The District is preparing to embark on an unprecedented effort to combat homelessness.
At least that is what the numbers suggest. Whether any major financial investment can actually fix this worsening problem depends on how well District leaders understand the causes and solutions of homelessness, and the outcome may prove a test case for cities across the country.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ran in 2014 on promises of overhauling the local approach to homelessness, a system whose failures were made visible that year when a young girl in a city shelter disappeared and was never found. Police said they suspected a shelter janitor of abducting her.
Seven years later, as Bowser contemplates running for a third term, she has made good on some of her campaign promises. Since she was elected, the District has dramatically reduced the current number of homeless families with children, and constructed a network of new and smaller shelters to improve conditions for families who do become homeless.
The numbers on homeless adults without children, however, look much worse. Though the District counted about half as many homeless families in 2020 as it did four years earlier, the number of homeless single adults increased by 10 percent over that period. In July, the D.C. Department of Human Services published a candid public report examining why adult homelessness remains pervasive across the city.
The answer, in part, is that the Bowser administration has done far less to help adults than to help families. Today, it is city policy to give housing assistance to any homeless family that turns to the District for help. For single adults, more than 10,000 homeless people ask for help each year, and fewer than 15 percent get a temporary “rapid rehousing” rent subsidy or a permanent voucher to pay for stable housing.
In her 2015 strategic plan on homelessness, Bowser called for the creation of nearly 2,500 rapid rehousing spots for individuals, but less than 330 have actually been added since then, with all of them in fiscal years 2015 and 2016. The July report projected that the city could end homelessness altogether by enrolling 175 people in rapid rehousing and creating about 1,090 new units of permanent supportive housing each year.
“The bottom line is we know what works,” Laura Zeilinger, the city’s director of human services, said in an interview at the time. She added, “People don’t want to see us throwing money around not solving the problem. But we know how to solve the problem.”
And then a game-changing moment arrived for the fiscal issue. The D.C. Council, presented with a budget proposal from Bowser that incorporated billions of dollars in federal stimulus money and boosted public spending on a long list of social support programs, voted to raise taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents over objections from Bowser.
The District’s chief financial officer estimated that the tax hike would raise $101 million in fiscal 2022. Legislators decided that much of that money would go toward tackling single adult homelessness. The plan is to spend enough money to provide over 1,000 additional adults with permanent supportive housing each year on top of prior investments.
Advocates rejoiced. “It literally means that thousands of our neighbors are not going to have to sleep in unsafe places anymore. They’re going to have their own apartments and beds and medicine cabinets,” Jesse Rabinowitz of Miriam’s Kitchen, who helped lead the campaign for the tax increase, said one day after the vote. “It’s going to make a huge dent.”
How well the plan actually works will depend, in part, on whether District leaders understand who becomes homeless and why, and what it takes to return them to stable housing. It has changed in recent years. “Way more people need housing support than we thought initially,” he said.
Back in 2015, District leaders believed that less than 15 percent of the more than 10,000 adults who are homeless at some point in any given year in Washington are known as “chronically homeless” — so disabled by health problems, addictions or other issues that they need not just a short-term subsidy but a permanently subsidized home.
Today, that estimate is drastically higher. The city’s research has shown that the homeless population is older, sicker and more disabled than District leaders thought. As many as 4,000 residents are chronically homeless and will need permanent vouchers.
The view of rapid rehousing also seems to have changed. A few years ago, researchers theorized about a two-tiered solution to homelessness. Most people simply needed short-term help paying rent and would be able to successfully support themselves once they got past their immediate crisis. The most troubled few would need permanent vouchers.
But for years, people in the rapid rehousing program found themselves unable to pay market rent on their apartments once their short-term subsidies end. The July report no longer described rapid rehousing as a solution to most homelessness but as an incomplete fix.
“It is based on the theory that providing a little help is better than nothing,” the same report explained. Rapid rehousing “is not a replacement for the long-term investments in affordable housing — it is an emergency response while the District continues efforts to build that stock.”
That leaves the District in the position of needing to pay for the permanent housing of thousands of people, including single adults, for whom residents are sometimes warier of providing permanent government aid than for families with children. The District’s research found that 22 percent of unhoused single adults in the city in 2019 suffered from substance abuse and 31 percent had severe mental illness. Meanwhile, 40 percent said they became homeless because they had lost a job.
Amber Harding, a lawyer at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said she perceives a public desire for the city to address the problem, as more people have taken to sleeping on the streets during the pandemic. “Single homelessness is so much more visible,” she said, and council members “are really motivated by the neighbors calling them and saying, ‘Clear out that encampment by my house.’ A lot of what motivates politicians is getting rid of visible homelessness, and that’s generally singles.”
Bowser has announced a plan to offer housing vouchers to people living in specific encampments that the city plans to clear. To Harding, however, the approach seems insensitive and unnecessary. She thinks there is no reason to force people from their tents, especially when the council budget vote means hundreds of vouchers will be available next month.
“If you’re doing it the right way and you’re putting people in humane housing where they can choose where they are living and they have the support that they need, people will take those housing vouchers for the most part,” Harding said. But she said she believes it appears the city’s “goal is to quickly get rid of visible homelessness so that neighbors stop calling and complaining about unsightly poor people in their neighborhood.”
For some who are homeless today, the prospect of the city spending much more money to get them and their peers housed sounds remote. Lavonte Grimes finished a two-year prison sentence earlier this year. With no place to go, he soon found himself staying at the local 801 East Men’s Shelter. He then got a job helping construct the new facility on the St. Elizabeth’s campus that will soon replace the aging 801 East.
On a hot summer afternoon, Grimes took a break from working on the new facility in the air-conditioned construction trailer with two fellow workers who, like Grimes, were hired through a city program that employs people who have stayed in the local shelters to build the new one.
Zeilinger has billed the new building and other planned construction of shelters as an investment in more dignified shelters that will help single adults regain stability faster, much as the new and smaller family shelters across the city have a far shorter average length of stay than the massive and decrepit D.C. General Family Shelter once had.
Grimes, 26, said he is sure the new facility that he is helping build will be an improvement. “It’s a very dark place, a very dark place,” he said of 801 East, where he had at that point been sleeping for two months. “I mostly pray that God would not bring any of the demons that trouble that shelter over there. It’s run like a prison.” Grimes added: “This shelter we all are building right here, I can tell it’s going to be run different.”
But Grimes doesn’t plan to move into the new facility. He aspires to own a home and a business someday. He’d appreciate help from the District to get there. But he vows he’ll get there himself, one way or another.