by Aaron Wiener
Washington City Paper
March 17, 2015
The District is set to adopt ambitious targets for addressing its homelessness crisis, with goals of ending veteran homelessness by the end of this year, ending chronic homelessness by the end of 2017, and reducing the average shelter stay to 60 days or fewer.
The recommendations come in the latest five-year plan to address homelessness in D.C., adopted each half-decade by the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a city-established body consisting of top-level government officials, homeless services providers, advocates, and formerly homeless residents. ICH has prepared its draft plan, and will complete the final plan by the end of the month.
Some of the targets laid out in the draft plan may be a stretch, given that the number of homeless families, one component of the total homeless population, has been climbing, not shrinking. Last winter brought a spike in the number of families seeking shelter that took city officials by surprise. This year, officials anticipated a higher total, but the reality has been even direr, exceeding projections of a 16 percent increase in the number of families in shelter over last year.
Still, the plan's authors believe the goals are within reach if the right steps are taken. "I think they’re achievable with a lot of work," says Kelly Sweeney McShane, president and CEO of Community of Hope and a co-chair of ICH's strategic planning committee, "and part of the plan is laying out the work that needs to be done."
The goal of ending veteran homelessness comes as part of a national push to do the same. In November, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro was on hand as D.C. officials broke ground on the District's first permanent supportive housing for homeless veterans. Government officials and advocates have likewise sought to bring attention, and money, to housing all chronically homeless individuals, defined as people who have been homeless for a year or more, or at least four times in the past three years, and have at least one chronic health condition. Last month, a group of advocates and members of the D.C. Council convened at the John A. Wilson Building to publicize the cost to the city of chronic homelessness and the cost-effectiveness of addressing the problem promptly.
Both of those targets come with end dates during the first term of Mayor Muriel Bowser. The third major goal has a longer time frame, and is perhaps the most difficult to achieve. By 2020, the plan states, households experiencing homelessness will be rehoused in an average of 60 days or shorter. As of a year ago, the average stay at the D.C. General family shelter was longer than three months. Relisha Rudd, the eight-year-old girl who was abducted from the shelter just over a year ago, had been living there with her mother for 18 months.
The plan acknowledges that the goal of reducing the average stay to two months or less is "a heavy lift, but one that we think is achievable." It would be a major boon to the city as it tries to bring demand for family shelter in line with supply. Currently, that balance is lacking, forcing the city to shelter hundreds of families in motels for lack of space elsewhere. Last year, according to the draft plan, 1,466 families received homeless services from the city, while there were just 369 units of family shelter.
The city is required by law to provide shelter to all homeless residents when temperatures drop below freezing. The past two winters have brought the city to such a crisis mode because when it's swamped with sheltering all those homeless families, it may not move as quickly as needed to bring families out of shelter and into housing. "The challenge," the plan states, "is that we cannot simultaneously use the same dollar to fund shelter and housing, and we must meet the shelter needs in our community while we are simultaneously working to bring more housing online. Only then can we start to contract our shelter inventory naturally."
The plan aims to reduce the shelter population over the years by diverting more families from shelter by helping them stay in their housing; by moving them out of shelter through the rapid rehousing program; and through a new housing program it calls targeted affordable housing:
The city's goal is to close down the troubled D.C. General and replace it with a network of smaller shelters, which it believes will be more easily managed. But the city has already given up its search for District-owned properties that can serve as replacement shelters, instead relying on what it hopes will be adequate privately owned spaces. As the plan notes, that'll take time. "Waiting indefinitely to see what the private market produces will inhibit our ability to transition out of D.C. General by a specified date," it states. In the very best-case scenario, if the city locates all needed shelter units and demand for shelter doesn't rise, the city could be ready to close D.C. General by October 2016. In all likelihood, it'll be longer.
If everything in the plan comes to pass, one of D.C.'s most persistent and costly problems—in terms of both the funds it requires and the lives it worsens—could be substantially ameliorated in just a few years' time. Then again, the city didn't see the current crisis coming. The next five years could bring new solutions, or new problems.
This article originally appeared in the Washington City Paper on March 17, 2015.