Mayor Bowser announced in early February that she would hire four permanent professionals to streamline the process of connecting families to housing. Candidates are still being considered, while the quantity and quality of affordable apartments available to homeless families continues to make the housing process difficult.
Typically, caseworkers with limited knowledge of the realty market in Washington work with families to acquire housing. These paid housing navigator positions are new to D.C. A requirement is that the person have prior experience working in the District’s competitive housing market, according to Dora Taylor, public information officer for D.C’s Department of Human Services (DHS).
“Unfortunately, we are in the midst of an affordable housing crisis and we think it’s important to have people experienced in real estate and not just in management,” Taylor said.
There were 1,885 families counted as homeless in the D.C. metro area during the 2014 annual point-in-time count, an 11 percent increase since 2013. During the 2014-15 winter hypothermia season, the city had to lodge families seeking shelter in motel rooms, because shelters were filled to capacity.
Navigators will help families identify units to live in as well as facilitate communication between tenants and their landlords. At first, the navigators will be working only with families, but Taylor said DHS hopes to open up the service to single individuals.
Generally, a family experiencing homelessness presents themselves at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center in Northeast D.C. to receive an assessment and a score. This sorts families into the programs that suit them best. Then the process of identifying housing for that family begins.
Most of the families scored are eligible for rapid re-housing, which provides rent subsidies for up to one year. Only 3 percent of families receive scores that qualify them for permanent supportive housing. That program provides a rent subsidy that can be permanent if the family has a permanent barrier keeping them from becoming self-sufficient, such as a disability.
DHS said it is trying to extend the amount of time a family can receive a subsidy.
“Because of the large number of families living in homelessness, we are tweaking the rules to expand the programs,” Taylor said.
Finding housing for large families is especially difficult for caseworkers, according to Taylor.
It is not unusual for clients to have preferences for where they live. Clients may want to return to an area with a familiar support system, or they might want to move away from an abusive or dangerous situation, said Kristy Greenwalt, the executive director of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH).
The housing navigators “should significantly ease the burden on a household in crisis,” Greenwalt said.
A recent five year plan to end homelessness released by the ICH set a goal of reducing any individual or family’s period experiencing homelessness to sixty days before they are placed into some form of housing.
“When it comes to making a match, it’s still the client that has a say in finding a unit that works for them,” Greenwalt said.
Locating a unit was easier said than done for Davinia and Bryon Hawkins, a married couple who rejected roughly 15 apartments before settling on their current home in Southeast Washington.
“When they first started showing us apartments I kept asking her ‘would you want to live here?’” Hawkins said.
Davinia and Bryon Hawkins were homeless until this year when they moved into their apartment in late February through the Rapid Re-Housing program, which they applied to through Friendship Place. The process took them roughly six months, Bryon Hawkins said.
“Every time [my caseworker] took us to see an apartment, it was always some drug infested area with some dope fiends hanging outside the building, and I didn’t want none of those places,” said Davinia Hawkins.
Trash littered the hallways of most of the apartments that Davinia Hawkins and her husband toured, and people loitered in and around the buildings selling drugs, she said.
But the worst apartment they toured was on Capitol Avenue, Bryon Hawkins said.
“I could smell the urine already getting out the car,” he said. “I opened up the door and all you smell was more piss and shit.”
Bryon said he preferred to live in Northwest, D.C., but housing prices kept him out of the area.
Lack of affordable housing was credited for the 11 percent increase in homeless families in the D.C. metro area from 2013-2014, according to last year’s homeless census.
Short-term rental subsidies cannot overcome the loss of affordable housing units in D.C., the report stated.
“A lot of federal funding for permanent supportive housing just isn’t there anymore,” Taylor said on behalf of the Department of Human Services.
In addition to Mayor Bowser’s housing navigators, the city will create a “housing team,” in order to expedite the process of acquiring housing for the District’s homeless families.
The housing team will include four housing navigators, two housing inspectors, two members of an assessment team and one new-lease housing specialist, according to Taylor.
Candidates for the positions are still being vetted by Michele Williams, DHS’ family services administrator. DHS welcomes candidates for the navigator positions from the private or public sector. In addition to realty knowledge, experience working with homeless families is preferred.
“The Mayor announced it and made funding available, but then entrusted us with the selection process,” Taylor said.
Less than one percent of the city’s projected family services budget will be spent on the entire housing team.
For families like the Hawkinses, finding housing is a frustrating hurdle to overcome. But having a place to shower and stay clean has helped Bryon Hawkins keep his job as a mail carrier and do it well, he said. In the future they hope to own their own home.
“I want the all-American dream, a house,” he said. “That’s what everybody works for, works hard for, a house.”