let me break it down. Who was on the educational side?
Mr. Swan: My father worked at the University of Massachusetts doing organizational development and doing some teaching as well. My mother worked for the State Department of Education for Massachusetts. So both of my parents worked in education and very much pushed us to achieve an education.
Destiny – Pride: Where did the pastoral part come in?
Mr. Swan: My brother actually is a minister. I have several uncles that are ministers. At a much younger age I thought that I may go into it at some point. I have a number of cousins who are ministers, so I have a number of ministers in the family.
Destiny – Pride: Okay, we’re going to talk about your faith somewhat later on, but it’s very curious. I’ve known you for some time and never did I know about that level of background. You talked about your siblings and what some of them are doing. What is the breakdown of the gender? You said you’re in the middle.
Mr. Swan: It’s four boys; three girls. My oldest sister is a journalist. My brother, who’s older than me – I’m third in line – is a minister and he also does activist work. He’s a minister and an activist. And then, of course, I’m third in line. My younger sister is a social worker; she works in Child Welfare in Massachusetts. My younger brother is an educator. He works in the Hartford Connecticut Public School System in the Office of the Superintendent, but He’s been a teacher, he’s been a principal, he’s been in educator for his career. And then I have a younger brother who works in Parks and Recs; he runs a community center; mainly educational and athletic activities for the children in the community. And my younger sister is still kind of finding her way in terms of education and career goals. But that’s where we are lined up as siblings.
Destiny – Pride: It looks like it’s all in your DNA – social services.
Mr. Swan: Yes.
Destiny – Pride: What interesting tidbits can you share with us about you in your childhood – in that development as you were percolating up in the middle?
Mr. Swan: Yes, I think my childhood was interesting because, growing up in our family, we were kind of the “community house,” where we always had someone staying with us – a cousin or a relative. If family members fell on hard times, my mother would always take them in and take care of them. So we learned at a very young age that it’s about helping others. Because we saw that; we saw it a lot, particularly with our parents. And being in a large family, you see things. And when I say “large,” there are seven of us, but my father is the youngest of about 12. So we had tons of aunts and uncles and cousins. So we had a very, very large family. So you see it all. You see it all in terms of being in a large family environment. So, for me, we just saw our parents, and in particular that older generation, really doing a lot to help others. And that really just inspired us, in our own way, to do something professionally that would help others.
Destiny – Pride: Are you married?
Mr. Swan: Yes. I’m married; been married for 11 years and I have two children – one boy and one girl.
Destiny – Pride: What are their names?
Mr. Swan: My daughter, who is the oldest and who is about to be 11 in a couple of weeks, her name is Bliss. And my son, who is five – he’ll be six in June, his name is Ethan.
Destiny – Pride: Name those individuals in your life that you feel has had the greatest impact on you in your life choices.
Mr. Swan: My family. Definitely, my parents and my grandparents, I believe had the most profound impact on me. Both my parents – my mother and my father – really instilled a sense of educational achievement in all of us. And it was really interesting because on different levels, my mom worked for the State Department, and so she drove us to make sure we finished high school. That was her thing: get through regular school, get through high school. My dad, more on the secondary level with college. He pushed that. He worked for a college, he worked for a university. So he definitely pushed us to make sure “you are going to graduate and at least get your bachelor’s degree.” So there was really a strong focus on education from my parents.
And my grandparents, of course. That’s where the religious and the spiritual influence came from. But they also helped me because, although they didn’t have the formal education and training, you can see in the work they did in their community and in their churches that they were definitely helping others. So you’ve seen that spirit of caring and you’ve seen that spirit of giving. My grandparents, particularly both of my grandmothers, were a huge impact on me as well.
Destiny – Pride: That leads me to my next question. I can see where you get your empathy for the job you have chosen for your life’s path. Because you deal with some of the most disenfranchised some of the most vulnerable individuals, and you see people at their worse. I personally know that sometimes it’s a frustrating job to see. Could you explain a little of that?
Mr. Swan: It is frustrating to see people in the state that they may be in economically. It’s not just an economic thing – that’s a big part of it – but also they’re in crisis in other ways; dealing with other issues, whether it be mental illness; whether it be substance abuse or whether it be dealing with family members or friends who have some of those challenges, and how that impacts them. Particularly with those that have a combination of issues. It may be poverty, along with some of the other issues that I just spoke of. So it’s hard to see that, but having the influences that I had taught me how to understand and have empathy for it, but be able to work to help somebody try to move beyond that. Because I think if you get so absorbed in the sadness of the situation; it cripples you from being able to help. It’s a balance of being able to definitely empathize and wanting to help, but also to be able to help them pick themselves up and move forward.
