The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mayor Bowser promised to end homelessness. Here’s how it’s going.

Staci Jameson and her partner Savon Peterson, background, secured an apartment in Northwest Washington last summer with city assistance after living in a tent but have had trouble adjusting, leading to incidents that could lead the building management company to kick them out. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser first ran for office in 2014 on an ambitious homelessness platform: She vowed to eliminate it from the District in 10 years.

Eight years later, as Bowser (D) seeks a third term, homelessness in D.C. is at its lowest in recent history, driven down largely by significant strides in addressing family homelessness. But among individuals and unaccompanied youths, the problem has proved harder to rein in.

Many single adults in the system say they do not receive adequate support from caseworkers or city agencies to navigate the complex web of services that D.C. seeks to provide. Often, Washingtonians who experience homelessness require more than just housing help — they might need medical care, mental health services or employment assistance, among other things.

Sprawling homeless encampments, which city officials say multiplied during the pandemic, dot the District. On Monday, police said, a man was fatally shot at a small encampment at Thomas Circle along one of the District’s main downtown thoroughfares — an incident that has fanned concerns about rising violent crime and the impact of encampments on their housed neighbors. Meanwhile, housing affordability programs meant to stave off eviction and keep residents in their homes have sunset as the city rolls back pandemic emergency measures. That has left hundreds of families uncertain how they will be able to continue to afford rent in a rapidly gentrifying city.

Bowser said in an interview that her initial goals of ending homelessness — for families, veterans and, eventually, everyone in the District — were “exactly right” and she remains committed to seeing those promises through.

“We needed systems changes. We needed better facilities. We needed casework. And at the end of it, we needed affordable housing. And that is why we’re having the success that we’re having with families,” Bowser said. “We also know that we we’ve created a road map to do it across our entire system.”

An ambitious plan

When the mayor took office in 2015, homelessness was on the rise.

Family homelessness had increased 50 percent over the previous five years, according to the District. That year, the city logged nearly 8,000 people during its annual head count of those living on the streets or in shelters. That was a 20 percent increase overall from 2010.

More than 400 veterans were identified during the annual count, roughly 5 percent of D.C.'s homeless population and an increase from 2011, the first year the city broke out veteran homelessness.

To plug gaps in its overtaxed shelter system, D.C. spent millions of dollars on motel rooms in the District and Maryland to provide temporary shelter to the unhoused, particularly during cold-weather months.

In an effort to get a handle on the crisis, Bowser’s team laid out the “Homeward DC” plan. It had ambitious benchmarks: By the end of 2015, the District would end veteran homelessness. Two years later, it would end chronic homelessness — those living in a shelter or on the street for a year or more, or those who have had multiple instances of homelessness — among families and individuals. By 2020, the mayor said, anyone seeking shelter in the District would be rehoused in under 60 days.

“In a city as prosperous as ours, with the right leadership and a sustained, and in our case increasing, funding commitment, we can accomplish big things in the area of homelessness,” Bowser said.

Her plan included prioritizing the closure of the problem-ridden D.C. General family shelter in the wake of the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd — one of the mayor’s 2014 campaign promises.

“Closing D.C. General was a hard thing to do, but it was a very good thing to do,” said Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “It was important for the mayor to do things the way she said she was going to do them.”

In the place of D.C. General, Bowser oversaw the rollout of smaller, more family-friendly shelters in each of the District’s eight wards, in some cases over the vocal opposition of residents. The last one, in Ward 1, opened last year. Building the shelters, which provide 312 units to homeless families, cost about $165.5 million, according to the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS).

[I wanted to] make sure that our city didn’t have a system, especially for families experiencing emergencies, where they were in an old hospital that was too large and wasn’t set up for families or workers to succeed, a facility where we lost a child, so I made that commitment,” the mayor said. “We have more dignified housing, we have better casework, and we have driven down family homelessness by 78 percent. So if you ask me how I feel about keeping that promise, I’m immensely proud.”

The coronavirus pandemic arrived in Washington in March 2020. Soon, more residents began to resist entering the shelter system, advocates said, because they were afraid of catching the deadly virus in crowded shelter settings. Federal guidance recommended leaving those who were camped on the street where they were, even as businesses and services throughout downtown shuttered.

At the same time, the pandemic enabled the mayor to move more families out of the shelter system and into housing amid a massive influx of federal funding for housing programs, an eviction moratorium and emergency pandemic relief. Homelessness, as a result, declined further.

The pandemic helped D.C. slash family homelessness. But a new crisis looms.

As of this month, according to the D.C. Department of Human Services, 129 families were living in an emergency shelter. That’s less than half the population of the often overcrowded D.C. General shelter, which at capacity housed 270 families. On average, D.C. officials said, families remain in a shelter for fewer than 90 days.

