At a little after 7 on an August morning, Contessa Allen-Starks puts on her beige scrubs, pours coffee into a plastic foam cup, locks the door to her apartment and hurries to the A4 bus stop on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SW for an hour-long commute to her job in Dupont Circle.
She sits near the front of the bus, puts her earbuds in and closes her eyes. It has been three weeks since she’s had a day off. She works part time as a pharmacy tech at Giant on the weekends and has been trekking downtown to an unpaid internship at a doctor’s office Monday through Friday. She’d text her husband later, once the boys woke up, to ask about their day.
Yellow sticky notes scribbled with numbers litter the bottom of her black-and-pink shoulder bag. One number is how much money she could make if she could work full time at the grocery store pharmacy. Another represents how much she might make if the doctor’s office offers her a job. And then there’s what she makes now: a little more than $500 a week before taxes if she can get 32 hours of work.
Sometimes, she retrieves the sticky notes and stares at them until her head hurts.
It’s been exactly one year and one week since Allen-Starks agreed to take part in the District’s new Rapid Re-Housing Program, which is aimed at getting people like her out of the overcrowded D.C. General family homeless shelter and on a path toward self-sufficiency.
Right now, she pays just one-third of her income — the federal government’s definition of affordable housing — toward the monthly rent of $979 for her two-bedroom apartment in Anacostia. But her contribution is only about $300. Rapid Re-Housing pays the rest through a subsidy that’s only supposed to last four months to a year. Once the city stops helping, Allen-Starks will be responsible for all of it.
Every three months, she meets with her caseworker, who has pushed her to move her budget from sticky notes to a spreadsheet, pushed her to get more education, a better job, a second job, anything to make more money so she can pay the rent.
Tonight, the caseworker will be back to tell her whether her subsidy has run out.
She reaches into her bag and fingers the notes as the bus lumbers toward downtown. No matter how she shuffles them, it always takes three weeks of pay to cover the rent.
Officials in Washington and across the country are pushing rapid rehousing as the most promising way to help homeless families move out of shelters and motels and become self-sufficient.
First introduced on a wide scale by the Obama administration in 2009 as part of the economic stimulus package, it is generally credited with keeping homeless rates from skyrocketing across the country during the recession.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 83 percent of formerly homeless or about-to-be-homeless people who were put into rapid rehousing were still stably housed two years after their subsidies ended. Other agencies report similarly high rates.
Now the program has become part of the District’s effort to lose its “Handout Capital” reputation, as some caseworkers put it. Along with the city’s welfare reform — the District was the last place in the country to cut benefits to those who have received aid for more than five years — rapid rehousing is intended to break what city officials say is a generational culture of dependence.
Homelessness in the city is beyond crisis level. In the past five years, the number of homeless families has more than doubled. By Nov. 1, 2012, 3,000 families had applied for the fewer than 300 spots at D.C. General.
Because the District is one of a handful of U.S. cities that give residents the legal right to shelter on a freezing night, if D.C. General and the overflow area in the basement are full, the city still must find shelter for families with no safe place to stay.
For each of the past two years, that has meant paying to put about 400 additional families into motel rooms. That expense, plus nearly quadrupling the size of D.C. General since 2007 and handling the basic needs of homeless families, cost the city an unanticipated $12 million over budget for each of the last two years. And with winter coming, the shelter is already at capacity with nowhere for newly homeless families to go.
Once at D.C. General, families get three meals a day and a caseworker dedicated to helping them find a way out. But with few places to go, some families have been staying for as long as a year, sometimes more.
As part of its get-tough drive, the administration of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) this spring successfully sought amendments to a city law that would give city officials the power to kick anyone out of the shelter who had turned down two offers of rapid rehousing.
At an emotional, 13-hour hearing in June before D.C. Council member Jim Graham’s Human Services Committee, some shelter residents testified that they’d refuse rapid rehousing because, once the subsidy ended, they’d wind up back at the shelter. It’s a setup to get rid of them, one said. How can someone with a low-wage job or no job begin to pay the city’s steep rents in four months to one year? Rapid rehousing, said one resident to loud applause, would only lead to “a revolving door of homelessness.”
What they needed instead, they said, were good jobs and long-term housing subsidies, as people had been given in the past.
David A. Berns, the director of the District’s Department of Human Services and the force behind the city’s Rapid Re-Housing Program, listened quietly. He couldn’t deliver on either demand.
Unemployment is especially high in wards 7 and 8, and there are few jobs for people with little education. Meanwhile, the amount of affordable housing in the city has been halved in the past decade, to a mere 35,000 apartments, and the number of places charging $1,500 or more a month has tripled as the District has become a boomtown for young, educated professionals.
Across the country, public housing projects have been razed and funding for vouchers has not kept pace with demand, falling short by 7 million vouchers, advocates say. In the District, the number of public housing units has dropped by nearly 1,000 in the past decade to about 8,300. The number of housing vouchers has dropped by more than 2,600 in the past year to 11,000.
Once in heavily subsidized housing, few people leave. In the District, the waiting list is 25 to 35 years long. Only 131 families of about 50,000 left the voucher program last year, the D.C. Housing Authority reported. This year, the authority anticipates that an additional 200 families will leave. Because of federal budget sequestration, the authority won’t be turning those spots over to anyone new.
