The annual survey, a one-night snapshot conducted Jan. 22, showed 9,763 people who were without beds that night, down 31 from the year before. The vast majority were in the District, which reported 6,380 people homeless, 141 fewer than in 2019. The count in Arlington County, with 199 people, dropped by 16 this year.
Seven of the nine cities and counties included in the survey reported increases in 2020, ranging from six in Maryland’s Prince George’s County to 49 in Virginia’s Prince William County.
Officials in the District and Montgomery County, which had the biggest per capita drops, said they accomplished the reduction through a combination of new political will over the past few years, rapid rehousing and more federal and local money.
“Money itself is not enough,” said Amanda Harris, Montgomery County’s social services director. “You have to be very strategic and make tough choices. We had to defund almost all our transitional housing because, although it was doing good work, it wasn’t solving the problem of ending homelessness.”
Montgomery, which focused first on ending homelessness among veterans, solved that problem locally in 2015, Harris said — meaning that the county had housing available for every homeless veteran. The county then took on the chronically homeless, the most difficult group to address. Within five years, she said, the county has cut its relatively small chronically homeless population by 95 percent.
In the District, family homelessness has dropped by 48 percent in the past five years, said Kristy Greenwalt of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness. Huge efforts to improve the city’s homeless shelters have attracted public attention. But just as important, she said, have been the multiple efforts to target the most vulnerable and hardest to house and to prevent others from losing their homes.
Regionwide, the number of people who used to be homeless and who are now in permanent housing is double the number of those who are currently homeless, the report says. Rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and other permanent housing has “constrained the incidence of homelessness in the region and helped prevent it from growing unchecked,” the report said.
The annual numbers are only one limited measure of the homeless population; they depend on the weather, the availability of beds in existing shelters that night and the success of researchers finding people in the dark.
The District’s public schools, which count couch-surfing students as homeless, said 5,500 students in the District’s public schools last year do not have a home — a much larger number than the annual count data suggests. But the Council of Governments (COG) report follows federal guidelines on how to count who is homeless.
“This is not a static group, and there’s a constant inflow” of the newly homeless, Greenwalt said. “There’s nowhere in America where you can afford housing on a minimum-wage job.”
The count was conducted before the widespread outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in February. The resulting job losses stemming from business shutdowns for the past three months “has only exacerbated the region’s housing challenges,” warned Derrick L. Davis, COG board chair.
While evictions due to those losses are currently banned, officials said homelessness could spike when those bans are lifted and people who have lost their jobs have to pay overdue rents or leave.
The report, which analyzed federal unemployment forecasts for 2020, said homelessness could rise by as much as 40 percent nationwide this year.
“It’s unclear how many of these service industry jobs are going to come back, and people who held them were just hanging on by their fingernails,” Greenwalt said. “It would be hard to imagine a scenario that we won’t see an increase in homelessness.”