Destiny – Pride: I think you hit on this. Do you subscribe to any particular faith and if so what is it, and what role has it played in your life decisions?
Mr. Swan: Currently I don’t subscribe to any particular faith. But I very much grew up in the church as most African-Americans of my generation or older did. Definitely grew up in the church; even if we didn’t want to go to church, we “had” to go to church.
Destiny – Pride: What faith is that?
Mr. Swan: Church of God in Christ. So I definitely had strong influences from that. Like I said I have a lot of preachers in my family. Actually my grandmother had a church; my uncle has a church that he pastors now along with my brother. We’ve always had a very strong influence in religion, and particularly with my grandparents. And I was very much into the church at different times of my life. I think it’s done a lot to guide me in terms of just fairness – knowing right from wrong. But I think as I’ve gotten older, it’s not so much that I don’t see myself as religious. I see myself as more spiritual than religious, as I stand right now. I still go to church periodically, but I look at it more as a spiritual thing and a spiritual journey as opposed to strictly a religious one.
Destiny – Pride: I’m not going to get into that discussion right here, but let me do this. I grew up in a very spiritual house, especially on my mama’s side, not my daddy’s side. He was the bread winner. As I got older I began to look for a clarity of this vision of who God is. I studied Islam, Confucianism and a lot of other things. Are you in that point in your journey, like with your children and what would you like of them?
Mr. Swan: I think I would like to see them just learn and be exposed to different religions and define their own sense of spirituality for themselves. And that’s something in which I’m still evolving. I’m not going to prescribe them or make them go any way. I don’t make them go to church; they do go to church with me when I do go. I just really want to promote a sense of spirituality with them and if, in their own journey, they gravitate toward a specific religion, that’s their choice. I want them to be spiritual and I want them to have a sense of spirituality – and I want to help foster that – but I don’t want to prescribe for them any particular direction. I just want to expose them to as much as I can, and have them come to their own understanding.
Destiny – Pride: What was it that brought you into the human service field? You did hit upon this earlier, but if you could possibly expound upon it, because I’m quite sure that there were other avenues you embarked upon in your journey, but all of sudden you just locked into this homeless and disenfranchised area. What was it that actually brought you into the human services field? Give me some of your journey as it relates to some of the jobs you had before you landed here.
Mr. Swan: Well I spent probably the better part of 10 years before I came to this position working in public housing agencies, but working on the social services side of things; not actually working in the “bricks-and-mortar” housing piece. I worked here in the District of Columbia in the Housing Authority, and then also in Baltimore City, in their Resident Services Department, which is kind of the Social Services Department within the housing agencies; working very closely with public housing residents and housing choice vouchers, formerly known as Section 8 residents. And particularly, resident leaders – helping them with organizing, capacity building, working with organizations to apply and set up programs, getting grant programs to do things for their community. Doing the types of things to help push families and individuals toward self-sufficiency. To address issues in their communities, whether it is domestic violence, crime, criminal activity as a whole. Working almost on a grass root level with communities, and with leaders within the communities, to try to develop the capacity of the community from a perspective of organization and social service programming. Coming here was, I felt, just an extension of that. The difference in the previous positions is they were really pretty much confined to that population – public housing residents and housing choice voucher residents; where this was an opportunity to administer programs and services on a broader level.
What we have here for the most part are citywide programs; programs that impact citywide; whereas the other programs that I was running really impacted a similar population. With many of the residents that we work with in our programs here at the Department of Human Services, there’s a lot of overlap between some of the same folks that I’ve worked with previously in the public housing setting. This gave me an opportunity to both learn things that I hadn’t learned working almost exclusively with not just social service programs but with grant-funded programs. But Homeless Services is an areaI had not worked in previous to coming to this position.
I wanted to come to this position, number one, because I wanted to come back to the District; I was in Baltimore before I came here. I wanted to come back and actually work in the District where I lived. This position intrigued me because it was working on citywide issues; citywide programs. It was an opportunity to operate and administer programs that I hadn’t done before, but that were akin and similar to things that I had done. So that’s what attracted me to the position. These are issues that are really hit hard in terms of the vulnerability side. These are the most vulnerable residents in the city that we’re serving; both from an economic standpoint and also from a social standpoint, and in many ways from a medical and a mental illness standpoint, particularly when you’re talking about the homeless. So it’s very challenging work, but it’s rewarding work to be able to see that you can be a part of something that helps our residents meet their most basic needs. I think the important thing is it’s hard to strive towards some of those higher goals around self-sufficiency – whether it be economic self-sufficiency; whether it be educational achievements – when you can’t meet your basic needs.
