Homelessness on the rise in D.C., Loudoun County, but steady in region, study shows
By Annie Gowen,
Although the overall number of homeless in the region remained virtually unchanged from last year, the number of families without homes rose for the third straight year and places such as the District and Loudoun County had significant overall increases, a yearly survey showed.
The number of homeless people in the region dipped slightly — by 0.4 percent — to 11,830 this year, according to the annual “point-in-time” homeless survey released Wednesday by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
In the District, the number of homeless families soared 18 percent and homelessness increased 6 percent overall, the report said. The District is struggling with a $7 million shortfall in services for the homeless after a loss of federal funding. The city’s family shelter is filled to capacity, and more than 100 families are living in motels along New York Avenue NE at an average cost of $100 a night.
“The family situation is a crisis in the District,” said Kelly Sweeney McShane, the executive director of Community of Hope, a nonprofit group that provides housing and services to 250 local families. Advocates such as McShane are urging the D.C. government to find more funds to move families out of the motels and into subsidized apartments as the budget debate goes on.
“I don’t think a hotel is a good place to raise a family — you’re in one room,” said Charmaine Walton, who until this week had been living in a motel with her 4-year-old daughter.
Walton, 32, suffers from multiple sclerosis. She lost her job as a medical technician and her apartment last year. On Monday, she moved into a subsidized apartment and says she will not miss having to take six buses every morning and evening just to get her daughter to and from school.
Still, it’s tough.
“You know, I catch myself crying. I get really depressed . . . it’s been heartbreaking,” Walton said.
Advocates say tough economic times have meant that more families are losing their homes. Family homelessness in the region has increased 23 percent in the five years since the recession began, while the overall population of homelessness has increased only 1 percent. This year, there are 3,388 homeless children in the area.
The poor in the District continue to be hit hard by the twin forces of continued unemployment and high housing costs. Although the overall unemployment rate in the District is lower than the national average, in some poorer areas of the city it is well above that. And low-cost housing has evaporated as median rents have risen, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
Elsewhere, some jurisdictions around the region — including Alexandria and Montgomery, Prince George’s and Prince William counties — had double-digit decreases in their homeless populations. (Prince George’s may have dropped as much as it did because of a change in the way the number was tabulated this year over last, officials said.)
In the suburbs, only wealthy Loudoun — which has the highest median household income in the United States, an estimated $119,000 —had a significant increase in homelessness; it rose by 5 percent.
“People are struggling everywhere,” said Vickie Koth, the executive director of the Good Shepherd Alliance, which runs an emergency shelter in Loudoun for single women and families. “Homelessness is not just in the inner city but shows no favoritism as more and more families lose their housing — often after trying to hang on as long as possible.”
Although Loudoun is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, Koth noted, affordable housing is difficult to find there as well, which exacerbates the problem.
Michael Ferrell, the executive director of the District Coalition for the Homeless, said that the improving economy and regional efforts to move homeless into subsidized apartments have helped keep the homeless numbers from rising further. More than 8,657 formerly homeless individuals now live in permanent subsidized housing, the bulk in the District.
Outreach workers took a homeless count on Jan. 25, heading out to homeless shelters, safe havens and winter shelters. They also searched under bridges and on park benches to find unsheltered homeless people — more than 1,000. Families constituted 5,611 of the 11,830 homeless people, 6,204 were single and 15 were unaccompanied youths.