New Perspectives On Homelessness In DC

I’ve already offered my take on the big picture presented by the latest homelessness status report issued by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Now here are some of the interesting — mostly disturbing — things we learn about homelessness in the District of Columbia.

In 2009, the total number of officially homeless people in the District increased by 3.4% — just slightly over the nationwide average. But the population shifts varied dramatically.

The number of chronically homeless individuals dropped by 11.95%, as compared to a 0.6% increase nationwide. Local policy has focused intensively on moving these individuals into permanent supportive housing — and apparently with some success. Only 1,923 were counted as homeless in January 2009 — less than a third of the total counted.

By contrast, the number of individuals in families shot up by 24.95%, as compared to 3% nationwide. In January 2009, nearly 2,000 of them were counted in the District. These recall are only parents and accompanying children in emergency shelters, transitional housing or “places not meant for human habitation” like cars, abandoned buildings and subway stations.

The number of individuals living doubled up increased by a mind-boggling 58.5%. This translates to 19,950 people living with friends or relatives because they couldn’t afford a place of their own — 7,367 more than in 2008.

As NAEH notes, living doubled up is a major risk factor for literal homelessness. This is apparently especially true for families. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s latest homeless assessment report, 43% of families who weren’t homeless before they entered a shelter had stayed the previous night with friends or family.

The District made further progress on one of the risk factors NAEH identifies — lack of health insurance. In 2009, the percent of uninsured residents dropped by 9.19%. And the District was already out in front of every state except Massachusetts, home of the model for the federal health care reform act.

Other risk factors, however, point in the same ominous direction as the doubled-up figure.

Severe housing cost burdens are one of the most reliable predictors of homelessness, since they make households highly vulnerable to any new cost pressure or income decline. This, of course, is especially true for low-income households because they’re less likely than others to have savings in reserve.

In 2009, about 72% of District households below the federal poverty threshold paid at least 50% of their income for housing. This is about the same as the nationwide average. But that’s hardly comforting when we’ve got more than 19,600 households at high risk of joining the homeless population.

We should also, I think, be very concerned about another risk factor — the average annual income of those NAEH classifies as “working poor” people, i.e., individuals below the poverty threshold who worked at least 27 weeks during the year.

In 2009, the inflation-adjusted income for the District’s working poor dropped by 13.67% to a mere $7,862 for the year. Only two states registered larger drops. Only five wound up with lower averages. And all but one of these have considerably lower basic living costs.

Don’t suppose I need to say that the unemployment situation is another red flag. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of people in the District who were jobless and actively looking for work increased by 54.7%.

This is a somewhat smaller increase than the nationwide percent. But it still left the District with a higher official unemployment rate than all but 10 states. I say “official” because the figure doesn’t include jobless people who’d given up looking — or never looked because they thought it was futile from the get-go.

Risk factors like these help explain the rising tide of homelessness in the District, particularly among families. They’re also a call to action on numerous issues advocates have been pressing for a long time.

Affordable housing is obviously one of them. Other include both more and better workforce development programs and reasonably sufficient support for people who don’t — and perhaps can’t ever — earn enough to cover their basic living costs.

We clearly also need to ramp up homelessness prevention programs like ERAP (the Emergency Rental Assistance Program) and LIHEAP (the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program). And we urgently need to come to grips with the fact that we’ve got far more homeless families than we can provide safe, decent accommodations for.

If we’re really going to become “one city,” then we need to provide for our neediest and most vulnerable residents — budget constraints notwithstanding.

3 Responses to New Perspectives On Homelessness In DC

  1. […] I wrote about these risk factors when NAEH first published them. Ominous nationwide — and specifically for the District. […]

  2. […] I wrote about these risk factors when NAEH first published them. Ominous nationwide — and specifically for the District. […]

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