D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray speaks at Lafayette Square in this December 2013 file photo. (Marlon Correa/The Washington Post)

(Q&A: D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray discusses homeless ‘crisis’)

By any measure, the District is better off now than when he took office, Mayor Vincent C. Gray says, imploring voters to look beyond scandal and reelect him.

One figure, however, is counting against the mayor.

On any recent night, the city has packed more than 4,200 people into emergency homeless shelters, including more than 700 families in an abandoned hospital and overflow motel rooms scattered across the District and Maryland — a projected 100 percent increase from a year ago.

New York, Los Angeles and many cities in between have struggled with double-digit growth in homelessness in the wake of a deep recession, stagnating wages and escalating housing costs. But no other major U.S. city is on pace this year for its overall numbers of homeless families in emergency shelters to double.

(The Washington Post)

Unable to secure more long-term motel space, the city took the unprecedented step recently of opening two makeshift refuges in recreation centers, like the Red Cross does after floods or earthquakes.

It is, in the words of Gray’s social services director, “a crisis” — one that even Gray (D) acknowledges he can’t explain fully or fix quickly. With the crush of families clamoring for shelter, and the slow pace of those moving out, D.C. officials estimate that hundreds of homeless families could continue to languish in shelters and motels until spring 2015 — at a cost of tens of millions of dollars annually.

For Gray, who spent decades working on homeless and disability issues before ascending to the District’s top elective office, it is perhaps the most confounding and unexpected of failures. He was propelled to victory four years ago over incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D) in part because voters thought he was more in touch with the needs of the city’s poor and marginalized.

But Gray has now presided over the District’s most precipitous spike in family homelessness since the Reagan administration. And that has given his challengers in the April 1 Democratic primary an opening to question the bedrock promise of his campaign: that he has been a sound steward of city government.

Some applaud Gray’s efforts to streamline a variety of social services for the poor and to prod families from generational poverty toward self-sufficiency. But many of the same people say that he has failed to put together a realistic plan to do so and that the District’s rise in homelessness is the tip of the iceberg of a broader decline in economic security.

As a result, Gray has found himself at odds with the advocates for the homeless and low-income residents who embraced his election.

“It was surprising,” said Elissa Silverman, of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “There was a lot of support for him from policy types and social services circles when he came in. We expected he was someone who understood the issues as we did — it was a surprise when he became an adversary.”

Gray has shifted funding for homelessness and social services away from what he calls the District’s “handout” culture of the past. Instead, he’s pushed for programs with smaller carrots and bigger sticks: tougher requirements for getting shelter and harsher sanctions for failing to comply with job training and education requirements while there. And the rewards? Shorter, four-month terms for rental assistance in units that reset suddenly to market rates afterward — in one recent case, from $64 to $1,208 per month.

Not handouts, Gray says, but a “hand up.”

Gray’s opponents say he sought too many tough-love measures at once, instituting major changes that were well intentioned but doomed to fail.

And, they say, he inadequately addressed the biggest piece of the homeless puzzle — the District’s rapidly disappearing supply of affordable housing, which had been well documented before he was elected but was not a Gray funding priority until more than halfway through his term.

By one study, the District has half the number of ultra-low-rent apartments — those with rents below $750 a month — that it had a decade ago. And the city estimates that more than 5,000 families are homeless or teetering on the brink, sleeping on the couches or floors of friends or family members after they lost their homes or were evicted.

Critics say that when those families exhaust their options and turn to shelters, Gray’s administration offers a more perilous path to stability than at any point in decades.

“It’s not so much tough love. He’s tough. But I’m not sure the love is there,” said Patty Mullahy Fugere, director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “The ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ approach can only work when someone has boots and straps to pull.”

The mayor strongly disputes criticism that he has miscalculated how to best help the city’s poor and homeless. Gray says he is committed to solving this year’s spike in homeless families seeking shelter and accuses the D.C. Council of thwarting his reform efforts last year.

In one of his most controversial moves, Gray sought last spring to put limits on the District’s law guaranteeing families open-ended stays when temperatures drop below freezing. He asked for the power to push people out after 48 hours who caseworkers determine have other options — and to force out those who refuse two offers of housing from the city.

