Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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An annual point-in-time count of the number of homeless people in D.C.—so named because it captures a snapshot of the city’s homeless population over one night—indicates that while the number of families experiencing homelessness has dropped significantly, by more than 20 percent, there are more homeless single adults now than there were last year, and a few populations more at risk. 

The count, conducted by The Community Partnership in concert with about 300 volunteers, catalogued the number of homeless individuals and families staying in shelters and living on the street, as well as those who receive some form of a housing subsidy. It shows that while homelessness in D.C. continues to trend down, there are still more homeless people in D.C. today than there were five years ago—a fact made more glaring by Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s commitment to totally eliminate chronic individual and family homelessness by the end of 2017.

 Laura Zeilinger, Director of the Department of Human Services, acknowledges that the city has missed its own benchmark, which she referred to as “bold and aggressive,” for eliminating chronic family homelessness. But she says the plan D.C. has developed to curb homelessness and increase housing stability is the right one: “We have the right plan, we’re on the right track, and we’re measuring the right things. We know where we need to drive progress.” 

Overall, there were 6,904 people experiencing homelessness in D.C. on the night of TCP’s count in late January. That marks a 7.6 percent decrease from 2017, when there were nearly 7,500 people experiencing homelessness. The overall decrease was largely driven by the city’s push to expand shelter access and rapid rehousing subsidies to homeless families, and the city counted 924 homeless families this year, compared to 1,166 in 2017.

The number of unaccompanied individuals experiencing homelessness, meanwhile, increased by more than five percent since last year, from 3,583 in 2017 people to 3,770 this year. Seventy-three percent of those people are men.

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“We know it’s about inflows into the system,” Zelinger says. “We continue to increase exits to permanent housing, but there are more people coming in than are exiting.” Amber Harding, an attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, is more blunt: “We’re not even treading water here,” she says. (The Department of Human Services announced earlier this year that it will renovate four of the city’s singles shelters for men, largely because the buildings are in “deplorable condition,” as well as “unsafe for both residents and staff.” It’s not uncommon for homeless residents to choose sleeping in a tent encampment or on the sidewalk rather than seek shelter offered by the city.)

Data provided by a spokeswoman for DHS shows that 600 of the homeless people counted in D.C. this year were “unsheltered,” or not staying in a bed provided by the city. That figure marks a decrease from 2017, when the city counted 897 unsheltered people, but still double the 318 unsheltered people counted in 2016. Last year, the city attributed that disparity to fluctuating temperatures that drove people into, and out of, shelters. 

The city has also grappled with plans to tighten eligibility requirements for those seeking shelter in D.C. in an attempt to screen out residents from other jurisdictions. Zeilinger says the most recent DHS data indicate that about 12 percent of shelter applicants come from other jurisdictions, but that the reductions in sheltered homeless counts this year are not a result of restricting access to shelter. “Nothing in our data shows that progress is because we’re denying access,” she says.

Demographic data collected from the homeless shows that while reports of disabling conditions—including chronic substance abuse, severe mental illness, and chronic health problems—have remained relatively consistent with levels reported in previous years, there are a handful of other indicators that have shifted. 

The number of adults in families who reported domestic violence increased sharply this year, with more than one-third of homeless adults in families reporting that kind of abuse, compared to 25 percent in 2017. About 40 percent of single adult women, meanwhile, reported experiencing domestic violence.

Conditions have worsened, too, for homeless veterans. On the night of the 2018 PIT count, D.C. identified 306 homeless veterans, a seven percent increase from 2017, despite “helping 449 veterans exit homelessness to permanent housing” between the 2017 and 2018 counts. The PIT report seems to indicate that the increase caught District officials off guard: “The District anticipated it would be closer to ‘functional zero,’” the report states, using the term that refers to the near-total eradication of a homeless population, “but due to the sustained high levels of inflow[,] combined with the slowdown of federal resources available to serve this population, the District’s PIT number remains stubborn.”

Finally, the PIT report shows that the city saw a nearly 39 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied youths over 2017 levels, a change it credits to newly available targeted programming for young people and parents that helped encourage those populations to seek services from the city. Those include emergency shelter access and transitional housing resources that helped stem the number of young people couch-surfing or engaging in survival sex. The report says the number of homeless teens “is expected to level off within the first couple years” of the plan’s implementation.