D.C.’s plan to end homeless crisis prompts a different struggle

Inside a Southeast apartment she could no longer afford, Nkechi Feaster piled all the paperwork onto her donated coffee table.

There were late notices and unemployment papers, pay stubs and payment ledgers — a stack that had become an accidental timeline of her two years in the District’s Rapid Re-Housing Program.

As a part of the program, a case manager assessed Feaster every three months and approved heavy subsidies to help her pay the $950 monthly rent. For a year, the city paid it all. The next year, after she found a temp job as a community organizer paying $1,000 each month, the city asked her to put half of her income toward rent. Then in June, Feaster was told it was time for her to make it on her own.

“You’ll be fine,” she recalled the case manager telling her. The next day, her temp job expired. She had no savings, a $129 unemployment check on the way and 31 days before she risked eviction.


Nkechi Feaster prepares paperwork before a meeting with a leasing manager at her apartment in Washington to see if she qualifies for any hardship assistance. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

Feaster now occupies the uncomfortable underbelly of Rapid Re-Housing, which the city is increasingly relying on to end an unprecedented rise in homelessness. Families are given rental assistance temporarily but are eventually thrust back into the city’s competitive low-income housing and job markets. With fewer social services than they had before, they must figure out how to avoid returning to homelessness. Their success could shape the city’s long-term strategy on how it manages its growing homeless population.

“It’s such a Catch-22,” Feaster, 38, said as she stared at the paperwork through her bifocals. She ran one hand through her short dreadlocks. “Instead of helping me get out of a cycle of poverty, they just delayed it.”

Nan Roman, president of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, has said that the concept of rapid rehousing was designed as a “crisis intervention approach. It is not a solution to a multigenerational cycle of poverty.” First tried in Los Angeles and Minnesota in the 1980s, program grew during the recession after the federal government offered $1 billion in aid to cities to keep at-risk families afloat while they saved for places they could afford.

In a city that’s increasingly unaffordable, District leaders have doubled down on the program. Next year’s budget devotes $20 million to rapid rehousing, twice as much as this year, to support as many as 1,100 families.

City officials are relying on rapid rehousing as an alternative to placing more families into the overcrowded, dilapidated shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital, which has drawn considerable scrutiny since the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd. Increasing the pressure, the city’s Interagency Council of Homelessness predicts a 16 percent increase in displaced families this winter.

Meanwhile, the budget for homeless family services is being cut by about $6 million. And new entries to the Rapid Re-Housing Program face even more pressure than Feaster did: All subsidies now end after a year.

Deborah Carroll, interim director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, said that 85 percent of those in the program have not looked to the government for homeless services in the year after losing their subsidies. City officials were unable to say how many families make up that 85 percent, and they do not track what happens to them or whether they stay in the District.


Nkechi Feaster, left, does dishes while her friend, LaShonda Manley, makes soup at Feaster's apartment. Feaster was considered a success of Washingtons rapid rehousing program, but then lost her job and is now struggling to make rent. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

“People work really hard and get creative” to keep or find housing, said Sakina Thompson, senior policy adviser for the Department of Human Services. “It might be living with another family or moving to an efficiency unit with their three children. . . . Frankly, with the cost of rent in the city, I don’t know if [staying in the apartment in which they were housed] is the best outcome for a lot of people.”

A new apartment seemed out of the question for Feaster; she has terrible credit. She is ineligible for welfare because her only son is 19. He just finished his first year at Michigan State University on a full scholarship and lived with her this summer, working as a host at a restaurant and using the money to help his mother pay the bills.

Six days after her August rent was due, Feaster stared at the ledgers and unemployment slips on the table. Next to them was a half-eaten plate of eggs and her sixth cup of coffee. She homed in on a key phrase: income-based housing.

From those words,she found an unexpected source of hope.

Feaster looked up and said: “I think I know how to fix this.”

Days before, Feaster had spent hours hovering over the glow of her laptop in the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, searching for jobs. A friend e-mailed her about an administrative position at Planned Parenthood.

“Knowledge of HTML and coding,” she sighed, reading the requirements. “I’m now unqualified.”

Her caseworker had sent her ads for minimum-wage positions, such as maids and home-health-care aides, but she figured taking one would hurt more than help.

“If I got a job, I’m going to work,” Feaster said. “But that means I’d be working and not looking for a job that pays more.”

She prided herself on having “corporate jobs” — working as an office assistant, a receptionist, a library clerk. Her salary peaked in 2008 at about $38,000 — enough for her to live paycheck-to-paycheck with her son. Then the recession hit, and she was laid off three times.

“Each round of unemployment was longer than the last,” Feaster said.

