washingtonpost.com  > Metro > Columnists > Off The Beat > D.C.

Battle With Homelessness Fought on Twin Fronts

By Theola S. Labbe
Sunday, December 5, 2004; Page C05

Controversy bubbled up this spring when the District closed the homeless shelter at the Gales School and opened up beds in a new facility in Northeast, but it was short-lived. In contrast, closure of the shelter at the Randall School in Southwest a month ago and the planned sale of the building to the Corcoran Museum of Art for $6.2 million continue to reverberate and have led to protests and arrests.

It also has prompted new questions about an old topic: How do you help the homeless while preventing additional men, women and children from falling into the same situation?

_____Recent Columns_____
Three Universities Will Participate in Test of Meter System (The Washington Post, Nov 28, 2004)
Old Convention Center to Go Out With a Bang, Bang, Bang . . . (The Washington Post, Nov 21, 2004)
Studying for a Bachelor's to Go With the Badge (The Washington Post, Nov 14, 2004)
Recent Off The Beat D.C. Columns

Ending homelessness is a reachable goal, said Martha R. Burt, director of the Social Services Research Program at the Urban Institute. But to do it, city agencies and nonprofits must address both aspects of the problem.

"You have to open the back door -- you have to help people who are homeless stop being homeless," she said. "But you have to close the front door. You have to figure out what creates homelessness and stop it before people fall into it."

Money helps. More than 20,000 people participated last month in the 17th annual Help the Homeless Walkathon on the Mall, which raised about $6.5 million for homeless services in the region, according to the Fannie Mae Foundation, a co-sponsor. The foundation plans to distribute a portion of the proceeds to more than 85 homeless programs in the District.

But the walk has been a staple for 17 years. Will there be a time when such a fundraiser no longer is needed?

"I don't think any of us are interested in carrying on this work forever," said Stacey D. Stewart, president and chief executive of the Fannie Mae Foundation. "At the same time, I think you have to be realistic about the nature of the problem and how the problem has shifted," she said, referring to the increase in homelessness among the working poor.

In the short term, urgent needs exist that must be met. In October, the Marine Corps Marathon donated more than 3,000 pairs of new and slightly used running shoes to the Downtown Business Improvement District, which has a homelessness services division.

Director Chet Gray said that though those kinds of donations do not move people out of homelessness, "the reality is that people need help."

"I wish we could marshal the strength of the people who take part in the homeless walkathons and other projects" to help end homelessness, Gray said. "We shouldn't have homeless people. We should have housing for people."

In its annual count of the homeless in January, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that the city's homeless population had reached 8,250. Of that group, 6,100 were living on the streets, in shelters or in facilities with programs designed to help them out of homelessness. The other 2,150 lived in housing supported with city services.

The city is putting the final touches on its revised plan to end homelessness, which was released this summer and has been shaped by community feedback. Some advocates questioned the planning for homeless families and affordable housing programs. Lynn C. French, senior adviser on homeless policy to D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the 10-year plan focuses on three areas -- producing 6,000 units of affordable housing, improving emergency services and increasing social service programs at shelter sites.

On Nov. 3, the city opened a 150-bed shelter on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital to replace the beds at the Randall School, but social services will not be in place there for several months, city officials said.

"When you come up with a new way of addressing something, sometimes the hardest thing is maintaining what you have while you transition to something new," French said.

To reach its goal of ending homelessness, the city has much more to do by 2014.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company