DC homelessness remains high despite overall drop in DMV

Photo Credit: Devin Smith

The total number of homeless people in the DMV has fallen 5 percent between 2007 and 2017, but the population within D.C. rose 30 percent in that same time according to data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

D.C. has accounted for the majority of homeless persons in the DMV since 2008

Housing Programs Manager Hilary Chapman said the council conducts surveys mandated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development at least once a year to track changes in the homeless population.

Chapman said the surveys are done in a point-in-time method, which means they gather all of the data in one 24-hour period.

“It’s not a cumulative number,” Chapman said. “It’s a one day snapshot.”

If they have an alternative, they will choose it.

Chapman said most people are counted through registration in an electronic database when they enter the shelter. She said HUD requires the survey be performed in the last ten days in January because during cold weather, shelters open up their maximum number of beds and this allows for as many people as possible to be counted electronically.

According to Chapman, about 10 percent of homeless persons remain unsheltered during the count, but performing it in winter months means far fewer need to be found outdoors.

“If they have an alternative, they will choose it,” Chapman said.

Chapman said the council is not responsible for developing programs to combat homelessness, but that it serves more as an information bank that provides data to jurisdictional partners.

Putting numbers into action

One of these partners is Washington’s Department of Human Services. The Public Information Officer of the department, Dora Taylor-Lowe, said the council’s data informs the department of how many people need the services they offer.

Taylor-Lowe said the data was used to develop Homeward D.C., the department’s five-year plan to make homelessness a “rare, brief and non-recurring experience.”

The program is responsible for keeping approximately 3,700 families from requiring shelters since its launch in 2015, according to Taylor-Lowe. She said preventing families from needing shelter services in the first place was a large part of why homelessness in D.C. fell over 10 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“We attribute [the drop] largely to a 22.5 percent reduction in family homelessness in the district,” Taylor-Lowe said.

She said the competitive housing market in D.C. plays a major role in the high rates of homelessness within the district. A 2016 WTOP report shows that home prices are back up to their pre-housing-market-crash levels as of last year.

D.C.’s share of homeless persons has risen 17 percent since 2007

According to Taylor-Lowe, the long-term solution to homelessness in D.C. is continuing investments in affordable housing. She said the city plans to spend 200 million dollars a year on housing projects that will allow people to transition out of chronic homelessness.

However, some advocacy groups in the city are not satisfied with some aspects of the city’s plan.

Dispute of best practices

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless published a report in May called “Set Up To Fail” that claimed the rapid re-housing part of the program, a short-term remedy in which the government provides rent subsidies to families for a limited time, may actually be backfiring.

According to the report, the city has become over-reliant on this quick fix and only 40 percent of families that receive assistance are able to maintain their independence once the subsidies are cut off.

The report says that families cannot increase their incomes fast enough to keep up with rising rent prices. The clinic recommends long-term housing vouchers as an alternative because they increase landlords’ willingness to rent to low-income families as well as remove the abrupt ending to rent assistance in the rapid re-housing program.

“The District’s current rapid re-housing based system is failing to provide families with safe, stable housing,” wrote Max Tipping, the author of the report, “and all but ensures that homelessness is in fact ‘recurring’ for thousands of DC residents[.]”

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