So it’s really different. In the past I’ve worked on programs to help them reach a little bit higher. Now I’m working on programs that help them meet their basic needs. In some ways, to the extent possible, to meet those higher-level needs, but just meet the basic needs; because, for me, I can see it’s hard for you to meet some of those higher level needs when you’re not meeting your basic needs of survival.
Destiny – Pride: Have you ever had what we call just a “regular” job that did not deal with social services?
Mr. Swan: I can’t remember. You know as a teenager, maybe a paper route or working in fast food, but as an adult professional …
Destiny – Pride: You just came out of the gate?
Mr. Swan: It’s always been in social services.
Destiny – Pride: Usually some individuals have that trigger point, where they were doing this or that and then saw a greater need. But you came out of the gate . . .
Mr. Swan: Right! I mean, if I was doing something different than this, it was a means to an end – extra income to help support me through school or something like that. But it was never an intent that that was going to be my career. I think I’ve known at an early age that I was going to do something in the helping profession.
Destiny – Pride: This speaks volumes because what brought you into the human services field – as you have expounded upon it – was your family members and all that was wrapped around you. So you came out of the gate into this.
Mr. Swan: I think the transition that I probably made is that my earlier work professionally had been more clinical work, because I’m a licensed clinical service social worker. I spent a number of years doing what you would call “frontline, direct” clinical work. I have transitioned more into what is called a “macro worker,” doing the administration of programs. What struck me particularly – and I started to see this in graduate school – was as a front-line worker or as a clinician, a lot of what you are able to do, and a lot of the programs that you are able to work in, are dictated by administrators. Policy makers and administrators have the most to say about what programs get developed, how they get developed, how they get implemented. So it really spoke in my mind that I wanted to become an administrator because I felt I could make even more of an impact in a lot of ways then just doing the frontline clinical work because I’d have more of an impact over what programs did get developed and how those programs get operated. And that’s where my transition comes in because I’ve done a lot of clinical work in the past and I’ve enjoyed that work. But this is a different kind of work. I definitely still use my clinical skills in what I do now, but as an administrator, I feel like I’m able to help in a different way and in many ways, a broader way, because I’m influencing more of the policy and actual program implementation as opposed to just my individual work for the client.
Destiny – Pride: Lately there has been a lot of focus on and interest in DC General [Hospital]. Can you explain to our visitors some of the challenges that you have in trying to bring some of these individuals from dependence to self-sufficiency? We talk about “recidivism” as it relates to ex-offenders. But there is a lot of recidivism as it relates to homelessness – and I don’t think the public really knows about that: you are able to get individuals into transitional housing and all of that; but sometimes things doesn’t make out, and they get back in line.
Mr. Swan: You bring a good point. When you look at poverty, poverty in many ways it’s like a cycle. Just because you’re able to address someone’s needs in the moment by providing shelter or housing or other services, it doesn’t mean that they’re no longer poor. Many of the programs that we have are time-limited programs. And then there are other challenges that individuals and families face besides just economics. Some of those are long-term problems that are not going to be resolved overnight, along with their poverty. So you do have this cyclical thing where there may be generational poverty, or where I may be before I come in to a program. I look at the recidivism almost in some ways like relapse. If I’m an addict, I may not get it perfectly right the first time I go in for treatment and services. It may take awhile, and it’s a day-to-day struggle. So I parallel in that way because we have a lot of families – and I say families because you particularly talked about DC General – where they come into the system or they come into the shelter – and they’re poor! Many of them have very little education, very little job training and maybe even very little job skills.
What we’re finding now is that this population is getting even younger. When I say that, I mean that the heads of household – the parents – are getting younger these days, which means they’re even less likely to have that educational level or that work experience level than some of the other head of households that we’re more typically used to seeing. So it’s a longer struggle to get the client to the finish line, in terms of self-sufficiency. For many of them it’s not going to take just six months or a year of being in our system – whether it’s shelter or whether it’s housing. It’s more of a long-term piece, and it’s more than just about the housing. It’s also about the educational level; it’s also about the other pieces which go with it – like the TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] side of it, and some of the changes we’re making on that side in terms of pushing. It has to be done in multiple areas. You’re not going to achieve moving someone from dependency to self-sufficiency by just focusing on one area of need. In the homeless program, the primary focus is on shelter and housing. But these families and individuals have a variety of other needs that need to be addressed as well for them to move towards self-sufficiency – not just the housing.
