Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Advocates are pressing elected officials to appropriate more than $17 million toward targeted housing and human services for the District’s chronically homeless as Mayor MurielBowser prepares a budget to send to the D.C. Council in early April.

Separate from funds for families, the figure represents the largest formal request local advocates have ever made to benefit longtime homeless individuals. It follows past investments that have started to bear fruit, leading to an 11 percent drop in chronic individual homelessness in D.C. from 2015 to 2016, consistent with national trends.

This challenge is just one frontier in the fight to end homelessness. A national report released in December found that D.C. had the highest overall rate of homelessness of 32 American cities, with an estimated 8,350 people homeless as of January 2016. 

Given those stakes, District leaders say they are generally willing to grant the request while acknowledging possible trade-offs, especially in light of uncertainty surrounding federal funding under President Trump. As D.C.’s fiscal year 2018 budget takes shape, it remains to be seen whether taxpayer dollars for the homeless will be shifted to priorities like education, Metro, and public safety. 

“The past two years have seen increasing investments in homelessness, and I’m hopeful this year that trend will continue,” says Kate Coventry, an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “But of course you never know until the budget is released.”

Residents considered chronically homeless are the most vulnerable—by definition they have at least one diagnosed disability and have been unhoused for a minimum of a year, or four times over the course of three years. 

Almost 3,700 homeless individuals—not counting families, whose tally has jumped—were counted in D.C. at the beginning of last year. Of these, roughly 1,500, or 41 percent, were recorded as chronically homeless, nearly twice the national average. 

Worse, of those 1,500, some 240 (or 16 percent) were living without shelter. They sleep under bridges, in vacant buildings, or on park benches and outside stores. Averaging around 55 years old and tending to be black men, some carry tents and sundry belongings they have accumulated over time. Many do not survive past 65—dying of diabetes, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and other treatable conditions.

These demographics and outcomes are among the reasons that activists like Jesse Rabinowitz of Miriam’s Kitchen view housing as a matter of racial justice. “It really pulls on my heartstrings to see so much homelessness—and so much poverty—in a city with so much power,” Rabinowitz says. “Housing saves lives.”

That belief has led a coalition of nonprofits to ask officials to allocate $17.4 million in the upcoming budget for homeless singles—a tiny fraction of the D.C. budget. Last fiscal year, the city’s budget was roughly $13 billion in both local and federal funds. The District has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on updating aging public schools and on constructing sports venues like Nationals Park and the planned D.C. United stadium. This week, it marked the one-year anniversary of the D.C. Streetcar, a $200-million-plus project that suffered years of delay.

Advocates explain that the $17.4 million is based on data, need, and the city’s ability to implement programs. “We’re not pulling the numbers out of the sky,” Rabinowitz says.

Of that, $8.5 million would bankroll what’s called “permanent supportive housing,” or PSH, for 535 homeless people. PSH refers to subsidized units where tenants pay just 30 percent of their income (if they have any) on rent and receive intensive case management. The La Casa project on Irving Street NW in Columbia Heights is an example of this best practice. 

Rabinowitz says placing someone in PSH can save D.C. tens of thousands of dollars a year. While the city spends an estimated $40,000 per chronically homeless person each year on emergency services like ambulance transports and hospitalizations, the cost of PSH is closer to $20,000. 

As of the fiscal year 2016 budget, D.C. provided for 565 scattered-site PSH units for chronically homeless people, in addition to 75 site-based PSH units like at La Casa, according to documents submitted to the D.C. Council. And last year’s budget saw the District fund a few hundred more units. On top of federal subsidies, this puts the figure of PSH units above 2,000, almost seven times more than what was available a decade ago.

“We’re starting to see a few people who have been in permanent supportive housing for five [to] 10 years get to the point where they don’t need major interventions anymore, and they can step down and free up a unit,” Rabinowitz says. D.C.’s funding pays for services and rental vouchers, which help the homeless age in place, find employment, and receive key behavioral counseling.

The funding request also includes $5.2 million for “targeted affordable housing” for 425 residents who no longer require PSH but still need subsidized units, as well as  $3.7 million for “rapid rehousing” for 343 residents who’d benefit from rental assistance and case management. 

“Targeted affordable and rapid rehousing need to grow together,” Coventry says. “If folks don’t proceed to rapid rehousing [from other programs], they’ll end up becoming homeless again.”

Advocacy groups aren’t the only ones calling for these kinds of solutions. Neil Albert, executive director of the Downtown Business Improvement District, says his organization has “long been an active funder and supporter of permanent supportive housing.” The BID piloted a drop-in center for homeless youth last year, and it’s working with D.C. to identify a daytime drop-in center.

A month from the deadline to submit the mayor’s proposed budget to lawmakers, the Bowser administration is mum on how much it’s planning to commit to various city services. But activists are sanguine that Bowser and councilmembers will come through.

“At this time it is premature to discuss specifics for the mayor’s upcoming budget, but it’s clear from previous budgets [that] the mayor has made ending homelessness a top priority as she promised to do two years ago,” Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris says in a statement. “The District is making great progress toward this goal.” Signs of this progress, Harris adds, include millions of dollars worth of investments in hypothermia shelters and voucher programs.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the human services committee, says fully funding homeless services is a “top priority” for her. “We can build new shelters, we can close [the] D.C. General [family shelter], but we need to have a pipeline of housing available,” she says. Meanwhile, At-Large Councilmember Robert White describes the $17.4 million as “a drop in the bucket,” adding that he doesn’t “see an excuse for the city to say we can’t afford” the request from advocates.

Or, as Rabinowitz  notes, “D.C.’s doing really well as a city.” Officials have a “hard job” of balancing priorities despite “such unprecedented growth and so many people moving in. We want to make sure [this] financial gain is spread around to our most vulnerable individuals too.”