February 15, 2013

IT IS SIMPLY not possible to look at the faces of children in the emergency shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital and not wonder why more isn’t being done. These young people should be in homes of their own, not in a crumbling hospital where it is difficult to go to school or become part of a real community. Critics are right to focus attention on the needs of these vulnerable families but — as decades of the District’s experience in dealing with the homeless demonstrate — the issue is multi-dimensional. Simply throwing more money at the problem won’t make it go away.

The District’s shelter for homeless families is at capacity, with 372 adults and nearly 600 children living in less-than-ideal conditions. This month, The Post’s Petula Dvorak catalogued some of the heartbreaking stories: a college student with a 1-year-old who lost her apartment; the fast-food worker whose hours were cut; a young mother of three facing a hopeless future. D.C. officials don’t deny the seriousness of the situation, pointing to the national recession and lack of affordable housing as causes for an increase of more than 18 percent in the number of homeless family members during the past year. But they say the District has made real progress in combating homelessness that is being overlooked.

There is no questioning the strides the city has made. Consider, for example, the Jan. 9, 1993, report from The Post that 800 families including 1,500 children were in city shelters and more were being turned away. Or the accounts of government passivity that allowed seven homeless adults to die in the winter of 2001. Conditions at D.C. General may be less than ideal, but they are light-years away from the hellhole that was the emergency shelter at D.C. Village. Long gone are the days when helping homeless people meant simply providing “a hot and a cot.”

The District was, according to a report last year by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, one of the first jurisdictions in the nation to adopt a continuum of care that included prevention, supportive services, street outreach, transitional housing and subsidies for permanent housing. The District’s effort to support families in permanent housing saw 903 families placed in 2012, up from 669 in 2011 and 356 in 2008. Instead of simply finding a bed for those in need, city officials are trying to tackle the underlying issues — from mental illness and joblessness to substance abuse — that often contribute to homelessness.

Those efforts, which include a new assessment system that tries to capture a complete picture of the needs of those seeking help, is meeting resistance from advocates for the homeless, who say they make it too hard to get into shelters. Clearly, city officials need to rethink some of their practices, such as a warning given to mothers seeking shelter that they could be referred to child welfare agencies. But the District’s effort to give families a path out of homelessness is in line with national best practices.

City officials say there has been a $10 million increase in spending on services for homeless people this year, and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has pledged $100 million to address the District’s lack of affordable housing. In making any additional investments, officials should look at ongoing experiments in other cities as well as the experience of local nonprofits, which are able to produce better results for homeless people with fewer dollars. Mr. Gray, whose commitment to the homeless was cemented with his work as head of Covenant House in the 1990s, should be prepared to set the path that will get those 600 children out of that old hospital and into real homes.