Destiny – Pride: Tell us about the Family Services Administration and its key responsibilities. I know about it, but a lot of people don’t know about the Adult Protective Services and the Block Grants part of it. Tell us what makes up the Family Services Administration.
Mr. Swan: Family Services is made up of a number of programs that serve low income and vulnerable populations throughout the District. The one program that people are most familiar with is the Homeless Services Program. That is probably, by and large, our largest program with the Family Services Administration. And when I say “large,” I mean “large” in terms of the number of individual programs and services and the budget. It’s definitely the largest and it probably gets the most attention. Through that program we administer shelter, transitional housing, permanent supportive housing, supportive services, prevention services, which could be payments for rent arrearages, first month’s rent and security deposit. There is a variety. And then there are other supportive services like transportation. We provide a variety of services through the Homeless Services Program in that continuum.
We also have – and you mentioned it – Adult Protective Services. Adult Protective Services is a program designed to intervene when there’s abuse, neglect or exploitation going on for anybody that’s an adult. Most people just think of that for just senior citizens. But it’s actually not. Any adult 18 years or older that’s being abused, neglected or exploited, we would intervene and investigate to determine if there is truly exploitation or abuse and neglect going on, and then to mitigate those circumstances. It’s really akin to Child Protective Services, but it’s just for adults.
We also administer some block grants. The Community Services Block Grant is an anti-poverty program. It is designed to provide funding to community-based organizations to develop a variety of different programs to help move those who are low income to self-sufficiency: GED programs, job training programs. There’s a variety of different programs and services that are offered through the Community Services Block Grant.
We also administer the Social Services Block Grant. That is a little different in that it doesn’t have one singular focus. We use that funding to support a variety of different programs. It supports our Adult Protective Services Program; it supports our Homeless Services Program. It supports a variety of different program operations. There is not just one specific program tied to that Block Grant.
We also have a program called “Strong Families” which really addresses the needs of families in crisis – whether it be hurricane; whether it be tornado; whether it be fire; or whether it be a death in the family. It’s more of an acute, short-term service to address the immediate needs of a family in crisis. Then, if there is a determination that more ongoing services is needed, they make those connections and those referrals for ongoing services.
We also administer the Refugee Resettlement Program, which is kind of a state-based program. When I say that, I mean that DC is considered a state as well as a city in many ways. That is a program where we work with refugees and asylees coming into the District to get them settled, get them acclimated and provide services that may be needed to help them integrate into the community.
One of our newer programs is our Parent and Adolescent Support Services (PASS) Program. It was designed to provide services to what has been formerly known as PINS – Persons in Need of Supervision – population. They work with the youths and we get referrals from the school system; we get referrals from the Police Department; and we get referrals from parents. We work with youth who may be considered “status” offenders, whom we don’t want to detain through the formal DYRS system. We work with them to assess them and to assess their family needs. If there is family turmoil, we try to resolve that. We connect them to other services as needed to try to really prevent them from escalating to a point where they do get detained in the system.
Destiny – Pride: I’m so glad to know that you’ve added that because PINS at one time I thought was a really good program, but it lost its bite over the years. We get a lot of calls about individuals who have not committed a juvenile act, but who are just in need of services. I’m glad to know that that’s up and running in Family Services. You might be afraid to let people know about it because you’re going to be inundated.
Mr. Swan: Yes! Yes! We know that! That’s the biggest challenge with all of our programs. There is a limit to the services that can be provided.
Destiny – Pride: We get so many calls from individuals who are looking for someone to intervene in the young ones’ lives who have not yet committed a crime and who are trying to prohibit them from doing so. I’m so glad to know that.
Mr. Swan: And there’s a lot of overlap in populations. And I say that because even though we have our own distinct programs, a large percentage of particularly the families that we work with also receive TANF. One of the things I think we’re doing a much better job of is collaborating on the TANF side with the TANF program to more integrate our services, because we’re serving the same population. We’re doing a lot of that on the Homeless Services side with the family system. And that’s what we’re looking at because almost all of the families that we work with, if they’re not TANF recipients, then they’re TANF eligible. We want to make sure we are making those connections.
Destiny – Pride: That’s a good observation because there are other individuals that are not necessarily homeless but who might have an array of social service issues – i.e., mental health or substance abuse. That has always been one of the Government’s challenges. You remember with Deputy Mayor Carolyn Graham, the whole idea was to put all particular agencies under a cluster and force them to integrate those services so that it becomes a seamless process. We thought we were going to achieve that through “Safe Passages.” As a matter of fact with Destiny – Pride, we took a bit of that, calling it “No Wrong Door”: No matter where you would go within the management system we would integrate those systems so that all the agencies are talking about that one subject matter.
