What Can DC Do to Stop the Dramatic Rise in Family Homelessness?
*This post has been updated
DC is in the midst of a family homelessness crisis. Why is this happening? What can we do about it?
First, the numbers. Family homelessness has increased by 46 percent since 2008, while across the nation the increase in homeless has been 1 percent. Not surprisingly, DC’s shelter system for families is overwhelmed. On March 4th, some 282 families were living in DC General — the city’s winter family shelter – the highest number that shelter has ever held. But even that is not enough to meet the demand. Another 128 families are in temporary shelter, 223 families have been placed in hotels, and 560 are on the pending list for shelter.
(It’s also worth noting that the need for shelter among single adults, particularly women, also has outstripped the supply in recent years.)
Is this all the result of the Great Recession? Rising unemployment has no doubt pushed more families to the edge, but primary causes of DC’s homeless crisis are deeper and will remain after the recession recedes. Homelessness in DC is caused primarily by the lack of affordable housing and extreme poverty. DC is quickly losing its affordable housing stock and has long had a poverty rate high above the national average. A parent would have to work 136 hours a week at minimum wage to afford a two-bedroom apartment at the “fair market rent.”
If housing has been unaffordable in DC for a long time, why the drastic increase in family homelessness over the last few years? A disinvestment in affordable housing programs is a significant factor. In 2007 and 2008, DC invested considerably in long- term affordable housing, particularly through the Local Rent Supplement Program. Since then, the majority of funding for homeless families has been in the form of short-term rental subsidy programs. This has been successful in other jurisdictions where homelessness stems from temporary joblessness and where housing is generally affordable. * However, the majority of families in DC shelters need long-term subsidies to avoid cycling back into homelessness. For some families, short-term assistance may be the right approach, but for others it is not enough to get them to the point where they can afford DC’s very high rents.
DC is paying the cost of the increase in family homelessness both literally and in human terms. Hotels are expensive – $3,000 per month per family—and yet offer minimally supportive services, These kinds of services leave yet another generation growing up homeless, struggling to meet even the most basic of needs.
DC can take simple and effective steps to decrease family homelessness:
1. DC could clear the hotels and the DC General shelter by placing 515 families into permanent affordable housing, at a cost of $7.7 million per year. If this happens before next winter, it would greatly reduce the pressure on the shelter system, serve more families, and eliminate the need to place families in expensive hotels.
2. DC agencies like the DC Housing Authority and the Department of Human Services could collaborate to prevent families from losing affordable housing by connecting tenants to services that would prevent eviction.
3. DC could invest in a pilot program to provide intensive employment supports and stable housing to homeless families receiving TANF. By pairing employment and housing help, the program would reduce homelessness and increase the success of welfare-to-work efforts. About 150 families could be helped for $2.25 million.
4. Reinvest in core long term affordable housing programs, such as the Housing Production Trust Fund, the Local Rent Supplement Program, and the Housing First program. (For more details on these last few recommendations, see the Fair Budget Coalition’s report at www.makeonecitypossible.com.)