Although Washington, D.C., is famously resilient amidst the economic downturns and jumps in unemployment that usually hit hard in other parts of the country, it has not be able to escape the past year’s nationwide surge in homelessness.
And area experts say that the District’s increase in homelessness will likely continue, unless low-income housing programs are expanded and made more available to the city’s poorest residents. In 2003, Washington, D.C. reported that 3,100 families applied for emergency shelter, a 18% increase since last year and a whopping 143% increase from 2000. An 12,297 adults were served by the shelter system last year, a near 10% increase from 2002, according to Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. (The number of families served by the shelter system actually went down 28% in 2003 because the length of stay for most families significantly increase.)
While D.C.’s increase in homeless single adults is on a par with the average increase nationwide, the city’s surge in homeless families is well above the 15% percent average increase for the nation’s 25 largest cities, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ 2003 Hunger and Homelessness Survey.
“The reality is that our nation has not been committed to enough housing through the most obvious, necessary means: providing more affordable housing,” said Stephen Cleghorn, deputy executive director of the Community Partnership. “At this point our nation has other priorities.”
Cleghorn pointed out that in addition to the lack of affordable housing, Washington also has a lack of well-paying jobs for low-skilled workers. Individuals would need to hold 2.5 full-time minimum wage jobs to afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment, which is $1,154 according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Donald Whitehead, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said he expects the situation to worsen because there is less affordable housing and more people living below the poverty line—two major causes of homeless across the country. Whitehead and others attributed the problem, in part, to the trend of replacing low-income housing with high end apartments and condominiums to attract higher-income individuals to the area.
Washington finds itself with an increase of high-paying jobs, which has drawn many upper-income people to the area, Whitehead said. While this helps the District’s overall economy, it adds to the ride in housing and living costs, leading to homeless ness and further difficulties paying for other basic needs.
Lynn French, senior policy advisor in the Deputy Mayor’s Office for Children, Youth, Families and Elders, said that the mayor’s goal is permanent housing for D.C. residents of all income levels. To the end, in fiscal year 2003 the city helped finance more than 2,700 affordable units, compared with 1,900 units in fiscal year 2000. For the major’s entire tenure in office, he has overseen – through work with the Housing Finance Agency, Housing Authority and Department of Housing and Community Development – about $1.1 billion in affordable housing development, including more than $650 million in affordable housing east of the Anacostia River.
The District Government is also improving emergency shelters and establishing supported housing where people can move into homes much more quickly than in past years, when the wait sometimes dragged on for two years or more. French also said that as further evidence that housing options in the city are increasing, the District has just received $863,352 from HUD to help fund emergency shelters.
She admitted the city still has a long way to go to meet its goal. “The challenge is to produce housing that’s available to all people,” she said.
But homeless advocates said that unless a city implements a “wraparound approach,’ one that treats homelessness as more than just a housing problem, and offers a range of services including health care, job training, education, legal services, substance abuse services and transportation, homelessness in D.C. will likely remain at current levels or increase.