City Expects 16 Percent Rise in Family Homelessness This Winter
In April, then-Department of Human Services Director David Berns gave me a upbeat forecast for the city's homeless shelter system. The winter that had just ended had been a rough one for Berns and for the city's homeless population. The number of families seeking shelter skyrocketed, and with the city's primary family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital at capacity, the city was forced to house these families first at motels and then at recreation centers, until a judge deemed the latter illegal.
But in April, the administration was kicking off a 100-day push to boost its rapid rehousing program—the main mechanism for moving families from shelter into housing—through outreach to landlords, and Berns was confident that the situation would look quite different when the 100 days came to a close. The number of monthly placements into rapid rehousing would triple to 150 families a month, he said, and the backlog would clear out significantly.
“We think it will be so successful that we will be able to clear everybody out of the hotels by the end of the 100 days and make a substantial dent in the number of people at D.C. General,” he told me.
Five months later, with summer nearly behind us and another winter approaching, things don't look quite so rosy. According to a draft of the Winter Plan 2014-2015 that the Interagency Council on Homelessness will vote on today, the city is moving just 52 households per month out of shelter. And this winter could be rougher than the last one: The plan forecasts a 16 percent increase in the number of families requiring shelter placement.
Last winter, 723 families entered shelter in the District. This year, that figure is expected to be 840. Compare that to the 409 units that the city expects to have available at D.C. General and smaller shelters, and the result is a lot of families being placed at motels or other makeshift options.
The Interagency Council on Homelessness was created in 2005 by the Homeless Services Reform Act, which required it to produce an annual plan by Sept. 1 to prepare the city's homeless services for the coming winter. The council's membership consists of the heads of D.C. government agencies, homeless advocates, and community members.
The council based its projected increase in shelter demand on trends this summer. Between May and July, 26 percent more families requested assistance at the city's intake center for homeless families than during the same period last year.
The Homeless Services Reform Act compels the city to provide shelter for all homeless residents in need when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing. These so-called hypothermia conditions were in effect for 102 days last winter. The unusually cold conditions likely exacerbated the shelter crunch, but other factors—like the aftermath of the recession and the rising cost of housing—contributed as well. Despite actions by the city government to raise the minimum wage and create and preserve more affordable housing, these conditions have not abated.
In order to reduce the city's shelter population, it's critical to move families more quickly out of shelter, mainly through rapid rehousing. The winter plan does anticipate that the number of shelter exits will increase from the current 52 per month due to landlord outreach and additional city investment. But, the report states, " it is expected that overflow capacity will be needed by December."
In other words: Get ready for another difficult winter for the city's homeless residents and the people tasked with sheltering them.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery