The Washington Post

Winter homelessness among D.C. families called ‘catastrophic’

The unexpected and unprecedented rise in family homelessness in the District this winter — bringing homelessness to levels not seen since the crises of the 1980s — is costing at least $20 million more than city leaders anticipated. And unless things change quickly, hundreds of these families could be stuck in shelters and hotels long into the spring of 2015.

More than 1,000 new homeless families will need shelter this winter if current rates continue, David Berns, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, said Monday at a roundtable hearing. And only 250 families already in shelters are projected to leave. Adding to the urgency, Berns said, is that the D.C. General family shelter is full and so are all the inexpensive hotel rooms in the city.

The 110 homeless families placed into two Maryland hotels will have to be moved back to the District in the coming weeks, after Maryland officials raised concerns, he said. At the same time, many D.C. hotels where homeless families are staying need the rooms for the already-booked Cherry Blossom Festival and the coming tourist season. Homeless families currently are being sent to two D.C. recreation centers to sleep on cots in large, open spaces.

“It sounds bad, and it’s worse than it sounds,” Berns said.

Berns intimated that, without additional funding, he may in the spring need to close shelters for homeless singles that typically stay open all year, and he told city leaders that he wouldn’t want to have to resort to “equally horrid” measures such as no longer paying for hotel rooms. But, he said, the homeless family crisis has quickly become a long-term fiscal crisis.

“If we can’t move more families out, we’ll start next year already in a deep hole,” he said. “All our money will be going to maintain the families already in the system, rather than the new ones coming in.”

Advocates, homeless families and city leaders at Monday’s roundtable hearing described the homeless family crisis this cold winter as “catastrophic,” and they called for short-term fixes to more quickly move people out of crowded shelters and hotels and into apartments and stable homes. They also called for long-term solutions to replace some of the thousands of units of affordable housing the city has lost as it gentrifies, and better jobs for people with very limited means.

They urged city leaders to tap into some of the $300 million budget surplus from last year to get people into permanent housing with rent subsidies, which they said would be cheaper than the $50,000 a year it costs to house a family at D.C. General and the $31,000 to $43,000 it costs per family per hotel room annually.

But when it came to what to do about the crisis, Berns came up short.

“Right now, I don’t have any fresh ideas,” he said.

Since the city started offering only cots at recreation centers, Berns said the number of homeless families asking for shelter has dropped from an average of 30 a day down to 17 on the first day families were sent to recreation centers last week. On Monday, there were no families asking for shelter.

A group of advocates worked over the weekend on a plan to resolve the crisis that included hiring more staff members dedicated to looking for more affordable apartments, working with landlords to accept short-term rental subsidies and ensuring that the city’s Rapid Rehousing program is working.

Part of the reason for the backlog, advocates and homeless families said, is the city’s new philosophy of using Rapid Rehousing — providing short-term rental assistance for market-rate rentals and intensive help to get families to cover the costs themselves within four months to a year. Landlords don’t want to take short-term leases. And homeless families are too afraid to try it — instead they choose to stay in the shelter or hotels.

Cartrice Haynesworth , one of several homeless family members testifying Monday, said she’d rather have a voucher for a permanent subsidy or a rent-controlled public housing unit. But advocates said the city is no longer providing the former and there are no spaces at the latter.

Haynesworth decided to try Rapid Rehousing and Wednesday moved in to a $1,208-a-month, two-bedroom apartment. Since she’s been out of work, she receives $202 in Temporary Aid to Needy Families, plus food stamps for herself and her 11-year-old daughter. She will pay $64 a month toward rent and has, she said, all long way to go — getting a high school degree and finding a job — before she can cover it all.

“A lot of families that tried Rapid Rehousing are back at D.C. General, so families are afraid to try it,” she said. “That’s one of my fears.”

Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Human Services Committee, who called the roundtable, said the city must find answers. “But we don't solve the problem by bringing people from hotels in Maryland and putting them in D.C. rec centers.”

Brigid Schulte writes about Good-Life: work-life issues, time, productivity, gender and income inequality. She is the author of the bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when No One has Time.


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