DC Homeless Family Services Can’t Keep Up With Needs

In the District of Columbia, as throughout the country, family homelessness is increasing at an alarming rate.

In 2009, nearly 20% more D.C. families were counted as homeless than in 2008–703 families, with a total of 1,426 children. And these were only the families considered homeless under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s restrictive definition.

We’ll need to wait till May to know what the official 2010 count is. What we do know, thanks to the Community Partnership’s dashboard, is that family shelters under contract to the District have been full every night since the beginning of January. Indeed, more families have been packed into DC General than the shelter has contracted units for.

But these figures don’t tell us how many homeless families have sought help–or what happened when they did. Now we have a partial answer, thanks to a survey conducted by the Homeless Emergency Response Workgroup.

The Workgroup is a coalition of service providers, advocates and homeless people that formed last April in response to concerns about the District’s plans to cut back on shelter space. In late April, it conducted a nine-day survey, focused principally on homeless individuals. But family homelessness has also been a major coalition concern.

So in November, the Workgroup conducted an intensive, week-long survey of families who came to the the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center–the District’s central intake for homeless families. Although the number was relatively small, the findings should be a red flag for the Fenty administration and the DC Council

Here’s what I’ve extracted from the Workgroup’s detailed report.

  • Most families surveyed had been homeless for a significant period of time–on average 124 days.
  • Fewer than a third of the families who visited the Williams Center before had received a housing placement on their first visit.
  • Only 13% of families surveyed received an emergency shelter or longer-term housing placement on their current visit.
  • One-third of the families were told they’d have to return with more documents before their cases could be processed.
  • About a quarter of the families said they would not be able to stay together that night, and 22% said they didn’t expect to be safe.
  • More than a third of the families thought they would be able to stay in their temporary housing situation for no more than two days.
  • Forty percent of the families who were living doubled-up with friends or family were sharing space with at least two other families. One was sharing space with six.
  • Two of the families were denied shelter space even though they told intake workers they had no place to spend the night. (They were ultimately placed in a shelter, but only because the survey takers intervened with the Williams Center directors and the DC Department of Human Services.)

The Workgroup offers a number of specific recommendations to ensure that homeless families who seek help get an immediate shelter placement if they have no appropriate, safe place to stay–and that others don’t drop off the radar screen just because they’ve got a temporary alternative.

It also recommends that the Department of Human Services beef up its oversight and learn from shelter models in other jurisdictions. This would seem to be simply good management.

But DHS has to have the staff to manage effectively–and the funds to expand emergency shelter space, support followup and, at the same time, expedite the planned transition from a shelter-based system to a system based on homelessness prevention and permanent supportive housing.

The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that the District will have to close a $514 million gap in next year’s budget. Last year, DHS took a $24 million hit. Mayor Fenty recently cut its budget by an additional $2.8 million.

None of this means that the District can’t afford to ensure that homeless families have a safe, decent, stable place to live. After all, budgets are choices. But it does mean that homeless families are at high risk of still being left to fend for themselves.

NOTE: I participate in the Workgroup, but had little involvement with the survey. The framing of the findings and recommendations and the conclusions here are my own.

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