The council rejected Gray’s plan, and the city remains one of only a handful of jurisdictions in the country where residents have such protections. Once sheltered, District families may stay until the city has helped them find permanent housing that they accept. New York City and Massachusetts have similar laws.

“With the inability to say, ‘Look, we have a place and we’re going to move you’ . . . I think we are hamstrung,” Gray said, stressing that he has increased spending on homeless services by 40 percent, in large part to compensate for reduced federal spending.

“I’m not asking for any more money . . . look, for good or bad the city has a right to shelter,” Gray said. “I would rather spend the money another way . . . but I think what you will see in terms of my history is an effort to try to get people to a place where they can be stable.”

Gray, 71, grew up sleeping on a rollaway bed in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment in Northeast Washington, hearing stories of the Great Depression. The District’s vexingly high homelessness became a priority for him long before he was elected mayor.

He was director of the District’s Human Services Department in the early 1990s, when the city eliminated more than 500 shelter beds in favor of increasing spending on permanent housing for those who repeatedly ended up on the street. After he left the city payroll, he became the first head of the Covenant House of Washington, an organization dedicated to rescuing runaway and homeless youths.

He was elected mayor 15 years later with a motto of “One City,” but homeless services took a back seat to the challenge of closing a projected budget shortfall. Gray said at the time that the District did not have the money to make up for a drop in federal funds and that homeless services would face cuts. One of the biggest losers in his first budget was a trust fund for affordable housing, which lost about $20 million, or half its funding.

To stem the tide of needy families seeking shelter, Gray also stopped operating the shelters year-round and decided to let new families in only during hypothermia season.

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute posted an article on its Web site in Gray’s first months in office titled: “Homeless Families: Not a Part of Mayor Gray’s ‘One City.’ ”

After protests from advocates, Gray and the D.C. Council ultimately found money to compensate for millions in lost federal dollars that were driving the proposed budget cuts, but he also redirected how the bulk of the money would be spent.

Gray and his deputies began shifting an increasing share of homeless spending from permanent housing to temporary utility and rent assistance and short-term housing. They took the position that assisting those in urgent need of money to pay bills helps keep them out of shelters.

Meanwhile, with short-term rental assistance called Rapid Re-Housing, the city began trying to move out more quickly those homeless families who still were being sheltered. The program covers four months of rent on market-rate apartments, but the arrangement can be extended twice for those who keep up attendance at school or in training programs.

City officials say that most who take the offer extend it for nearly a year, and it has an 80 percent success rate — meaning those individuals don’t quickly show up again at a city shelter.

Gray’s relationship with the advocates began to thaw a year ago, when he followed the recommendation of a majority of 1,800 residents who attended a citywide summit and voted affordable housing the city’s top priority. Gray committed a record $100 million to affordable housing.

A few months later, however, a new skirmish arose when Gray surprised advocates — and even many on the city’s interagency council on homelessness — by adding language in his annual budget plan proposing the provisional shelter stays.

In a letter explaining the proposal last spring, Gray’s deputy mayor said harsher measures were needed to prod people out of shelters for whom long stays had become “a way of life.”

The letter sparked protest from hundreds of families at the abandoned D.C. General Hospital, where nearly 300 families are staying.

Homeless family members read from a letter at a D.C. Council hearing at the time: “In spite of what the Mayor believes, we are not a horde of lazy, unmotivated, greedy moochers . . . we are tax payers; we just don’t make as much money as you do.”

In a council hearing last week on the soaring numbers in shelters, David Berns, director of the Department of Human Services, said he could not fully explain the phenomenon but said part of the problem is that the city lacks the authority to determine whether families could make it another way.

Families aren’t necessarily “gaming the system,” he said. But some parents who have been in unstable situations may be using the city’s inability to refuse them on freezing nights to “do what’s best for their families.”

Berns said the trend may be amplified this year because even before the city’s first freeze, D.C. General was full and “the word is out” that anyone else seeking shelter would be placed in a motel room, which he likened to an attractive efficiency apartment.

Berns said the flood of new families slowed to a trickle last week when temperatures rose and the only options were cots in recreation centers — available to families only between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Gray, who following a recent candidates debate tagged along on a late-night count of the homeless that is coordinated every year across the country, said his political opponents haven’t put forth any better ideas.

“They can tell you what’s wrong,” Gray said, “but they can’t tell you how to fix it.”