The District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness recently released Homeward DC, an ambitious plan designed to dramatically reduce homelessness in our city, making its occurrence rare and brief. In her first State of the District address, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) put her administration’s muscle behind the plan, and its implementation is funded in her budget.
Homeward DC is a comprehensive approach to the city’s homeless services system. Not only does it address the city’s growing family homelessness crisis, it also focuses more resources and attention on the hundreds of chronically homeless singles, many of whom have mental and physical health issues.
Many of the District’s commercial zones, parks and public spaces, building entrances and public libraries have become de facto day programs for approximately 1,700 individuals in the District who live on the streets or are forced to leave emergency shelters by 7 each morning. Those charged with managing these spaces often lack the training and resources to meet this population’s multifaceted needs. Libraries, emergency services, hospital emergency rooms, parks, the police department, property managers and store owners often bear the strains and costs of allowing people to remain on the streets without services.
The interventions needed to help chronically homeless individuals often go beyond affordable housing and better job opportunities and can differ considerably from what is needed to help families in crisis. Homeward DC recognizes that homelessness is not a monolithic problem with one solution. The Interagency Council on Homelessness’s strategy makes critical distinctions in the kinds of services and support needed to address various kinds of homelessness, allowing for the most effective use of resources without pitting the needs of one group against another.
Business improvement districts provide special services in areas of the District where the plight of the chronically homeless is most visible and can seem most intractable.
Every day, business improvement districts’ staff and contractors connect homeless individuals with critical services and, when available, housing. Business improvement districts also provide employment opportunities to homeless or formerly homeless individuals. However, despite this important work and a number of success stories, the needs of this very vulnerable population far outstrip the resources business improvement districts can provide. Without the kind of long-term, solutions-focused approach embodied in the Homeward DC plan, the services that our business improvement districts support can go only so far.
The D.C. Business Improvement Districts Council, an association of the city’s 10 business improvement districts, supports Homeward DC because it reinvigorates an approach to chronic homelessness that has worked in cities throughout the country, including the District.
In 2007, the administration of then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) launched a permanent supportive housing program that used a “housing first” approach to reducing homelessness. Housing first makes obtaining a safe and permanent place to live the foundation for the social service work needed to help stabilize a chronically homeless person. The program kicked off with 300 units and grew to more than 1,200 units by 2011. Since then, progress has slowed, but gains continue, in part because of an infusion of federal and local dollars to end veteran homelessness.
To move forward and reduce the number of individuals sleeping on the streets, new emphasis and new energy are needed. Homeward DC leverages federal government resources and benefits from the development of a streamlined screening process to ensure that resources are targeted and deployed more effectively. Fully funding Homeward DC makes human, business and taxpayer sense. It will improve the lives of people and reduce strain on places and services ill-equipped to adequately respond to the needs of homeless people.
The District is poised to become a national leader in the fight against chronic homelessness, thanks to a coalition of city leaders, advocates, service providers and businesses in pushing for this approach.
The writer is executive director of the D.C. Business Improvement Districts Council.