When the District’s human services department published the results of its annual Point In Time count last month—the survey of both sheltered and unsheltered homeless people living in D.C.—Mayor Muriel Bowser noted that the data indicated “tremendous progress” in the effort to combat homelessness across D.C.
“We are so proud of the progress we are making and genuinely grateful for the support of the community, our stakeholders and Mayor Bowser,” Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services, said in a statement at the time the results were published in May.
Data obtained through the count is critical, used by D.C. agencies and lawmakers to recalibrate homeless services programs, allocate funding, and track the city’s progress in meeting its anti-homelessness goals. (Bowser once promised to end chronic homelessness in the District by the close of 2017.)
The count, which took place on Jan. 23 this year and relied on some 300 volunteers around the District, reported that there were 6,521 homeless people in D.C., a figure that represents a 5.5 percent decrease since the 2018 PIT count, and is about 1,000 fewer people than were counted in 2017. Of the homeless counted, 608 people were unsheltered, and 1,234 were living in transitional housing programs.
A summary and analysis of the 2019 PIT results, compiled by The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness—the organization that D.C. pays tens of millions of dollars annually to manage many of its homeless shelters and services—says that the “primary driver” of the city’s decrease in family homelessness has been “a significant reduction in the number of families experiencing homelessness.”
But there is good reason to believe that the PIT count underrepresents the scope of homelessness in D.C. One important sector of the homeless population that PIT does not track, for example, is people who are “doubled up,” a category the Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as people staying temporarily with friends and family or living in institutional settings like hospitals and jails.
The National Center for Homeless Education shows that, during the 2016-17 school year (the most recent data available from the organization), there were 6,415 homeless children enrolled in the city’s public schools—a number that nearly matches what PIT considers the total number of homeless people in D.C. Nearly 57 percent of these kids were “doubled up.”
The Community Partnership acknowledged in its 2019 PIT analysis the difficulties of counting homeless youth, writing that the population “often remained ‘hidden’ in counts like PIT as they were staying in other, sometimes dangerous situations rather than entering shelter.”
This year’s PIT count reflects only 1,593 homeless children in D.C., though there were still about 6,000 homeless children in public schools at the end of the 2018 school year.
TCP’s own data around those who seek homeless services, and how frequently, show a growing demand for them.
“While the system’s housing resources are successful in helping participants retain their housing long term, inflow into the system has kept counts higher than expected,” a summary of the 2019 PIT results produced by TCP says. City Paper obtained a copy of the document, which also says that the total number of individuals who seek homeless services from the District for the first time has actually increased by 24 percent since 2015.
A separate document prepared by TCP, a “hypothermia debrief” that breaks down how many people sought services at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center between November 2018 and March 2019, also showed an increase in demand. Over 1,600 households went to Virginia Williams for assistance during the most recent hypothermia season, a figure that represents a 3 percent increase since the winter of 2018 in the number of households who sought help. There was also a 4 percent increase overall in the total number of visits made to Virginia Williams.
Perhaps most distressing is the client demographic seeking assistance. Close to 70 percent of the households who went to Virginia Williams for housing assistance “reported that they were living with family or friends at the time of their visit,” TCP wrote.
While D.C. is one of the few places in the country where homeless people have the legal right to shelter on freezing nights, the homeless must provide detailed documentation proving that they were D.C. residents before they became homeless, along with proof that they have no safe housing options, in order to receive shelter. Those staying with family or friends aren’t considered to have critical housing needs, and are frequently turned away from Virginia Williams, advocates say.
(It is also worth noting that the same documents show that a whopping 42 percent of families who exited D.C.’s homeless services system but then returned again for assistance were those who have used rapid rehousing vouchers. Rapid rehousing is a program that temporarily subsidizes homes for chronically homeless families.)
And when it comes to single adults, the number of homeless people continues to rise. The PIT count reflected an increase in the number of single adults by about 3 percent over 2018 levels.
In March, Kristy Greenwalt, director of the Interagency Council on Homelessness, testified before the D.C. Council that the District currently has housing resources for about 1 out of every 10 homeless single adults, acknowledging that the number of individuals seeking housing services has steadily increased over the last year.