The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Homelessness surges in D.C. suburbs, amid national crisis, study finds

The population of homeless in suburban counties surrounding D.C. increased 26 percent over last year, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said Wednesday.

People wait at a bus bay in Bethesda, Md. (Maansi Srivastava for The Washington Post)
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Homelessness surged across the Washington region by 18 percent in the past year, with the greatest increases in the suburbs, according to data released Wednesday by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

The D.C. region joins a growing list of cities that are seeing similar spikes, which coincided with the end of pandemic relief programs and stubbornly high inflation. In recent weeks and months, Phoenix; Louisville; Tulsa; Spokane, Wash.; and Santa Monica, Calif., reported big increases in their homeless populations. Many jurisdictions such as New York City and Los Angeles have mounted aggressive plans for housing the homeless, but a shortage of affordable housing, mental health and substance abuse treatment options have frustrated many of those efforts, experts say.

“We are seeing these increases all over the country,” said Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “What we are also seeing is a real criminalization and villainizing of the homeless, which is something I haven’t seen in my 30 years in this field.”

The 2023 Washington-area homeless census, part of the annual point-in-time (PIT) count conducted nationwide on one night in January, found 8,944 individuals were experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness in the nine jurisdictions included in the analysis — the District; the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George’s and Frederick; and the Virginia counties of Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William, as well as the city of Alexandria.

The homeless population increased in all nine, but the change was more pronounced in the suburban counties, which collectively saw a 26 percent rise in homelessness over the previous year. Last week, the District announced a 12 percent uptick in homelessness during the same period.

“This is not a Washington, D.C., problem or a New York City problem. This is a United States problem, and it’s in every community around the country,” said Christy Respress, CEO and president of Pathways to Housing DC, a service provider for the homeless. “It’s impossible to find affordable housing, not just in cities but in the suburbs of the D.C. region, without some type of housing assistance.”

Tent encampments have become the most visible symbols of the homelessness crisis in many urban centers. In the suburbs, the signs and impacts of homelessness can often be more subtle.

On Tuesday evening, John Mendez, the executive director of Bethesda Cares, a service provider for the homeless in Montgomery County, stood on a curb in downtown Bethesda eyeing a Metrobus coming to a stop. He looked for people hauling numerous bags, for passengers sleeping on the bus, or faces he had seen before in public libraries or McDonald’s parking lots.

Mendez pointed to a neatly stacked handful of shopping bags and flattened boxes at a bus station in downtown Bethesda. “Anytime you see cardboard you know somebody is going to be sleeping there tonight,” he said. “They’re just not here now.”

The 2023 increase occurred after the region in 2022 recorded the lowest homelessness numbers in the 23-year history of analysis by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG). It also coincides with a recent influx of federal money that will help service providers in several counties fund housing-first initiatives, which aim to get people off the street without requiring they first participate in services.

“Providers have to stay on the ball with the housing-first approach,” said Mendez, whose organization Bethesda Cares was among several that together received a $4.8 million federal grant to provide housing for up to 120 people.

The annual PIT count is required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help local and federal policymakers understand the scale of the country’s homeless population.

The accuracy of the method has long been debated, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, when lockdowns and contagion made the physical street counts harder to complete. The 2023 PIT count results come as the end of the public health emergency approaches, and with it the end of many of the social programs that aided families at the time.

“There are still impacts being felt by the pandemic and the end of the eviction moratoriums and the exhaustion of federal housing funds,” said Hilary Chapman, housing program manager with the COG. “We know in some places, like Alexandria, the eviction levels are higher than in pre-pandemic times, and without those resources and protections those people are entering homelessness.”

Montgomery County reported 894 people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness in 2023, up from 581 the previous year. Prince George’s (571 to 659) and Frederick (210 to 248) counties also saw more homeless this year compared with last year.

Fairfax County’s homeless population rose from 1,191 in 2022 to 1,310 in 2023. In Loudoun County, the homeless population went from 99 last year to 220 this year. The increases in Arlington and Prince William counties were from 182 to 213, and 241 to 326, respectively.

The regional report points out that over a five-year window, homelessness across the metropolitan area is down 9 percent. But inside those big-picture numbers, the surge in suburban homelessness is still clear.

Homelessness increased in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties by 38 percent and 47 percent, respectively, and in Fairfax and Loudoun counties by 27 percent and 30 percent, respectively. In both the District and Alexandria, it decreased by more than 20 percent.

The number of homeless families also increased for the first time in five years, according to the COG, rising from 761 in 2022 to 951 in 2023. That includes 1,841 children. The 2023 survey also tracked a rise in younger people — adults aged 18 to 24 years old — and seniors experiencing homelessness.

“We know the numbers of homeless baby boomers are going to continue to grow and people are going to be aging into homelessness for the first time due to a lack of affordable housing options,” Chapman said. “It’s very sad, but we’ve heard anecdotes from Loudoun County where adult children just can’t afford care for elderly parents, so they are just dropping them off at the shelter.”

Those statistics, taken together with the larger regional snapshot contained in the data, must be seen as a “real warning sign for the community and for our politicians,” Respress said. “We cannot ignore these numbers.”

Respress added that the regional rise should be seen also as evidence of what isn’t working in current policy — specifically, encampment clearings like the program the District has executed over the past two years.

“As a region, we need to know now that just closing encampments does not work,” Respress said. “That just ends up shuffling them between jurisdictions.”

Respress said instead local governments need to increase the number of housing vouchers they offer. The District has funded thousands of vouchers to help subsidize rent for the city’s neediest — but more are needed, she said. “If we don’t invest now, these numbers will just go up.”