Families Fuel Increase in D.C. Area Homelessness, Report Finds

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

The number of homeless families in the Washington region increased 15 percent in the past year, as a sputtering economy and the continued high cost of housing forced more people out of their homes, according to a report released yesterday.

In its ninth annual count of the region's homeless population, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments found that 5,263 people in families, including children, were homeless on Jan. 30, up from 4,566 a year earlier. Officials said that the high cost of housing, increasing job losses and the worsening foreclosure crisis were pushing more people into shelters and transitional housing. The increase was the largest in several years, reversing a downward trend in the number of homeless family members the report had found in recent years.

"It's really a one-two punch," said David Robertson, executive director of the council, which released its preliminary report yesterday and will offer a final report next month. "This is still an expensive area to live, and I think the numbers reflect that. But the results are also the beginning wave of people losing their homes because of foreclosures, whether they are renters or owners."

The overall homeless population increased modestly, the report found, with the number of single homeless people decreasing. In all, 12,012 homeless people were counted, up 2.2 percent from last year. Arlington County's 24 percent increase, from 410 to 511, was the highest; Prince William recorded a 14.5 percent increase, from 550 to 630. Montgomery and Frederick counties and the District had smaller increases, while Alexandria and Prince George's, Fairfax and Loudoun counties reported decreases.

The number of single people counted this year was 6,749, down from 7,186 last year.

The number of homeless families is rising nationwide. Advocates for the homeless in Los Angeles, for instance, recently counted twice as many families in shelters as last year.

The figures were gathered at tent villages, shelters, soup kitchens and transitional housing. Several advocates said the increases reported are consistent with what they see every day. But they added that the numbers tell only part of the story.

"It doesn't count the people who are turned away because we don't have space or just aren't present that day. There is still way more need," said Cheri Villa of SERVE, a homeless shelter and social services agency in Manassas.

D.C. officials said they have made strides in moving people off the streets, which the report does not measure. Laura Zeilinger of the D.C. Department of Human Services said the number of people on the streets dropped 15 percent in January from a year earlier. Many have moved into new transitional programs.

The number of homeless people downtown has grown more visible this month as spring has brought the closing of hypothermia centers where many homeless people found shelter during the winter.

Staff writer Petula Dvorak contributed to this report.

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