Mr. Swan: And I think we’re getting closer to that, both on the programmatic side, because there’s a lot more collaboration between the agencies just on a very real, day-to-day level, and in our systems as well. There’s been recent legislation that’s helping us get behind some of those legal barriers to sharing information. We’re working on a more integrated database system. We’re actually getting a significant amount of federal support for that system. And it kind of ties into healthcare reform as well. So I think on both fronts we’re moving closer to that. There’s still definitely a lot of work to be done, but I think we’re moving closer.
Destiny – Pride: What are the challenges that confront the population you serve?
Mr. Swan: I think that there’s a lot of challenges. Some of it is generational. When the generation before has significant problems – whether it be poverty; whether it be mental illness; whether it be substance abuse; whether it be medical issues – in many ways you’re impacted by that. You’re impacted by that because in many ways it may limit your parents’ ability to provide some of the things that you would need to avoid some of those same situations as you grow into adulthood. So that’s a challenge.
One of the things that is kind of unique to the District is that you see that all of the disparities in the District are much higher than in other jurisdictions. No matter what it is; if you look at the age rate, if you look at a number of things, unfortunately, there are a lot more to those disparities in the District as opposed to other jurisdictions. One of the major issues – and I see this a lot – working in the homeless program is housing. Housing is a significant issue in the District because there’s such a disparity between the populations that are poor and the populations that are not. So there’s a distinct disparity in housing. What housing costs compared to what our population has is a real significant difference. I think sometimes that even ties into what you mentioned earlier about someone coming back into the system and recidivism. As you’ve seen in probably the last past 10 years, housing prices have skyrocketed in the District. So that in and of itself has created a new homeless in a way.
So there are some things that are unique to the District that pose challenges, but there are other things that may be generational challenges that someone faced in terms of whether it be educational barriers, or whether it be some of these other disparities. We work with a population that has all of those barriers. The pervasive challenge for all the population we serve across programs at our agency is poverty. That is pervasive. And I think it’s a lot of some of these other issues that contribute to the poverty – whether it be mental illness; whether it be substance abuse; those things or disabilities, they contribute to that. Those are the challenges. The population that we work with by and large are poor, and then they have those other challenges. It’s hard to get from there to a point of self-sufficiency, particularly in a city on the economic side that has such a high cost-of-living.
Destiny – Pride: I know that you’re going through your performance hearings now and you’re getting ready to mark up for your 2014 budget. I watch the Councilpersons. Even in talking to some of my peers on the street, they really don’t understand the complexity of this homeless process. They sometimes think that government is heartless in its process, like when you look at DC General. But they really don’t understand the complexity when you go down to the hearing and the Councilperson is beating on the table asking “what are you going to do about this,” and “what are you going to do about that?” How does that make you feel when you understand that there is much more to this problem then what the outside is seeing by looking in?
Mr. Swan: I feel that there’s just a need for more education. I say that not just to the Councilmembers but to the population, to the residents of the District broadly because I think what tends to happen is that you get “sound bites” of certain things. And someone who doesn’t do this work on a day-to-day basis – somebody that may not understand the population – if you just hear a sound bite, you’re going to react to that sound bite. And what you may naturally interpret, based on that, sometimes is not necessarily accurate because you’re not working on this day to day, and you don’t have that understanding. So sometimes it gets a little frustrating, but for me, it’s more of “let’s educate.” Let’s help the Council and others understand the complexities of this issue, because it isn’t as a simple sometimes as we say. And it isn’t as simple as to say “fund that program over here and everything will be alright.” It’s usually not that simple. Then there are always competing interests. You talked about the budget. Within a particular issue like homelessness, you have different subpopulations, whether it be domestic violence victims; whether it be families; whether it be individuals; whether it be youth. And they all, in many ways, have their own unique needs. The challenge for us as an agency is balancing the budget to be effective within all of those subpopulations. We have limited resources. If we could we would fund everything the way we think would fully address the issues. But that’s not a reality in any budget, whether it’s social services or not. It’s trying to make those balances and doing what you can within the resources that you have.
Destiny – Pride: We started this battle in the 80s when, like at the Pitts Motor Hotel, we were putting the homeless up in hotels on New York Avenue. Over the period of years – being many – that I worked in DC Government, I know that we spent millions of dollars – I think we can safely say “billions” over that long period of time. As you look over the duration of time, it sometimes seems like we’re not gaining on the city’s homeless problem, although we’ve had some successes. What are your comments on that?
