The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mayor’s homeless efforts uneven; persistent number of singles living on the streets, even in frigid weather

Johnny Queen, who has been sleeping outside despite extreme cold, says many on the street are unhappy with conditions at the city’s shelters.
Johnny Queen, who has been sleeping outside despite extreme cold, says many on the street are unhappy with conditions at the city’s shelters. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Abdi Osman came to the United States from Somalia eight years ago, looking for prosperity in the country he thought was "number one in the world."

What he found was chronic homelessness interwoven with short stretches of low-paid manual labor. On Friday afternoon, as he warmed himself inside Miriam's Kitchen, the nonprofit in Foggy Bottom that helps homeless people, he described what it had been like to sleep outside the previous night as wind-chill temperatures dropped below zero in Washington.

"It's very, very, very, very, very, very bad," Osman said, smiling grimly.

D.C. government officials have made progress over the past three years in their efforts to reduce the city's extraordinarily high rate of homelessness. But that progress has not been even, and those who have arguably benefited least are those whose plight has been most visible as frigid weather has gripped the nation's capital: single adults like Osman who sleep outside.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who campaigned on promises to improve the city's homeless services, has helped thousands of individual homeless people find permanent housing and pushed ahead with a sweeping — and politically risky — plan to close the aging shelter for families at the site of the former D.C. General Hospital, replacing it with smaller family shelters designed to be cleaner, safer and spread throughout the city. Most of those shelters are scheduled to open over the next two years.

During one of the year’s coldest weeks, some homeless people are refusing to come inside

But a parallel effort has not advanced for the District's shelters that cater to single men and women who otherwise would be on the street. Those facilities — particularly large ones for men such as the New York Avenue and 801 East shelters, which have hundreds of beds — remain forbidding places for the homeless, who say they avoid them because of complaints ranging from bedbugs to the risk of theft or fights.

"On families, we just did the big shelter redevelopment, which took a lot of political will and money," said Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. "We haven't done a similar thing on the singles side on shelters."

Coventry said the city has devoted resources to securing long-term housing for single homeless people. But when it comes to the urgent circumstances of those sleeping on the street, she said, "there's general agreement . . . that our large shelters don't meet the needs of folks experiencing homelessness."

Such concerns are reflected in city officials' strategic plan for reducing homelessness, which describes D.C.'s shelters for single adults as plagued by "crumbling infrastructure" and "simply too large to provide appropriate programming in a safe, healthy environment for clients." The plan envisions smaller, neighborhood-based shelters that cater to the needs of specific groups, such as senior citizens or those who don't speak English well.

Kristy Greenwalt, director of D.C.'s Interagency Council on Homelessness, said that though the redevelopment of the family shelter network has been prioritized over shelters for individuals, those individuals have meanwhile benefited from extensive funding in recent budgets for so-called permanent supportive housing — long-term housing for the chronically homeless that often includes services like mental health counseling.

Since adopting its strategic plan in 2015, Greenwalt said, the city has housed more than 3,300 single adults who had been homeless.

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When it comes to emergency shelters for those who sleep outside, she said, "We have more work to do before we get to the place of redeveloping that system, but it's definitely something that we're thinking about."

D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs the human services committee, said the political challenges of replacing large shelters for individuals — who, more than homeless families, have often been on the street for years coping with mental illness or addiction — with smaller ones throughout the city could be substantial.

Nadeau said she was "open to a conversation about whether we want to revamp the singles system," but that the need for a large shelter network for individuals could also be addressed with more investment in permanent housing that moves people off the street for good. "We don't have to have a robust singles shelter system if we can invest in the long-term solutions, like permanent supportive housing," she said.

The unsheltered represent a small portion of those who are homeless in the District, which guarantees all people access to shelter during spells of dangerously cold weather.

Last year, at the time of the annual homeless count in January, an estimated 897 people were sleeping on the street rather than in a shelter or transitional housing. City officials and homeless advocates say that count was probably unreliable, however, because of unseasonably warm weather that discouraged people from seeking shelter.

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In 2016, an estimated 318 people were found sleeping on the street; the year before that, 544. Such fluctuations make it difficult to determine the size of the city's unsheltered population. But Christine Elwell, director of outreach for Pathways to Housing D.C., said the ground-level experience of outreach teams has been of a persistent level of street homelessness.

"For all the progress we've made in housing chronically homeless individuals, we really haven't made a dent in the number of people living on the street," Elwell said. "For every person we put in housing, there's a person arriving on the street behind them."

Greenwalt said city outreach teams are trying hard to persuade street dwellers to come inside during the bout of extreme cold, and performing regular safety checks on those who refuse such entreaties and choose to stay outside.

Johnny Queen, 58, a self-described street minister who has been homeless on and off since 1998, is among those who make that choice. Queen, taking a break from coloring pictures of frogs at Miriam's Kitchen on Friday, said many of those he knows on the street avoid large shelters because they don't want to deal with a regimented schedule and worry about catching lice, bedbugs or diseases from other homeless people.

But speaking for himself, he said he wouldn't find a smaller, cleaner shelter much more appealing than a huge and dirty one. With temperatures expected to reach record lows overnight, Queen was planning to sleep outside a nearby church.

"I'm happier when I'm out here, to be honest," he said. "I think it's the clean air."