Ending Homelessness

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

In 2002, Montgomery County officials vowed to end homelessness in the county within 10 years. As part of their initiative, they said they would construct 800 studio apartments by 2012.

Six years later, only 48 such units have been created -- eight of which opened last month. And according to the most recent census of homelessness in the region, there are more homeless people on the streets of Montgomery than there were in the year before then-County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D) made his pledge.

"Six years have gone by, and we haven't made any progress," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large). "We haven't fulfilled our promise."

Now Leventhal and council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) are renewing the effort to get people off the streets, with a different approach. They want to shift the focus to finding solutions that would get people into permanent housing sooner, such as rent subsidies, rather than depend on new construction to meet demand.

Last month, they unveiled a plan to use $4 million from the county's Housing Initiative Fund to pay for rental subsidies and other services that homeless people need to stabilize themselves.

What is known as the "Housing First" approach is gaining popularity in communities across the country. Officials in the District, which announced a 10-year plan to end homelessness three years ago, have embraced it. And in Fairfax, Housing First plays a significant role in that county's 10-year plan.

A spokesman for Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said the administration is studying the proposal but is not yet ready to commit to the Knapp-Leventhal plan.

"We're behind the motivation and goal, but what we need to figure out is how we're going to divvy up resources," said Leggett's spokesman, Patrick Lacefield.

A County Council hearing on the proposal, with more details about how the money will be spent, is slated for this month.

According to the annual homeless count by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, 1,089 homeless people lived in Montgomery in 2001; in 2007, the number was 1,139.

The District has had the largest decline in the number of homeless people in the region since 2001 -- from 7,058 to 5,757. As with Montgomery, Fairfax's numbers have remained relatively stable.

Sharan London, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, said previous efforts to reduce the homeless population stalled because good intentions didn't necessarily translate into action.


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