Mr. Swan: The first thing I would say is that homelessness is not a “stagnant” issue; and it’s not a stagnant population. People come in and out of homelessness on a regular basis. When I say that I mean that new people become homeless every day. So it’s not a problem where you can say you have this defined population of whatever it is. I think we have a Point-in-Time count [process used to keep a count of the homeless population] every year and I think the latest count was close to 7,000 homeless individuals in the city including members of families. But that 7,000 is not going to be the same tomorrow as it is today, or next month, or next week. I think one of the things I would say to understand the nature of the problem is that you just don’t have one stagnant identified population of homelessness where we can say, if we remove them from homelessness, then the problem is solved. There are people coming right behind them that become homeless as well.
I think one of the biggest challenges is on the prevention side. I go back to a story that I’ve heard the mayor say on a couple of occasions when he was in Paris. He was in Paris on official business and he wanted to see what some of their bigger city issues were, particularly on the social services side. He was talking with their equivalent of a deputy mayor for human services, and they said homelessness is our number one problem – by far. He said, “So what have you been doing?” He said “Well, when I came in, we had 110,000 homeless families, and obviously Paris is much bigger than the District. He said “My initiative was to end homelessness for families in the city.” And so he said, “Well what has your success been?” He said that over a two-year period they had housed over 70,000 homeless families. So the mayor said that “That must be great, so your numbers must be down.” He said “No, I still have 100,000 homeless families.”
It’s a good parallel because it says a couple of things. It’s not a stagnant population. He housed 70,000 of what was then 110,000 homeless families, but yet he still has 100,000; so that means some 60-some thousand individuals became homeless within that process. That becomes the dilemma. And I think we face the same challenge here in the District. It’s not a stagnant population. You can’t just say there’s 7,000 homeless individuals today and if we get those specific 7,000 housed, the problem is over. It’s an ongoing problem. There’s newly homeless families and individuals every day.
Then you have certain other things that impact. The economy impacts it. Look at how bad the economy has been over the past few years. That has impacted it. The numbers of families and individuals that newly become homeless, and housing foreclosures and things like that. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the home owners, but if I’m poor and I’m staying with a relative and they lose their house because of foreclosure because of the economy. Technically, I was homeless before but now I’m knocking at the shelter door, because I no longer have a family member or friend that I can stay with. So there’s other factors that impact along the way. Most cities and jurisdictions have a plan to end homelessness within a certain timeframe. But these are the reasons that it’s hard to achieve that. When you come up with the plan, you look and say these are how many people that are homeless today; but you don’t know next year how many new people are going to be homeless because that may be dictated by factors that are out of your control.
An example here is that I think we have decreased the number of homeless individuals. If you look over the last five years or so at our Point-in-Time Count, at single adults, that number has decreased and become stabilized largely due to the efforts of permanent supportive housing. But for families, it’s continued to increase particularly over the last 2 to 3 years. So we’ve had more success with individuals – and I wouldn’t say “less” success with families, but because there’s been more families becoming homeless it doesn’t look like we’ve had as much success with families. It’s a tricky thing to look at because although you have more families homeless, more families over at DC General than there was three or four years ago, we’ve also “housed” more families over the last three years than we’ve ever housed. We have more capacity in the system now than we had four or five years ago – probably twice as much capacity in the system. So it’s kind of deceiving to look at and say, “Well you’ve got more homeless families; you’re not doing anything.” We’ve also expanded our services to respond to that growing need. So it’s kind of a “Catch-22.”
Destiny – Pride: I think that with the homeless population and other individuals of some of our most challenging families – and I’d like you to address this – at one time we were looking at the “one-size fits all” theory when we looked at families, instead of looking at the specific demographics: the homeless person that just has hit a bump in the road – lost his job, etc. Then we look at what we call the “chronic” homeless. Some of these will have bleed overs with symptoms. Then you have those that might be substance abusers; and fourth, those with mental health issues. Which ones are the easiest to deal with and which are the most challenging?
Mr. Swan: When you say, “deal with,” it depends on how you are looking at it. From an economic standpoint, obviously it’s those . . . .
Destiny – Pride: More so programmatically.
Mr. Swan: Programmatically, it’s the long stayers – those that are chronically homeless which are the most challenging, and there’s a number of reasons for that. They have the most significant barriers to being self-sufficient because in many cases that chronically homeless population is what we would call our “permanent supportive housing” population. And those are the ones that have long histories of homelessness. You’ve talked about another group would be the ones where “I just lost my job; I’ve fallen on hard times; I may have never been homeless before; I’ve fallen into homelessness; I need some support for a short period of time, then I’m back on my feet. That’s not this population. This is the population that may have been homeless for two years, five years, 10 years, 30 years, in terms of the chronically homeless. They have those more pervasive barriers like disabilities, illnesses – like HIV/AIDS; and then they may have mental illness as well, substance abuse as well, and sometimes a combination of all those factors. So that’s what makes it more challenging because, in some cases they have attained some sort of self-sufficiency, but can’t maintain it for those very reasons, for those very barriers.
