Homelessness: A Growing Problem

On Tuesday, May 11th, DC Government held its bi-monthly Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) meeting. In attendance were department heads from the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) and the Dept. of Mental Health (DMH) as well as the chief of police and representatives of Emergency Medical Services (EMS). There were also shelter employees and other homeless service providers as well as homeless advocates, some of whom were homeless themselves.

As various committee members gave reports on their respective areas of expertise, one report stood out to me. It was that of Sue Marshall, director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) which is contracted under DHS to manage most of the city's homeless services (www.community-partnership.org). She read the results of the annual point-in-time homeless count which her agency conducts during the last week of January each year, as mandated by HUD. The report indicated that there had actually been a 5% increase in the number of homeless people in DC over the past year. (The figure has risen from 5,757 in 2007 to 6,539 in 2010 -- a 13.6% increase in 3 years.)

While the written report supposes that the 5% increase is a result of the increase in demand among families for shelter during the winter months, Ms. Marshall said that the higher number can also be attributed to improved tracking methods that have enabled TCP to find street homeless that they hadn't found during previous counts. The results were thrown into question by someone who was surprised to see that no unsheltered homeless people were found in Wards 7 and 8, the poorest of DC's 8 wards. This person's remark assumes that the number could be considerably higher.

The report also indicated that there are 4,062 persons residing in Permanent Supportive Housing. This figure can be confusing to an outsider, being that PSH was only begun in September 2008. Furthermore, during the May 11th meeting, DHS said that it predicts that it will place its thousandth person in PSH by October 1st of this year. The discrepancy lies in the fact that housing programs which were created long before Permanent Supportive Housing (proper) are retroactively referred to as PSH if their basic structure fits the mold. That said, DC has over 10,000 beds for homeless or formerly persons. In an effort to move away from a reliance on emergency shelter and toward more permanent housing, DHS and its partners have actually caused the total number of PSH units (4,062) to surpass the number of emergency shelter beds by almost one-third.

This system transformation has been the focus of the last two ICH meetings. In March, the homeless were asked during the community roundtable that precedes each ICH meeting what concerns they would have as the amount of low-barrier emergency shelter (which essentially only provides beds) is decreased and replaced with shelters that require residents to receive case management. During the May meeting, they were asked how the homeless resource centers which DHS is designing could best serve them. While the answers they gave and the emerging plans are a topic unto themselves, these structured discussions have helped to take the way in which DC Government addresses homelessness in a whole new direction.

It is important to note that DC's Dept. of Human Services took lessons from New York City's Dept. of Homeless Services, from which Robert V. Hess recently resigned as director, on how to design and administer the Permanent Supportive Housing program. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg charged Mr. Hess with the task of reducing homelessness in the city by two-thirds. At the end of 2009, the numbers had actually gone up. This points to a trend that has been created by the poor economy and goes to show that, in spite of our best efforts to end homelessness, the objective realities of today's economy have prevailed. What's more is that New York's failed effort raises questions about the future of the city that learned from them.

And while the social safety net continues to erode with funding for various social programs being slashed, Permanent Supportive Housing and other efforts whose aim is to to end homelessness continue to be funded -- and even expanded. How long this trend will continue remains to be seen. So, let's enjoy it while it lasts and make the best of it.

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