The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

The Aya, in the District’s Ward 6, is one of the new, smaller shelters for homeless families that have opened in the past two years. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Halfway through her second term, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has achieved one of the centerpieces of her agenda: dramatically reducing the number of homeless families in the city and replacing the massive and decrepit D.C. General shelter with a number of smaller, better-run facilities.

The city is no longer housing parents and children in crumbling motels. It has cut the number of days that families spend in shelters by three-quarters and decreased the number of families in shelters by nearly 80 percent.

The coronavirus pandemic has actually helped Bowser (D) realize these goals, with a moratorium on evictions, boosts in unemployment checks and federal stimulus dollars for families and a city requirement to extend short-term rental assistance.

But the eventual end of those protections could be disastrous.

Thousands of families who have lost jobs during the pandemic and been unable to pay their rent could end up on the street, analysts say. Thousands more could face an abrupt end to their “rapid rehousing” rent subsidy, meaning they must either dramatically increase monthly payments or lose their newfound stability.

And with D.C. revenue shrunken by the lack of tourism, entertainment and sales tax dollars, the city has warned of potential funding cuts next year to nonprofits that offer services to the homeless.

“The mayor is just now saying, ‘Hey, we finally got a hold of [family homelessness],’ ” said Amber Harding, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who represents families staying in the new shelters. “But she’s saying it in the middle of a much, much deeper recession, or depression, that is just lying in wait to explode family homelessness.”

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A shelter in every ward

Bowser first ran for mayor in 2014, when the city was reeling from a crime that remains unsolved today. Eight-year-old Relisha Rudd went missing from D.C. General, the former public hospital that was the District’s main shelter for families. She was never found. A janitor at the shelter was suspected of killing her and was later found dead of an apparent suicide.

Bowser promised to tear down D.C. General and replace it with smaller, more nurturing shelters in every ward of the city.

It took years of negotiations — striking deals with developers that were sometimes seen as overly generous and meeting with communities wary about a shelter moving in. But last month, Bowser fulfilled her pledge and opened her eighth new short-term shelter, the Terrell, in Ward 1. (The shelter in Ward 2 is for women without children; Ward 8 has two new family shelters, one of which will eventually be used as long-term supportive housing.)

Each family shelter can house a few dozen parents with their children, compared with the 250 families who used to stay at D.C. General, where rooms were infested with spiders and parasites, residents sometimes went weeks without hot water and staffers allegedly sexually harassed and assaulted residents.

With names like “the Aya,” “the Sterling” and “the Kennedy” on their sleek facades, the buildings at first glance don’t appear so different from the high-priced condos in some of their neighborhoods.

The city’s 134-page contract sets out requirements for the nonprofit and for-profit vendors who run the shelters in minute detail, down to more than two pages of information on how to clean the floors. Some of the contractors are paid more than $3 million per shelter per year.

When Quanta Anthony first moved into the Brooks in Ward 3 with her teenage daughter, Marley, she was surprised to find it “immaculately clean.”

Anthony, 56, had always worked. Her current job involves providing security for elderly and mentally ill patients at Inova Fairfax Hospital. But D.C. rents rose beyond her reach and Anthony had to stay in the city to qualify for Marley’s Catholic school scholarship.

They briefly slept in her car. When she decided to go to a shelter, she was so apprehensive she sat in the vehicle outside the building for 45 minutes before willing herself to go in.

She worried most about Marley, a skilled debate competitor who taught herself to play guitar and ukulele and who submitted her application to Wellesley College while they were homeless. Finding the shelter clean and having a place to do some cooking and their own laundry was a relief, she said.

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Cosmetic improvements are only the most visible change, Bowser administration officials say. Far more significant is the fact that families are staying at the shelters about one-fourth as long as they stayed at motels or D.C. General.

“This is part of an entire reform of our system that is really structured on making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring,” said Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger.

The city has invested in dedicated case management at the shelters, with professionals at each building helping families search for housing.

There is also considerable pressure not to stay for very long.

Tyresia Branch, a mother of four who lost her job as a restaurant manager, said workers at the Ward 8 shelter greeted her with a list of rules, including a 9 p.m. curfew. When she asked why her children wouldn’t be allowed to watch TV, she said, the staffer told her: “So you guys won’t get too comfortable.”

Branch said she also was told she could stay just 90 days, even though D.C. law does not allow the shelters to give families a deadline to leave.

“It’s another setup for failure,” she said.

The city’s contract asks shelter operators to “make all efforts possible to minimize the length of stay for families . . . with the goal of transitioning households to housing within 90 days on average.”

Among people who have entered and then exited, the average length of stay as of December was 58 days at the shelter in Ward 3, 61 days in Ward 6, and between 91 and 110 days at the others.

Anthony was homeless for nearly 10 months, staying in hotels and spending more than 90 days at the Brooks before qualifying for rapid rehousing and finding a place she could afford in Northeast Washington.

“It was the happiest day of my life,” she said.

She told the landlord she plans to look for a higher-paying job before her rapid rehousing subsidy ends.

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Help before homelessness

Years ago, when the District was overwhelmed by so many homeless families that it was paying to house them in motels in Maryland, parents who sought help from the city’s Virginia Williams Family Resource Center were frequently turned away.

The city often said it couldn’t help unless a parent could meet a strict test of immediately having nowhere else to go.

Zeilinger made the resource center’s services far more accessible, in hopes of preventing families from landing on the streets.

In fiscal year 2020, which ended Oct. 1, the D.C. Department of Human Services spent almost $1 million on direct aid to families who were not yet homeless — up from about $422,000 the year before and $159,000 three years earlier.