The number of veterans experiencing homelessness has halved over Bowser’s tenure — as of this year, according DHS, the District logged 205 unhoused veterans.

Just over 1,000 adults — about 700 men and 300 women — are living in a shelter, DHS said. As of Monday, there were 38 open beds.

Finding stability

A key component of the mayor’s efforts to reduce homelessness has been “rapid rehousing,” which provides subsidized rent for four months to a year. Bowser has invested heavily in expanding the program.

Participants begin by paying 30 percent of their income toward rent, with the District picking up the rest of the tab. Over time, the amount of assistance gradually declines so residents can ease into paying market rent once they have secured more stable employment or overcome whatever crises put them at risk of homelessness in the first place. But once the rapid rehousing voucher expires, unless recipients qualify for more permanent support, they must pay full rent or move.

In fiscal year 2021, the District allocated more than $98.6 million to rapid rehousing, compared with $28.5 million five years prior. That year, the city subsidized rent for 3,400 families and 521 individuals, according to DHS data. For nearly 300 of them, pandemic extensions expired at the end of April.

Critics say the rapid rehousing program has helped Bowser keep shelter numbers down without addressing many of the root causes of homelessness, in particular, the skyrocketing cost of housing in D.C.

The city “simply gets them out of shelter and into rapid rehousing. And there they stay for six months. And then they get extended for another six months, and then they’re evicted,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) told reporters earlier this month. “It doesn’t help these families in the long run.”

“Often the mayor frames the question on rapid rehousing as, ‘Would you rather people be in shelter or be in housing?’ And of course the answer is housing,” said Harding, the staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “But permanent housing is better than rapid rehousing. So for us, it’s not a question of do you leave people in shelter forever or you put them in rapid rehousing. It should be a question of, ‘Do you give people the kind of housing that actually serves their needs?’ ”

Laura Zeilinger, the director of DHS who oversees many of the city’s homelessness programs, acknowledged that housing affordability remains one of the main drivers of homelessness in the District and one of the government’s greatest obstacles to reducing it. But, she said, rapid rehousing was never meant to be long-term.

“The way I see rapid rehousing is the purpose of the program is to help families quickly transition from homelessness to housing,” Zeilinger said. They can “use that time to get to a place of greater stability.”

‘We are the toss-aways’

Helen, a 51-year-old native Washingtonian who has been homeless since late last year and asked that she be identified only by her middle name, said she had not yet lost her housing when she was accepted into the rapid rehousing program in the fall. However, she said, she struggled to find a new home.

Management companies didn’t seem to care that she had a voucher, and an old eviction filing on her record proved problematic. She dug into her bank account to cover application fees and transportation to tour apartment buildings around the District, she said, only to be rejected half a dozen times.

By winter, she had run out of ideas and resources. She couldn’t afford her rent, and after spending a few nights at a hotel, she couldn’t afford that, either.

“We are the toss-aways in this society,” Helen said. “People will save the manatees … they’ll protest for the unborn, but God help you if you need city services at a rough time in your life.”

She said she suffered “a massive panic attack” and checked herself into the Psychiatric Institute of Washington, afraid that the nonstop panic might trigger her heart condition. When she was discharged, the medical center sent her to a homeless shelter.

It was the first time in her life that Helen had been homeless, she said. After contracting the coronavirus in March 2020, she developed long-haul symptoms that snowballed into two years of struggle. While she was in the shelter, sharing a room with seven other women, she again tested positive for the virus. She was moved to a quarantine hotel, where she stayed for 10 days.

By the time she was cleared to leave, Helen said, it was late April. Hypothermia season regulations requiring D.C. shelters to take in everyone who asks had expired. She wandered the streets, slept in parks and on stoops. She was assaulted twice, she said, by a man who was staying in a tent near where she often rested in Logan Circle.

“I had nowhere to go,” Helen said. “If I had gotten the treatment I needed, the housing I was offered, if there were beds for the huge number of people who need them, I wouldn’t have gotten raped twice.”

Helen, who says she has struggled with mental health issues, addiction and trauma made worse by the assaults, asked that she be identified only by her middle name because she doesn’t want to risk prejudicing future potential landlords against her.

“This is a series of failings on the city government that I have paid taxes to since I was 20,” Helen said. “They failed me again and again and again.”

Bowser said she shares the desire to see more progress on reducing homelessness among single adults.

“I can certainly understand anyone who doesn’t have permanent safe housing wanting us to move faster,” the mayor said. “I share that sense of urgency.”

Zeilinger said the rapid rehousing program is a work in progress. The District has already begun adding services to bolster the off-ramp that will connect voucher recipients to career development counseling, income support services or other rent subsidy programs.

