The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. had a plan to end chronic homelessness. Why isn’t it working yet?

People experiencing homelessness camp in front of Union Station in May, before a National Park Service sweep cleared the area. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

D.C. had a plan to become the city that ended chronic homelessness.

Boosted by revenue from a controversial tax increase on top earners, the D.C. Council last year budgeted millions of dollars to permanently pay for housing for the city’s hardest-to-house residents, including those suffering from mental illness and years of homelessness. Advocates rejoiced, predicting the hundreds of housing vouchers would be enough to permanently house almost every person in long-term need in the District.

Ten months in, though, that hasn’t happened. While the city gave out an unprecedented 2,400 permanent vouchers, just 555 people have managed to use them to move into apartments, locked out by a tight housing market and D.C. Housing Authority delays. Most of those the program was designed to help remain homeless.

“When the budget passed last year, I had a moment of thinking we could clear out encampments [and] shelters. You could have a system that has so few people in it that you could really start to have more one-on-one attention and better services. You could really change everything,” said Amber Harding, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “It’s been really frustrating that we’re not realizing the promise.”

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The housing vouchers permanently pay for a person to rent an apartment, generally in the private market, while asking them to contribute only a fraction of their income toward the monthly rent. But many who have received them have struggled nonetheless to find apartments.

The Department of Human Services said the average voucher recipient takes four to five months after receiving a voucher to sign a lease, a decrease of about a month from a year ago.

“We are housing more people than ever before,” DHS Director Laura Zeilinger said, calling the results “all very positive.”

“It would be unrealistic that we could just double the size of our program for single adults … and lease up 100 percent of our vouchers and do it well in one year,” she said.

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Still, the District’s solutions are taking longer than advocates had hoped.

“I used to think there was a silver-bullet answer, one thing would fix everything. And the more that I’ve dug in, I realize: Instead of one glaring gap, there’s several smaller gaps, which all add up,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, manager of the Way Home Campaign, which advocated for the increase in vouchers. “This is no longer a resource issue. We have the [money] to get thousands of people into housing. This is purely a bureaucratic administration issue.”

The city has made several revisions this summer to try to speed up voucher usage.

The D.C. Council heard from case managers that many people who were offered housing vouchers had trouble securing apartment leases because they had lost their identification documents while homeless. The council passed emergency legislation last month allowing a tenant with a voucher to self-certify to his identifying information, meaning he can move into housing while pursuing the lengthy process of replacing a lost ID.

And the city agreed to address another complaint from case managers: that while their clients could pay rent using their housing vouchers, many large apartment buildings charge “amenity fees” that vouchers wouldn’t cover. Recently, the District revised its policy to let case managers use city money to cover those fees so tenants can move in. Zeilinger said some voucher recipients had previously been unable to move into an apartment because they couldn’t come up with the money for a move-in fee or a garbage-collection fee, which the District will now pay.

Obstacles remain. Some would-be tenants, Zeilinger said, have had applications denied because of their criminal history, their level of income or their credit score — all legally permitted reasons for a landlord to reject a tenant, though the law bars landlords from turning people away just because they plan to pay for their housing using a voucher.

Helping a voucher recipient move into an apartment is a laborious process, Christy Respress, who runs the nonprofit Pathways to Housing D.C., explained. Someone interested in obtaining a voucher might complete an intake interview, then wait for the city’s algorithm to say they are next in line. At that point, the city assigns the client’s name to a case manager at Pathways or another organization.

“‘Mr. Smith has been assigned to you. He is eligible.’ Then we start the detective work,” Respress said. “Is he staying in a shelter? We’re going to that shelter to try to find him. … We’re pounding the pavement, going out on the street where they have spent time in the past. That’s a very labor-intensive upfront piece. Some people have a phone, but they might have run out of minutes, or have nowhere to charge their phone, or they lost their phone, or it got stolen while they were sleeping outside.”

With more vouchers available, Respress said, her organization needs more staff to assign to the growing number of cases. But hiring is hard nationwide. “We’re eager to keep growing and growing quickly to meet the need. But we can only grow as quickly as we can bring people on,” she said.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced bonuses for many city jobs last month, including for positions related to the homeless services system. And Zeilinger said that starting this month, the city will also cover the costs for nonprofits that provide case management for permanent supportive housing residents, such as Pathways to Housing, to pay $1,500 signing bonuses and retention bonuses of at least $2,000 to their case managers, to help the nonprofits increase the size of their staffs. (Rabinowitz praised the bonuses but noted they are much smaller than the $20,000 signing bonuses for new police officers that Bowser strongly advocated for earlier this year.)

The District also loosened its hiring qualifications for case managers, Zeilinger said, allowing job candidates who do not have a relevant degree to apply if they can demonstrate relevant work experience instead.

Once a case manager helps a voucher recipient find an apartment, the D.C. Housing Authority must approve the use of the voucher for the home, including completing an inspection of the living quarters. Advocates complain that DCHA delays account for much of the gulf between people who have been given vouchers and those who have actually been able to use their vouchers to move into housing.

“There’s nothing that makes a landlord wait for somebody with a subsidy, if somebody else has cash in hand ready to go,” Respress said. “The law is you can’t deny a voucher-holder. It doesn’t say you have to hold the unit for someone who is still waiting for the housing authority to inspect it.”

Zeilinger said that as the District tries to improve the speed of voucher use, DCHA is looking at inspecting certain units even before a voucher holder identifies the apartment as a place they want to rent.

Respress and other advocates are optimistic that the city is working out the many kinks in the system. If D.C. does manage to use those 2,400 vouchers, they still believe the city’s homelessness scourge would vastly improve.

Maybe, they say, D.C. still could be the city that ends chronic homelessness.

“When I first started doing this work in D.C. in the late ’90s, we weren’t really talking about ending homelessness,” Respress said. “For the first time in my career in homeless services in this region, I do see that coming to an end. It’s powerful. It’s huge.”

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