In many cases, that meant paying a utility bill, rent or transportation costs, providing food or money for groceries, or searching for an affordable apartment. The aid, along with referrals to nonprofits that help parents find jobs and stable housing, prevented 1,636 families from becoming homeless over 12 months, according to city data.

This fiscal year, the department is well ahead of that pace, counting 851 families diverted from homelessness in four months.

The investment has greatly reduced the burden on shelters, officials say. As of this month, the city was sheltering 184 families, Zeilinger said, compared with 874 four years earlier.

Inside the shelters, however, families find fewer services than some advocates had campaigned for. Each facility has a small health clinic. But for other services — like job training or mental health care — the shelters tell residents to look outside the facility.

Zeilinger says that makes sense: If the services were connected to the shelter, then the families would lose them when they leave. The approach matches shelters across the nation.

“You’re dealing with families at a high time of stress and trauma — it’s not necessarily the time for heavy programming,” said Claas Ehlers, chief executive of Family Promise, which works with more than 200 shelter programs.

But in the District, some shelter residents and their advocates have complained that they need more in-house services, including recreational activities for children.

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“These settings are a lot more dignified and comfortable-feeling for families to be in,” Jamila Larson, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, said of the new shelters. “But the hope that we had that these sites would consistently be true service-rich environments hasn’t yet come to fruition because the focus really is on moving families out as fast as possible.”

At D.C. General, and then at the motels where the city housed families, Larson’s organization provided activities for children. Now, she said, the group runs outdoor activities at the Rolark in Ward 8 and remote activities at the Brooks in Ward 3. But other shelters don’t have space or have rebuffed her offers.

“We are offering a value add at no cost to these new providers, and we haven’t been able to get an answer,” she said.

Vanderbilt University professor Beth Shinn, who conducted a long-term study of more than 100 housing programs, said it is far more beneficial to get families into stable housing than to focus on providing services inside a shelter.

“You get benefits for other aspects of family functioning: reduced substance use, reduced domestic violence, less absenteeism for kids, fewer separations of children from their parents and less food insecurity,” Shinn said. “Families can then seek out services they want in the community on their own.”

Long-term, federally funded vouchers were the most effective way to provide stable housing, the study found. Some D.C. families who leave the shelters receive those vouchers or move into permanent supportive housing units, which means they get rent support for as long as they need it.

But the waiting lists for those programs can be years long. Much more frequently, families enter the District’s “rapid rehousing” program, meaning they get subsidized rent for at least four months — but then must pay the full amount.

It is for that reason, advocates say, that the shelters should offer more educational, psychological and job-readiness programs.

“To ensure they’re equipped to maintain their housing, they need robust services on the inside,” Larson said. “Can you imagine a head of household who can’t read or has mental health challenges — and in six months or maybe 12, you have to pay full market rate? Are you kidding me? How is this plan not going to fail? We’ve got to do better than this to actually set families up to succeed.”

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A darker year ahead

The city pledged not to end rapid rehousing subsidies during the pandemic, fueling an expansion of the program from 2,416 families to more than 2,900.

Catherine McConneyhead, 39, spent just three weeks in a shelter with her 16-year-old daughter this winter before finding an apartment she could rent with a rapid-rehousing subsidy.

Her work as a hairdresser in Georgetown and Bethesda salons had evaporated, and sharing her mother’s one-bedroom apartment proved untenable. A hotel stay drained most of her savings.

She did her best to soften the blows for her daughter, who had joined a youth volunteer group asking the D.C. Council to fund homeless services long before their own family became homeless.

“I told her, you can’t be upset about this. That just makes your testimony even better,” McConneyhead said. “You’ve advocated for these people, but you never knew what they had been through when you’re warm up in your house in luxury.”

McConneyhead said she expects to be able to pay full rent “once everything opens back up.”

But many other families won’t see their income increase when their subsidies end. Experts say it is simply unrealistic to expect most of them to be able to pay full rent after the health emergency is over.

“In a high-cost market like D.C., you need to have that rapid-rehousing mechanism, but you also need to be building affordable housing and also having enough subsidies for families who need them,” said Mary Cunningham, a scholar at the Urban Institute who has studied this problem locally and across the country. “States and local governments don’t have enough money. That’s really the job of the federal government, and the federal government has not provided or invested in housing assistance at the level to match the need.”

Add to that a pandemic-era moratorium on evictions in the District that will eventually end — probably without substantial federal assistance available to help families pay the rent that they owe — and Cunningham forecasts a crisis in 2021, with homeless shelters full to bursting.

“Not just in D.C. but across the country, there just isn’t enough shelter capacity in most places,” she said. “I think we’ll see more instances of people living outside, literally sleeping on the street.”

A new push for affordable housing in mostly White D.C. neighborhoods

The D.C. government mostly avoided reductions in city services this fiscal year — despite a drastic decline in revenue — by freezing salaries and tapping reserve funds. But Bowser has warned that the budget she will propose in March may require more cuts.

This winter, the Department of Human Services told nonprofits that serve the homeless to expect less city money next year.

Revenue projections have improved since then. But nonprofit leaders and those who rely on their services fear that when it comes to family homelessness, the city could lose the gains that it has only recently achieved.

Zeilinger acknowledged that the shelters — which can hold about 450 families — could fill up quickly once the health emergency ends and said it’s possible that the city may again need to rent motel rooms for families.

“We are in a community in a really challenging situation,” she said. “It is not unforeseeable that we could see an influx of people needing homeless services well beyond what we’ve ever seen.”