The system created a perverse incentive, Berns said. Permanent vouchers have always gone to homeless families in shelters first. So for generations, many families have come into shelters with the expectation that they won’t leave until they get one.
That expectation endures, Berns said. The housing system, he said at the hearing, is at a standstill.
Building additional shelters is not the answer, he said. It’s more difficult to find a job while living in a shelter, and children do poorly in school. And permanent housing vouchers can keep families in a state of dependence.
“We need new solutions,” he said.
With rapid rehousing, the city could use the $50,000 it costs to feed and house one family at D.C. General and instead help pay short-term rent for two or three families in apartments, he argued. It would free up space at the shelter for newly homeless families. And it would create a sense of urgency to compel people to change their lives.
“I want people to build hope and confidence that they can find a better life,” he said at the hearing.
Since 2009, District studies show that between 60 and 80 percent of about 1,000 homeless families who have tried the Rapid Re-Housing Program have not returned to a shelter. But whether the families are living on their own and still paying rent, city officials can’t say because they don’t track them.
Kadaya Carthens, a Rapid Re-Housing graduate, now splits the rent with her daughter. Ruth McGhee paid the rent on her own for six months before moving in with a boyfriend. And although Trista Dunlap had been laid off and was headed back to the shelter when her Rapid Re-Housing stint was up, a permanent subsidy came through after a 21-year wait.
The program is about ending homelessness, not solving the problems of poverty, Berns said.
Already, every family at the shelter is being assessed to determine what kind of housing it needs. Eighty percent of the families are offered rapid rehousing.
Allen-Starks, 31, decided to give rapid rehousing a try after she became homeless in November 2011, she said at Graham’s hearing in June. Before that , she said, she had lived with family, friends and “from pillar to post” for her entire adult life. Twice, she had her own apartment. She bolted from one after her husband was shot in the parking lot. She moved out of the second after a nasty tussle with the landlord over repair bills.
She spent a few months living in a motel room off New York Avenue because the shelter was full, then six months at D.C. General. She had been waiting for a permanent housing subsidy since she was 16, left home, quit school, read math textbooks to get her GED and started to work. But with 70,000 people on that waiting list, she figured it wasn’t coming anytime soon.
No one plans on being homeless, she told Graham. It can make you feel like a helpless child, she said. Rapid rehousing seemed like the only way out.
“What was the turning point — sitting there in the shelter with two babies and a husband — that made you want to change?” Graham (D-Ward 1) said.
“I had a turning point when we first walked in that door” at D.C. General, she said. “It was like, ‘Okay. Hustle time.’ ”
From the minute she got the keys and lease in her name to the apartment in Southwest Washington, she felt like someone had lighted a fire under her. She started buying off-brands. She stopped getting her nails and hair done. Stopped going to the mall so 8-year-old DJ wouldn’t be tempted by cinnamon rolls and ice cream cones.
She emptied her retirement account and took out loans to pay for the $17,000 program to become certified to do desk work in a doctor’s office or hospital. She considered picking up a third job selling Avon. With her tax refund, she bought one pair of tennis shoes and four pairs of jeans for the year. Her only splurge was on good shoes for DJ and 1-year-old Xavier. With the rest, she’s been trying to save for the rent and pay off thousands of dollars of credit card debt run up long ago.
She and her husband separated at the shelter. He has been in and out of jail and is struggling to find his way. Unemployed, he takes care of the boys while she works.
Days after she agreed to try rapid rehousing and signed the lease, before any of the donated furniture arrived, a letter came from the housing authority. After a 15-year-wait, her name had come up. The authority had a permanent subsidized apartment waiting for her in Barry Farm, the public housing complex in Southeast.
With a permanent voucher, maybe she would have had the money to go to college and become a pharmacist. Now it was too late.
She had sat down on the floor of the empty apartment and cried.
At the end of an 11-hour day of work and commuting, Allen-Starks barely has time to pull herself off the couch, with Xavier’s arms glued around her neck, and drag herself and the baby over to the glass dining room table before three caseworkers arrive at her apartment.
She opens her laptop with her budget and pulls a bright red folder labeled “Mommy’s business” off the filing cabinet against the wall.
The caseworkers gather around the table.
Danielle Foltz, the director of Rapid Rehousing for the Transitional Housing Corp., asks how Allen-Starks plans to take over paying the rent.
Allen-Starks said she hopes that the Giant pharmacy will finally give her full-time hours after six years of asking. She loves it there. It’s close to home. And, dressed in her starched white lab coat, she knows her customers by name.
Or maybe the nice doctors will offer her a full-time job.
“Which place will let you grow more?” Foltz asks.
Allen-Starks tells them how one of the doctors at her internship pulled her aside that day. “He told me, ‘You have the brains and capacity to do a lot more. Don’t stop at being a medical office assistant,’ ” she tells them. “That made me feel so good.”
“Which means?” Foltz prods.
Foltz says she is proud of Allen-Starks and that she admires the woman’s drive.
Then she tells Allen-Starks that they’ve decided to extend her subsidy until November. Because her internship at the doctor’s office is unpaid and she is making so much less money, for the next three months, her portion of the rent will be less than $100.
Allen-Starks puts her head down on the table and sighs with relief.
“This is my break right here,” she says. “Now I’ll have the chance to do everything I need to do.”
That night, after the caseworkers leave, Allen-Starks again retrieves the sticky notes and begins to shuffle.