The District’s figures paralleled modest fluctuations in the homeless population across the region. Montgomery and Arlington counties reported respective drops of 6 percent and 5 percent, while Fairfax County and the city of Alexandria saw their homeless numbers inch upward.
The drop in the District was driven by a diminished number of homeless families. Kristy Greenwalt, director of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, said the survey shows the city’s plans to combat homelessness — which since 2015 have focused on families — are working.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) pledged to address homelessness during her 2014 campaign and has implemented a politically risky plan to close the main family shelter at the former site of D.C. General Hospital and replace it with smaller shelters spread throughout the city.
The D.C. Department of Human Services has also sought to help families with front-end social services, and sometimes financial aid, that prevent the need for a shelter stay.
“We have a plan, and that plan is working,” Greenwalt said.
She said the challenge in coming years would be to translate successful policies for homeless families to single adults, whose numbers actually rose this year by 5.2 percent. Greenwalt said the city plans to redevelop its singles shelters — which some homeless men and women avoid, saying they are dangerous or dirty — and improve the intake process for single people.
The annual homeless count is conducted largely by volunteers on a night in January, and its results can vary based on factors such as the weather, with more people staying outside when it is unseasonably warm. Surveyors found 600 people sleeping on the street this year, compared with 897 last year.
The count of families is based for the most part on a census of those receiving homeless services in the District. Over the past two years, advocates have complained the city is making it harder for families to access shelters, an approach that could artificially lower the official tally of homeless families. In December the D.C. Council approved stricter requirements for families to prove they are eligible for homeless services.
Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the count may give an inaccurate picture because some families are being denied services they need. “We see the families every day who are turned away from shelter who would never be counted,” she said.
Greenwalt said the stricter rules have simply ensured shelter space is available for those who have no alternative, as opposed to others who might not like living with relatives in a crowded home, for instance. Before the new shelter eligibility policies, she said, “we largely had folks flowing into the system with an open front door.”
In Montgomery County, the number of homeless people dropped to 840 from 894 last year, county officials said. The number has been declining since 2015, when Montgomery counted 1,100 homeless individuals.
Arlington County reported 221 homeless people in 2018, down 5 percent from the previous year but up from 2016 when 174 homeless were counted.
The city of Alexandria reported 226 homeless people in 2018, an increase of 15 people or 7 percent.
In Fairfax County, the number of homeless people is slightly up from last year, though still lower than 10 years ago, with 987 homeless people in the county of 1.1 million residents, compared with 964 last year. In 2008, the county counted 1,835 homeless people.
In Prince George’s County, the number of homeless people fell from 532 in 2017 to 478 in 2018, a 10 percent decline.
Rachel Chason, Antonio Olivio, Patricia Sullivan, Jennifer Barrios and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.