The new homeless count report for the Washington D.C. metropolitan region delivers mixed news. Some surprises for neighboring counties and the region as a whole. Basically, what we’d expect for the District of Columbia. And that’s a cause for concern.
The number of people who were literally homeless in late January was somewhat lower for the region as a whole than it was last year. But it was about 5% higher for the District–311 people in all.
Recall that these are only people who met the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s restrictive definition. We still have no idea how many people are living doubled up with friends or relatives or trying to make do in a cheap motel. Nor, indeed, can we feel certain that the total includes all the homeless people who were living on the street, in vacant buildings, cars or other “places not meant for human habitation.”
The number of homeless people in families also declined for the region as a whole. But for the District, the number increased by 10%–this on top of a 19.8% increase in 2009.
A closer look at the D.C. count shows 800 literally homeless families–97 or 13% more families than in 2009. Looking back to the 2008 count, when the recession had just set in, we see that family homelessness has increased by 36.3%.
It’s family homelessness that’s driving the upward trend in total District homelessness. In fact, the number of single homeless people counted was lower this year than in 2008, though 82 (2.1%) higher than in 2009.
I wonder if the Fenty administration has its mind around the problem. The District’s homeless count report again this year states that “Permanent Supportive Housing is the solution to homelessness” [emphasis added]. I’ve expressed doubts about this before.
Nothing in the latest homeless count report convinces me that most homeless families need “wrap-around” supportive services. A liberal interpretation of the “subpopulations” count would put the number at somewhat less than 400. The rest, I would wager, simply need an affordable place to live.
In any event, the District is a long way from creating enough PSH units to replace the net loss in affordable housing units. According to its draft strategic plan, it had 78 families in PSH at the time of this year’s homeless count. Its report on the count says that it’s added nearly 200 PSH units since then.
But the family shelter at DC General was packed to over-flowing until mid-March, when press exposure and a threat of litigation got the Department of Human Services hustling. As of May 18, 131 families were there. That means there were only four vacant rooms for families who urgently need shelter.
According to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, DHS has now “closed the front door to family shelter entirely,” even though it’s aware of 15 families who are living on the streets, in cars or some other unsafe place. I take it this means the agency will not make more shelter space available.
I’ve been told that 28-30 more families will soon be placed in PSH units. At a recent briefing, Clarence Carter, the head of DHS, said they planned to open 50 more units for families in 2011. Together, these will house only about 60% of the families at DC General now.
Carter also said the department would ramp up efforts to prevent family homelessness, using funds from the District’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program and federal funding under the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program.
Well, ERAP is slated for a $1.3 million cut, and it’s regularly run out of funds at higher levels. Only a portion of the District’s HPRRP funding is left. I understand DHS plans to use part of it to house about 25 families. That still leaves a lot of homeless families without a safe, stable, reasonably decent place to live. And recall that more families are bound to become homeless before the end of next year.
The District surely won’t have enough additional housing vouchers for them. The mayor’s proposed funding for the Local Rent Supplement Program would cover only vouchers already issued. No indication that the DC Council will fund more.
President Obama’s proposed budget for HUD would provide just enough more federal funding to preserve the current number of Housing Choice vouchers, plus a relatively small additional amount that could be used to fund vouchers for homeless and at-risk families with children. Doubtful there’s enough there to make much difference in D.C.
One can only hope that the District will find a way to provide more housing subsidies for homeless families. Otherwise, we could witness another winter of severe overcrowding at DC General–and perhaps more unsheltered homeless families next spring.
UPDATE: The DC Fiscal Policy Institute reports that, as of this morning, May 25, the DC Council’s budget plan would cut funding for ERAP by more than $4 million.