D.C. is to be applauded for having made significant investments over the years to end homelessness for families and veterans. Now we need to bring even greater focus, energy and financial resources toward ending chronic homelessness.
The spike in chronic homelessness is distressing. Ending chronic homelessness is not only possible and cost-effective but also urgent. At least 180 people experiencing homelessness died in 2020. We can and must do better as a community and as a region.
It’s time the city made big, bold investments to end homelessness for all residents. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has a crucial choice to make: Save lives by investing in housing or underinvest in the urgent housing needs of our unsheltered neighbors. D.C. has the resources and the know-how to ensure that nobody else lives (or dies) without housing.
I’m thinking of Clemit Jones, one of 5,111 neighbors sleeping in shelters and designated pandemic sites, in parks, under bridges and in doorways the night of Jan. 27, when surveyors fanned out across D.C. to conduct the annual census, known as the Point-in-Time Count. (Though not perfect, the annual snapshot captures valuable data used to allocate funding and track progress).
Jones’s life began to unravel in 2008 when he lost his job. For 13 years, he has bounced from place to place — couch surfing or sleeping outside the library, in parks, in a shelter or in his car. In December, he landed in the hospital with a blood clot, the result of sleeping for so many years in his car, doctors told him. Tests also revealed a previously undiagnosed heart condition.
Back on the streets, he found life even more challenging during the pandemic. “There are so many things you take for granted when you have a home,” he says. Like sleeping in a bed. Or having access to a bathroom — something that has been much harder during the coronavirus pandemic. He is grateful for store owners who helped him when he hadn’t eaten for four or five days.
Since introducing the Housing First approach to this region 17 years ago, Pathways to Housing DC has met thousands of people like Jones, men and women who have been homeless for a year or more (sometimes decades) who are living with challenging health conditions. Their lives might be complicated, but the solution is not: Provide them with housing first, then combine that permanent housing with supportive services in the areas of mental and physical health, substance use, education and employment.
Put simply: The cure for homelessness is a home.
The past year has reminded us not only how integral housing is to health but also that homelessness is caused by a persistent legacy of systemic racism, not personal failings. The annual Point-in-Time Count confirms what we know: People of color are disproportionally impacted. A staggering 86.5 percent of individuals experiencing homelessness in D.C. are Black. Centuries of racist policies have denied entire communities the ability to thrive.
Against an ongoing backdrop of racial inequities and a looming eviction tsunami, and as a member of the Way Home Campaign, I call upon Bowser and the D.C. Council to follow through on the goal of making homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring” by ending chronic homelessness for 2,761 individuals and 432 families with an investment of $100 million. This figure is based on government and nonprofit projections of what it costs to house an individual in a given year. In addition, let’s invest in prevention and street outreach, in wide-scale rent and utility relief, the Local Rent Supplement Program and the Housing Production Trust Fund.
Similar investments must be made by leaders across the region to ensure a more aggressive plan to end homelessness, address issues of racism and housing affordability, and ensure that no person experiences homelessness again. Let’s also use lessons of the past year to continue to find innovative solutions going forward. I’m thinking of virtual housing inspections and converting office space and hotels for housing, among other new approaches that eliminate barriers and add more housing options.
In January, when Jones was released from the hospital, he was beginning to wonder whether he’d ever move off the streets. Yet, with the help of his Pathways housing navigator, he was recently approved for an apartment and expects to move into his own place by summer. I asked him what he is most looking forward to. “Stability. Solitude. A shower.”
Not that long ago, individuals who had lived on the streets for years had little hope of living independently. Today, with targeted funding, ending homelessness is within our grasp.