What you find there is that those are the ones that need the longest term help, both in terms of financial assistance – whether it be through rental subsidies – but also more intensive social services. The more long-term social service needs is what this population has. So those are what most would call the hardest to serve population.
And the flipside of that would be those that just come into the system because they’ve just fallen on hard times – economy; lost their job; had an illness, not necessarily a chronic illness, but just had an illness and got back on their feet. Those typically will be the easiest to serve because they have less barriers to begin with. They typically have more education; typically have more job skills, more job experience, so they’re more employable. Those are the ones that would be considered easier to serve because it’s easier to get them a job making more money so that they can afford housing.
One of the problems in the District, even for that population, is the cost of living, and particularly the housing prices. Someone who came into the system with some reasonable job experience, some reasonable level of education, they may be homeless a lot longer in the District than in another jurisdiction because the cost of housing is so much higher in the District than in other jurisdictions. That same person had they lived, for example, in Philadelphia, they may be back on their feet a lot quicker because what they need to afford housing in Philadelphia is going to be less than what they need to afford housing in the District.
Destiny – Pride: What would you say has been your major accomplishments so far? You have a long journey to continue. What would it be right now – other than meeting Rufus Mayfield?
Mr. Swan: I look at my major accomplishments in a number of different ways. One of my major accomplishments I think is my ability to engage the population that I’m serving, whether that be working with public housing residents. When I say “engagel,” I mean to really develop a rapport and develop a relationship, because I think it’s hard to effectively serve a population that you can’t engage; that you have no relationship to or no relationship with. That doesn’t trust you; that doesn’t think you have their best interest at heart. Particularly, in most of the previous work I’ve done, that’s been essential. It’s been essential particularly when you’re working directly with the population that you’re serving. In the role I’m in now, I don’t work as directly with that population as I have in the past. So I say in the past it’s been my ability to engage and develop a rapport with the very folks that I’m trying to help.
In this position I think my greatest accomplishment, when I look at it across the board, has been a combination of that – being able to engage. Not even so much just the population but, for example, the advocates that work on behalf of the population. The service providers that work on their behalf. It’s being able to engage the entire stakeholder population.
Also, in terms of the programs, if you look at Homeless Services, I think we’ve come a long way in the time that I’ve been here, and I say “we,” because it certainly isn’t just something that I can take responsibility for, or claim for.
Permanent Supportive Housing, I think, is one of the greatest accomplishments we’ve had since I’ve been in this position, in that it’s serving that chronically homeless population that we all know exist, and particularly those that live on the street. We’re able to provide them with, I like to say “housing without a time limit,” and “social services without a time limit.” I think that has been probably the major factor that has decreased to a certain extent and stabilized the homeless population for single adults. It’s a different issue for families.
I think we’ve had a lot of success on the family side in terms of being to do things in a different way, particularly around housing programs. I think the greatest challenge is just that numbers continue to increase on the family side. And then our success in just engaging the community of the people we serve in a more positive way. I think most will tell you that our services look different than they did five years ago. I think most would tell you particularly in the Homeless Services program that facilities look better than they did five years ago. And it’s an interesting point because we just had a hearing at DC General when there was a lot of attention about what was going on there. With just about everybody who’s been there – including Councilmembers – we did a special briefing and tour for Coucilmembers even before the hearing happened – the biggest thing you hear is how surprised they are at the condition of the shelter. They had this expectation that it’s going to look a certain way. But when they go in, they say, “Wow! This looks a lot better than I thought it would look.” So I think we’ve accomplished a lot in changing the focus of delivering our services, and I think our greatest accomplishment is actually moving away from shelters and saying that it’s no longer about shelters; it’s about housing. It’s about more permanent solutions because even the greatest looking and run shelter is still a shelter and it’s still not a place to raise children. It’s still not a place to raise family. We should be striving for something better.
Destiny – Pride: I know this is your greatest accomplishment, but your raise another question. At one time – and especially when we had Initiative 17, the right to shelter, people from other localities were giving their homeless population a one-way bus ticket to DC. Our numbers at that time, as far as population, look constant, but our homeless population increased. Do you think they are sent here because we are so progressive in our giving of our social services than the outlying regions?