But, she said, the mayor is not interested in turning rapid rehousing into another long-term voucher program. Permanent supportive vouchers that pay all or part of a resident’s rent long-term are based on income, she said. Once households receive over a certain amount, they risk losing that voucher — regardless of whether they can pay for market-rate housing.

Instead, Zeilinger said, the Bowser administration is focused on ways to increase affordable housing options and “build wealth.”

“Let’s fix the systemic issues and what families want and what they tell us are careers,” Zeilinger said. “If we want families to achieve economic mobility and achieve wealth, they’re not going to be able to do that on a [permanent] voucher.”

From tents to apartments

Even as the number of people living in the streets or in shelters in D.C. has declined, the issue of homelessness has become more visible as tents, tarps and encampments have multiplied across the city. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage has said the number of encampments increased by more than 40 percent from 2020 to 2021.

Last year, the Bowser administration launched a $3.9 million pilot program aimed at permanently clearing homeless encampments and turning specific sites into no-camping zones by offering one-year leases to encampment residents through the rapid rehousing program. As of this month, the pilot has placed 99 people into apartments, according to the District.

Bowser said 88 percent of the homeless people engaged by the pilot were ultimately given vouchers. It’s not clear what help will be available to them in the fall when the vouchers expire. The mayor declined to say whether the pilot would be expanded or continue in its current form.

Homeless advocates and elected officials have criticized the encampment removal program over initial missteps, including an incident in which a homeless man was scooped up by a front-loader as District crews worked to clear his tent under a Metro overpass in Northeast Washington last year. They say the city has also underestimated the amount of additional services — mental health care, addiction services and employment help, among other things — people experiencing homelessness would need upon being handed the keys to a place of their own.

Staci Jameson went from weathering the pandemic by living in a tent with her partner, Savon Peterson, near the Safeway on 17th Street NW to securing an apartment in a building on Massachusetts Avenue NW last summer. She did not get her voucher through the encampment clearing program, but her experience still reflects some of the challenges people face when they move from the streets to housing without adequate support.

She has struggled to adjust and has had run-ins with the police. Several incidents have put building staff and her neighbors on edge, and the management company may revoke her housing.

The program, which was paused during the cold weather months, will continue this spring. The D.C. Council earlier this year considered but ultimately did not pass legislation to rein in the mayor’s ability to permanently evict people from the city’s sidewalks and parks. And the majority of people polled by The Washington Post in February supported the effort.

I won’t say that there is not more work to do with the program. There always is,” Bowser said. “But I have heard D.C. residents loud and clear that want better for their homeless neighbors, for their unhoused neighbors, but they also want to feel safer in their own communities. And they don’t if they’re living close to these encamped areas.”

Bowser said her administration remains focused on getting homeless residents off the street and into housing, but, she added, it’s often not enough to stop there.

“Folks have a lot of hurdles, some of them mental health, some of them substance abuse, a lot, a lot of trauma. And so it requires a lot of work to try to get them to trust that they can be moved into a safer situation,” Bowser said. “We’re always going to be working to get people out of the tent.”

‘Rare, brief and nonrecurring’

Last year, D.C. transitioned to what advocates and city officials say is a “more realistic” plan to prevent homelessness. “Homeward 2.0” aims to eliminate racial inequities in the homelessness services system and defines the “end of homelessness” as making homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring.”

“While a plan to end homelessness does not guarantee an end to poverty in our community, having a safe, stable place to call home is an important first step in any person’s or family’s journey to increase income, improve health, and increase overall well-being,” the plan says.

Zeilinger uses the metric of rarity and brevity to grade her own department and the Bowser administration’s progress on the issue. She gives the city high marks for family homelessness.

“We have been really effective at preventing families, when prevention can happen, from experiencing homelessness. That’s evident in our data,” Zeilinger said. “Our length of stay in shelter is under 90 days on average, sometimes shorter. So, that rare and brief is really exciting. We have ended chronic homelessness for families.”

To replicate that success for individuals and unaccompanied youths, D.C. is streamlining the intake program for homeless residents to access services. Right now, Zeilinger said, the process is “fragmented” and “a lot more complicated” than it should be.

The solution to get the numbers down, she said, is both simple and complex: more affordable housing.

Bowser has proposed funneling a record $500 million in one year to the city’s Housing Production Trust Fund, though Mendelson cut that back by about $54 million in favor of funding more long-term vouchers for low-income families. The trust fund subsidizes construction of designated affordable housing for people at certain income levels.

“It’s not like we don’t know how to proceed and we’re stuck,” Zeilinger said. “We know exactly what it’s going to take.”

Kyle Swenson and Julie Zauzmer Weil contributed to this report.