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.