Housing Complex

City Expects 16 Percent Rise in Family Homelessness This Winter

homelessIn 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

  • sbraverm

    They could be inspecting and renting apartments now. Even if they needed to pay an extra month or two rent on them, it would be cheaper than hotel rooms. They should be working with realtors, setting up a table at DCRA to encourage people who are renting out their basements to take Rapid Rehousing subsidies, visiting new apartment buildings, advertising in church bulletins. They could also encourage families at DC General to team up and rent apartments together--it would be a lot easier to cope when Rapid Rehousing ends, and they could even make a deal that you get to keep it longer if you take a 2br with another family than insist on your own place. Are they doing any of this?

  • Typical DC BS

    Funny. Guess you don't own residential property in the District? Obviously NOT.
    I'm sure there's tons of landlords (being sarcastic here) looking to get involved with DC government and accept vouchers for payment. Then, when the tenants inevitably default on any obligation they have to kick in rent, the District will just continue to pay for them and reimburse the landlord for legal costs when they try to evict residents at some point?
    Sorry, the tooth fairy doesn't exist.

  • Frank

    DC's problem wasn't the number of actual homeless people last year. It was a large number of DC residents who were otherwise sheltered in family / friends homes taking advantage of the most generous "homeless" housing policy in the nation, and getting the District taxpayer to pay for a hotel room for them for the entire winter because they got sick of sleeping on the friends couch, or in mothers spare room. These weren't folks off the streets, these were people who just didn't like their existing arrangements and tried to upgrade at the taxpayer expense.

  • Mari

    Agreed. There was a recent article in the Washington Post that mentioned Rapid Rehousing and the problem that the contractor in charge of rental payments, apparently weren't paying the rent on time. So I'm guessing landlords and property management companies are steering clear of this program.

  • Michael Brown Supporter

    There needs to be some type of mechanism that detects who is actually a district resident i.e. drivers license, photo id, child in DCPS or Charter. I'm of the thinking that many are from MD, VA and elsewhere but DC taxpayers are the ones footing the bill. Just my opinion...

  • JJJ

    Frank, that is an interesting point of view that I never considered before. While I am grateful that the District has mechanisms in place to support the homeless, I do not think these services should be given to just anyone that does not have a place to live. The first issue is to address why they are homeless in the first place. If recent unemployment is the reason, I can understand the temporary use of hotels or apartments coupled with serious and aggressive daily efforts by the beneficiary to obtain employment and get off the program.

    For those that have been on this program for the long term, there needs to be an exit strategy. DC needs to give them a 12 month warning that they will be taken off the program and prevented from using it for the next 5 years. DC offers free job training and certifications in IT and other career fields for DC residents at UDC, with no income thresholds or requirements. The only requirement is to be a DC resident. Given this and the relatively low unemployment rate in this area, there should not be much of an excuse for an able bodied person in the District to not be gainfully employed and living on their own, whether with roommates or family.

  • Typical DC BS

    Good point. Until they start asking, we (and DC government) will never know.
    Also, how many are illegal immigrants? Again, with DC's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding illegal immigrants, the less the citizens know, the better to keep placating a key constituency.

  • masadvo

    This picture accompanying this article is misleading. Family homelessness is about children, not the stereotype in the picture

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