The reasons it has proved so difficult to solve are in dispute.
City officials say that hard times and the lack of affordable housing in poor neighborhoods are to blame for the continuing crisis of family homelessness in the District, where the number of families on the streets shot up 18 percent last year alone — and 74 percent since the recession. Officials say they are making some strides in combating homelessness overall, buoyed by $4 million in rental vouchers for low-cost apartments and a $
10 million increase in spending on homeless services.
But advocates counter that the city is not doing nearly enough to help the neediest residents find permanent housing at a time of budget surplus — and in some cases has been hindering families’ efforts over the past year to find temporary relief in its overflowing shelter system.
“It’s like paperwork on top of paperwork — they have to prove they absolutely don’t have a safe place to stay,” said Marta Beresin, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which issued a report on the city’s practices last week.
Saying the city was “increasingly in danger of becoming a city of only ‘haves,’ ” Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) recently announced that he is slating $100 million for affordable housing
to preserve or build some 10,000 units for seniors and low-income residents. But the units may be insufficiently subsidized to help the poorest residents, according to an analysis by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said he thinks the city should find a way to use some of its $417 million budget surplus to aid its needy residents. Gray’s administration says that money is legally mandated to go into the general fund, or its reserves, meaning it can’t be used to provide more housing vouchers or other homeless services.
“The D.C. government is flush with cash . . . but some of what we’re providing is like third-world conditions,” Graham said. “Is it a warm bed? Yes. Is it out of the elements? Yes. But the fact of the matter is the quality of our homeless services is not high.”
Graham said Monday that he would hold a hearing on conditions at the D.C. General shelter Feb. 28.
In part because of its efforts to curb the problem, the city has had to put up fewer families this year in another temporary venue, motels along New York Avenue. It has used them to house about 50 families this winter vs. about 200 last winter, which cost the city $3 million. (The city, by law, must house residents when the temperature drops below freezing and has to use hotels when regular shelters are full.)