More than 750 families, including more than 1,400 children, are in D.C. emergency shelters right now. About one-third of them are living in the run-down former D.C. General Hospital complex; the others are in budget motel rooms in the District and Prince George’s County, at a cost to taxpayers of about $100 per room per night. Most are far from their communities — school, job, family and friends — have little or no belongings and must cope with being crowded into one room. Even the head of the city’s human services agency says the situation is “worse than it sounds.” It’s time to take immediate steps to help families move into stable housing so children can get a good night’s sleep to learn, moms and dads can go to work and the District can spend fewer dollars on costly emergency services.
The causes of this crisis are complex, but they are rooted in a shortage of affordable housing coupled with long-term unemployment for many families. If we don’t take quick action, this less-than-desirable living situation will soon get worse. Because most of the low-cost hotel rooms are already full with families needing shelter and many of those rooms are reserved for cherry blossom season, the District has started to place families in recreation centers — where they have almost no privacy and cannot get in before 9 p.m. and have to be out by 8 a.m.
A crisis of this magnitude calls for a clear strategy and collaboration between Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the D.C. Council, working in concert with providers, advocates and families. As a starting point, we can all agree that the strategy needs to help families quickly exit shelters in the short term and prevent families from needing emergency shelter in the long run. It also needs to do everything possible to find suitable places for homeless families to get back on their feet and to stop relying on recreation centers.
We’ve heard the mayor talk about addressing the crisis by giving the District the ability to determine if families have community ties that could help resolve its crisis before formally placing them in shelters. This can be a useful tool to help families regain stability and not have to rely on shelter for a longer period, provided they have a safe alternative and access to a safety net if that fails. But it’s also only part of the solution. The reality is that many of the families don’t have other options. And it won’t help address the immediate needs of the hundreds of families in emergency shelter. We need to do more.
The District’s Department of Human Services projects that the number of homeless families seeking basic shelter will swell to 1,000 by April 1. At the rate that the District is moving families out of shelter — 60 to 75 per month — it would take 13 to 17 months to get all into more stable housing. This would leave the shelter full well into the next winter, when more families are likely to seek help. Swifter action is needed.
Here are some parts of a reasonable approach the District could take:
●Find suitable homes quickly. The District needs more staff to locate decent, affordable apartments by doing aggressive outreach to private landlords and management companies and by having a system for getting apartments inspected quickly.
●Put someone in charge of the main initiative to get people out of shelter. The major program, Rapid Re-Housing, doesn’t have a program manager. It’s critical that the city have sufficient staff to manage its effort to reduce family homelessness.
●Devote greater resources to this unexpected crisis. This year’s budget anticipated having about 500 families in shelter on April 1. The District is on track to have twice that. With a $321 million surplus, the city shouldn’t think twice about allocating additional resources to help families in need.
●Pursue better prevention strategies. Prevention and diversion strategies, along with better case management, can stabilize families before they need shelter. The District can also employ targeted emergency rental assistance and one-time diversion payments. The community is eager to work on these ideas with the Gray administration.
Most important, we need to invest in more affordable housing. Without it, more families and individuals currently on the verge of a crisis will become homeless. We cannot afford to wait.
Jamila Larson is executive director of Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. Jenny Reed is policy director at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.