I remarked last year that the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness produced a markedly better plan for how the District would full its obligation to shelter homeless families during the winter season.
This year’s plan is similar, though with different numbers. It’s interesting in a couple of ways that speak to progress in the District’s homeless services program — and to problems that it alone can’t solve.
More Homeless Families in Need of Shelter
The estimated number of families the District will have to shelter is considerably higher than last year’s. This might seem a no-brainer. Last January’s one-night count identified 1,491 of them, marking the latest high in a virtually unbroken trend.
The shelter plan doesn’t project that many for this coming January. Nor need it, since the annual counts include families in transitional housing.
It does, however, indicate a significant shortage of units at the DC General family shelter, plus the apartment-style units the Department of Human Services regularly contracts for to shelter families with special needs.
DHS, as the plan makes clear, has already acted on the expected shortage, knowing it would have a deuce of a time contracting for motel rooms in mid-winter, what with the influx of visitors drawn by the inauguration festivities.
I mention this mainly because it’s a refreshing contrast to plans issued during the former administration, especially the last, which merely assured us that DHS would use some combination of “resources” to comply with the law.
More Homeless Families in Shelter When Winter Begins
The explicit reference to motel rooms and the number already contracted for aren’t the only — or most significant — contrasts. We see, for example, more families in DC General when the winter season formally begins, in November.
This reflects the Bowser administration’s decision to let families with no safe place to stay into the shelter year round, rather than only on freezing-cold days, when it has no lawful choice.
That was the unwritten policy until the Gray administration whittled it back and then altogether abandoned it. Predictably, a crush of homeless families sought shelter when they first could, creating problems not of their making.
I’m reverting to history here because it shows that what one finds — and doesn’t — in the annual Winter Plan signals policy and other management decisions. We see two others in the monthly estimates of shelter units needed.
More Homeless Families Than Projected Units Needed
Though the new plan begins with more families in shelter, it estimates fewer total units needed than families likely to show up at the intake center. This is partly because it includes estimated exits, as the last several plans also did.
Some unspecified number are families expected to move from shelter to housing temporarily subsidized by the District’s rapid re-housing program.
DHS has had long-standing problems meeting its rapid re-housing targets for various reasons. One, which still applies, is the acute shortage of housing that homeless families could conceivably afford to rent when their subsidies expire.
Another, related, has been families’ understandable reluctance to accept rapid re-housing. That may be less common now because they know they can return to shelter whenever they must.
It’s nevertheless the case that the Winter Plan estimates considerably more monthly exits late in the season than the current rapid re-housing placement rate. That, I’m told, has improved to an average of 100 families per month.
The plan, however, projects 155 exits in March, when winter officially ends, making for a 667 total during the five months it covers. Where, one wonders, will DHS — or families themselves — find so many low-cost housing units available to rent in a city where they’re disappearing.
Such as remain are hardly all available or suitable for families that surely want to exit from DC General at least as much as DHS wants them out.
More than a third of the units that the lowest-income District households could afford are occupied by those with higher incomes, according to apparently updated figures from the Urban Institute.
Only 8% of all the units have more than three bedrooms. A special exit problem then for families with more than a couple of kids — just as it’s apparently a problem for well over 100 families who’re affordably housed now.
Families Saved (for Now) From Homelessness
There’s another reason for lower total unit estimates than families likely to ask intake center staff for help. Last year, the District launched a program to prevent family homelessness.
It’s somewhat like the long-standing (and always under-funded) Emergency Rental Assistance Program, but it’s for families only and can provide a wider range of resources, tailored to their needs.
The success rate is reportedly very high — 90% of families referred to the nonprofits the District has contracted with haven’t become homeless. Or so it seems. What we know is that they haven’t asked for shelter.
These early results, combined with the additional $1 million the new budget will invest in the program led the working group that developed the plan to adjust last year’s monthly entrance figures down by 10%.
One can only hope that the lower estimates prove accurate — and more importantly, mean that families aided actually have safe, reasonably stable homes of their own.