She was evicted in August 2011, three days before her birthday. That October, she and her son moved into D.C. General, the hospital where she was born. There, she signed up for Rapid Re-Housing, thinking one day she would return to corporate America.

That job didn’t come. Now the subsidy had stopped coming. Feaster tried getting creative. Between unemployment checks, she sold books of her poetry for $10. She used food stamps and put off paying utility bills. She spoke about homelessness to a group of students at George Washington University, and a $25 Amazon gift card she received became a precious emergency fund.

Her friends had always admired her optimism and energy, a local poet with a penchant for wearing orange. But her financial struggles were taking a toll on her mood. In the past year, she has stopped writing.

“You have to trust everything is going to work out in life, because you can’t control everything that’s going to happen to you,” Robert Henry, a friend from the local poetry scene, said encouragingly when he ran into her at the library.

A red light blinked on the desktop. “Service battery,” the warning read. It came to her like a death knell: If the computer was broken, she couldn’t look for jobs. She searched for laptop batteries. She found some for $44, but she had only about $30 left in her checking account.

“Damn,” she said, pulling the gift card from her wallet.

“I know something great is going to happen to me,” Feaster said on the day she headed to the rental office.

Feaster spent her childhood dreaming of coming back to the District. Compared with her rural South Carolina town, the nation’s capital was big and glamorous. She returned to the District in 1998, running away from her abusive boyfriend, angry but hopeful.

She couch-surfed but was kicked out of every place until a congregation-based housing program took her in and referred her to a therapist. Her newfound calm led to certification as a paralegal and, in 2005, her first full-time job.

An unstable economy undid that progress. Then, in Feaster’s view, the city’s boom limited her ability to get back on her feet.

Even as Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and those vying to replace him spoke of the importance of replenishing low-income housing, Feaster thought she saw contradictions. Welfare was being limited. The time limit on the Rapid Re-Housing subsidies was reduced.

“It’s like they don’t want us in the city anymore,” she said.

For Feaster, the proof was there on her coffee table. There was a yellow late-
payment notice from Nov. 23, 2012, when the city should have footed all the rent; and another from four months later, when the city was late again. There were no city payments during the first months of 2014, totaling $2,685.14.

The city paid the bill off in July, the month it stopped subsidizing the rent.

Other families have alleged similar problems with city rent subsidies arriving late, said Marta Beresin, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

“What happened here was not usual, but it also was not unusual,” she said.

Beresin said she and other advocates are most frustrated by how the city places Rapid Re-Housing participants in units with out-of-reach rents, then asks them to pay more rent as they go, hindering their ability to save.

Thompson, the policy adviser, noted that the city strives to prepare families to get better jobs and encourages them to use different resources — churches, nonprofit groups, federal assistance programs — to help as the program winds down.

“We help and support them whenever we can,” she said.

Castle Management, which manages Feaster’s apartment building, did not respond to an e-mail and two phone calls seeking comment. City officials said they could not comment on why Feaster’s rent was not paid on time. The city has a contract with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) to administer the program, which contracts out case management to local nonprofit groups. TCP referred questions back to the city.

Feaster picked up all of her documents and headed out to the property management office. It was the middle of the afternoon, so she hoped the line wouldn’t be too long. She exhaled, and then she opened the door.

She emerged an hour later.

She recounted what she told the staff member about her reading of the paperwork, which noted that the building used “income-based housing.” Because she now had no income, she asked, could management then lower her rent?

No, the staff person said.

The paragraphs that gave her hope were meant to explain that property owners who receive low-income housing tax credits needed to verify that renters don’t exceed certain income limits. In other words, management did not need to lower rents based on incomes but was required to evict people if they made too much. Feaster had misconstrued the meaning.

Still, she said, the staff person showed sympathy and suggested that they might be able to figure out a payment plan.

Another delay.

Feaster walked back into the thick August heat. It was another day that ended with her feeling no more confident about her future.

“It’s disappointing, but it is what it is,” Feaster said, stoically. “Sadly, I’m now getting used to it.”

One of her friends from the homeless shelter moved to a place in Charles County that she could afford; another, to Atlanta. Maybe, she thought, she could afford to live in a group house with nonprofit workers in Northwest.

“This city isn’t getting rid of me that easy,” she said. “It was my dream to move here.”

The sun rose again, and in the morning, her son got ready for his job.

“Meet me at 1?” Christopher said before he left the apartment. He wanted to buy her lunch at the Tabard Inn near Dupont Circle, where he works.

Feaster pinned a synthetic orange flower in her hair and smiled as she readied herself to brave the world. It was her 39th birthday.

“Finally,” she said, “a good day.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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