Mr. Swan: I think that contributes to a certain extent. I don’t think we can put our finger on to what extent that contributes to it, and I don’t necessarily think it’s huge contributing factor, but it is. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The District is – I guess for lack of a better word – more “generous” in its provision of services. And not just Homeless Services. You can look at the Alliance program. I don’t know too many other jurisdictions that will medically insure and provide medical services for free to those who can’t get Medicaid.
Destiny – Pride: Including males.
Mr. Swan: Right. I also think that this is a jurisdiction that is the most friendly to adults that are not documented as well. The thing is if you are not “documented,” you cannot receive federal services in any way. So I think this is a jurisdiction that is the most friendly to those that are not documented and that are not eligible for federal services. So I think there’s a variety of reasons why we can be attractive for people who are struggling with similar issues in other jurisdictions to go because other jurisdictions, by and large, have much more limited services in a lot of these areas than the District does. You talk about the right to shelter. We no longer have a year-round right to shelter, but we do still have a right to shelter when there is severe weather – like when the temperature gets below 32°. So we still do have a right that most other jurisdictions still do not have at all.
So I do think that attracts people to the District. On the family side, probably not quite as much as on the individual side, but I think the way our system is designed makes it a little bit more difficult to tell because in our emergency shelters, we don’t necessary track that information. It’s called “low barrier” because we don’t want you to have to go through hoops to get in, and so we don’t necessarily make you verify your residency status to get into our emergency shelters. It may be more pervasive there, but the way our system is structured, it’s a little harder to put your finger on how pervasive it is.
Destiny – Pride: What would you say has been your major disappointment so far.
Mr. Swan: I don’t so much if I would say “disappointment.” I think probably the discouraging thing is not being able to help as much as you may want because of limitations primarily on resources and on funding. You do want to help as much as you can. When you look at any program; when you look at particularly our Homeless Services, I would love to provide more housing then we provide, but you’re limited by those resources. The challenge to be in any helping profession and in the human and social services field is that there’s always a limit, and the need always exceeds that limit. That to me is the most disappointing thing: that the need typically exceeds the limit to the resources that you have.
Destiny – Pride: That brings me to my next question. I have been in the human services field for the longest – even back with Pride, Incorporated where I started. When I left work, sometimes I was really frustrated that we really were not gaining on the problems, and I started to internalize it, even to the degree to how it affected my wife. I did not realize how much I was internalizing everything. When I retired, the first thing we did was to go to South Africa a couple of times. We traveled, and I had to “decompress.” So my question to you is what do you do to relax after being constantly in this pressure cooker. As you said, it’s not stagnant and you don’t get a chance to sit back, smoke a cigar from your success because something is always happening. What do you do to relax?
Mr. Swan: For me, I think, spending time with my family; my children. Visiting home. Going back to see my parents and my siblings. For me it’s always realizing that, as difficult as it is, you’re making some progress. Maybe not the progress that you may want to make, but you are making some progress. Having a little success is like being able to see somebody being successful. Even if it isn’t nearly as many as you want to see in that particular time, just seeing one success is enough to give you that strength to continue to move on.
Then I think you have to have some other releases. I love music, so music is a great release for me. As well, I enjoy sports, so that’s a great release. Working out – exercising – that’s a great release. But I do think you have to have those releases to do this work. And even with those releases sometimes you kind of get burned out. But if you don’t have those releases – if you don’t have those outlets – it’s going to be very trying and you’re going to get very burned out very quickly.
Destiny – Pride: What last words would you like to leave with our visitors?
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Mr. Swan: Well I would like to thank Destiny – Pride for making me a part of their Spotlight and for also the work that they do throughout our communities in the District. I’d also like to say thank you for giving me the opportunity talk about the programs that we administer here with the Family Services Administration for at the Department of Human Services. And also the opportunity to talk about the challenges, the successes, our mission and our vision for certain District residents. I just encourage everybody to learn as much as you can about the complex issues that are faced by the lower income population throughout the District and continue to support the work that we do here at the Department of Human Services, and also the work of our community-based organizations like Destiny – Pride.
Destiny – Pride: Administrator Swan, thank you so much for being Destiny – Pride’s Spotlight for April 2013. You have given us an in-depth look into the Family Services Administration and the plight of DC’s homeless population. We do admire the things you, Director Berns and the Department of Human Services are doing to alleviate this growing problem and are hopeful, with your continued innovative ideas and initiatives, it will become less of a problem and a much more manageable situation. Our best to you in your endeavors. Again, many, many thanks.
Mr. Swan: Thank you.