UPDATE: We fixed the video below. Something had been wrong with the sound.
Mayor Adrian Fenty didn’t veer too far from the attack ad routine with the first negative TV hit of his career. (Opponent Vince Gray went negative with an earlier Web ad that was taken down after complaints from WRC-TV.) (UPDATE: He also responded to this ad with a negative Web ad.)
The ad comes in two versions, each with slightly different attacks on Gray and acclamations of Fenty. For now, we’re looking at the ad that focuses on the human cost of Gray's tenure as head of the Department of Human Services during Sharon Pratt Kelly's dysfunctional early 1990s administration:
“With a record number of D.C. children sleeping on the streets, you turned down millions in federal funds to give them shelter. People in the know called your actions inhumane.”
Was Gray really so cruel as to deny funding to poor, homeless children, as the ad insinuates?
Yes, but no.
Gray did turn down federal funds, but only because the District didn't think it could continue to afford to meet the requirements to get them.
According to one of the The Washington Post stories that flashes on the screen — a piece from Feb. 4, 1993, headlined "At Midterm, Kelly Lags in Aiding Poor" — there were, in fact, a record 1,500 D.C. children living in the city’s homeless shelters at the time. But the ad says a record number of children were "sleeping in the streets." At the same time, the District was indeed turning away all but two or three families a night from its homeless shelters, so it is true a lot of children were, in fact, being left out in the cold.
Another article from July 20, 1993 outlines the core of the charge against Gray. Headlined "D.C. Turns Down U.S. Aid for Emergency Shelters,” here’s how it opens:
“The District told the federal government yesterday that it will stop taking federal money to provide emergency shelter, allowing the city to ignore rules requiring that it provide shelter to everyone who meets the city’s definition of “homeless.”
The move, which becomes effective this month, will cost the District about $1 million initially. But a Department of Human Services spokesman said it would save as much as $5 million a year that the city would have to spend to comply with the federal requirements.”
Under federal rules at the time, the city would have had to provide shelter to all eligible homeless families. Even with the millions in federal aid, the city was still turning away about 30 families each night, and couldn't keep up with the federal rules.
The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless sued D.C.'s government for failing to follow the rules, and Gray turned down the federal funds to make the lawsuit go away.
That's a crucial bit of context. It doesn't make Gray look much better — he still comes off as a heartless bureaucrat — but it shows how the decision to turn down the federal funds was linked to the general fiscal mess the city was in during the 1990s.
The "people in the know" who called Gray's "actions inhumane" were members of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. In an Aug. 22, 1993 op-ed (which the Fenty campaign directed us to), they wrote:
[T]he District now turns away all but a few families applying for emergency shelter and walks away from millions of dollars in federal reimbursement for emergency shelter. An unprecedented number of children are now sleeping on D.C. streets. Not only is this inhumane, it violates federal law governing emergency assistance.
What the Fenty campaign didn't direct us to was Gray's op-ed from a week earlier, in which he outlined how he made the District's housing programs more efficient and how, even without the benefits of the federal funds, the District's homeless programs were far more generous. Here's a bit of the article:
This experience is an example of the uncontrollable nature of entitlement programs, a major factor in the District's decision to pass up approximately $1 million in federal emergency assistance. While the District is committed to providing for as many homeless families and adults as its $17 million budget allows, it is equally committed to living within its means.
As it is, the District is more generous than most municipalities.
Maryland gives a family no more than $250 for unpaid rent and utilities, and Virginia only covers natural disasters and then gives families $500 at most. The District, on the other hand, pays as much as $2,700 for unpaid rent and as much as $1,000 in unpaid utilities for families, sums that can be collected by the same family twice a year.
Additionally, the cost of returning to shelter on demand would be far more than the $1 million the District is losing by withdrawing from the Emergency Assistance Program. Under such a mandate, the city likely would be forced to provide shelter to, conservatively speaking, 200 to 250 more families at an additional cost of some $5 million.
It might have been inhumane, but Gray did it because of cash-flow circumstances beyond his control. So, Fenty's ad was Only Kind of True.