A new prevention program is helping families stay out of shelters and overflow facilities, like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE. Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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Larry Long began to fear he’d have to stay in a homeless shelter with his young daughter earlier this year.

He was born and raised in the District, and attended Dunbar—the only D.C. high school with an elevator at the time, he points out. After graduation, Long went to a local trade school to study carpentry and, despite some old football injuries, he worked steadily until he hurt his back about five years ago. 

L0ng has helped raise his daughter since she was born four years ago. 

“I changed all her diapers, every diaper she ever had,” he says. “I was there.”

They had been living with his grandmother, but the situation deteriorated, he says, and he had just two weeks to find a new place. He went to the D.C. Department of Human Services’ intake center on Rhode Island Avenue NE in search of help. 

“I thought I would be going into shelter,” he says.

When Long’s situation was assessed at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, he qualified for homeless services assistance but wasn’t sent to D.C. General or to a motel. Instead, he was diverted into a new prevention program and was connected to Community of Hope, one of four nonprofits that currently provides or connects clients to services including case management, employment or housing assistance, and credit and budget counseling.

With their help, Long came up with a long-term plan, got credit counseling, and picked up extra contracting work to raise his income. This allowed him to search for an apartment, but it wasn’t easy, he says: Neighbors at the first five or six places he looked at warned him that the areas weren’t safe for a young child. But he eventually found an “ideal” apartment in a quiet, tree-lined section of D.C. near the Maryland border. It even has two bathrooms, so his daughter gets her own.

It had been 20 years since Long had a place of his own. 

The prevention program is just one piece of an ongoing overhaul of D.C.’s homeless services, but it’s a key part of the plan to fix a broken emergency system that’s serving  more families—many times over—than it was designed to. If the District doesn’t reach families before they absolutely must enter shelter, the system may never be fixed, and families will continue to live in shelter for far too long.

“When we looked at the data of the number of times people came in seeking help with their housing before it got to the point where they were needing a shelter stay, it was pretty clear that we were missing a lot of opportunities to help people while they still had a safe place to be,” says DHS Director Laura Zeilinger.

The pilot began in September, and as of May 9, DHS had referred 1,378 families to the prevention program. Just 144 of those families have had to enter shelter.

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Compare that number to this year’s point-in-time count, an annual report on the number of homeless adults and families in the region as counted on a single night in January.

The total number of D.C. families on Jan. 28 in shelters and motels (used as overflow facilities) was 1,491, up from 1,131 in 2015—a jump of nearly 32 percent. That number may seem alarming until you consider the significant change that DHS instituted in early 2015: year-round access to emergency shelter.

D.C.’s shelter laws were already progressive: Single adults and families have the right to access shelter on any night when the temperature falls below freezing; this period, called hypothermia season, usually stretches from November to March. While single adults exit that emergency placement once the temperature rises, families are usually able to remain in shelter until they move into housing. 

At the moment, the average length of stay for a family is six to nine months. 

Between April and October of 2015, DHS placed 464 families in shelter, as opposed to just 12 during that period in 2014. DHS doesn’t know exactly where those 400-plus families would have been, but the possibilities aren’t good: doubled up with friends or relatives, sleeping in cars or abandoned buildings, staying with abusive partners.

Jamey Burden, vice president of Housing Programs and Policy at Community of Hope, says nonprofits, DHS, and the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness over the past three years have discussed implementing some sort of targeted prevention program.

“At some point, we got a lot more enthusiasm around it,” he says. “There was some good advocacy on the D.C. Council. I think the mayor’s office liked the idea.” 

Those involved with the initiative describe it as a “lighter touch,” or like an emergency room in a hospital (each family can receive up to $5,000 worth of help from the program). The families that qualify for it are experiencing some sort of crisis but have at least five days to stay somewhere DHS determines is safe. That way, D.C. can take the time to figure out what’s really going on in a family’s household before it decides which services they need.

Burden provides a composite: A young woman with one or two children is living with her mother, but tensions are high. Maybe she isn’t following through with an agreement to go to college, or is unable to provide money for groceries. 

Community of Hope can step in as a mediator, Burden says, and try to plot a solution that will allow the young woman to stay in the house, at least until she can get her employment training completed or look for housing of her own.

“There was this part missing,” says Burden, “where people almost had to get to the point where they were in shelter before we were able to assist them.”

Families and providers have also shifted expectations. “We try not to pre-determine what is a good outcome,” says Burden. “That’s been a little bit of a culture hurdle. We’re learning… that you can’t tell on the onset sometimes what is the best outcome for a family.”

“A success doesn’t [always] mean that somebody is leased up in their own unit,” adds Tiffany Tyler, a policy analyst for DHS. “A success means… we’ve been able to stabilize this housing and prevent the family from coming into shelter.”

It’s necessary for DHS and its community partners to figure out solutions other than placing each family in their own unit for obvious reasons: D.C. is facing an affordable housing crisis, and landlords are not as willing to rent to homeless families (even if they have a voucher) for a number of reasons—past credit problems, old debt, previous evictions, ongoing stigma. The millions in additional funds the D.C. Council approved for fiscal year 2016 for rapid rehousing vouchers and permanent supportive housing is helping. But DHS isn’t a housing creation or preservation agency. It can’t pull units out of thin air.

Noah Abraham, a vocational development specialist for DHS, says finding units for the families is “one of our biggest challenges.”

“We need to have a bigger conversation with landlords in the District,” he says.

DHS is trying to do that. It recently held a listening sessions with landlords to hear their concerns about renting to homeless families, and the agency is considering creating a fund that landlords could pull money from if they have to make repairs or evict a tenant.

Burden says “part of the battle is just being armed with the information [like a low credit score] to do damage control.” That way, housing navigators from the nonprofits can help the clients  advocate for themselves.

As part of the prevention program, a DHS staff member is embedded at each of the nonprofits involved (Capitol Hill Group Ministry, MBI Health Services, LLC, and Wheeler Creek Community Development Corporation are the other three). The benefits are twofold: These staffers have had experience at Virginia Williams and at the motels, says Tyler, which helps them understand the typical needs of these families. And it also ensures that the city and the providers are communicating about what’s working and, even more importantly, what’s not.

“I’ve done a lot of work on prevention. It’s a good partnership,” says Burden. “It’s a good example of nonprofit and advocacy and government working together to come up with a program that we really feel like has a lot of promise.”

The prevention program also allows the District to reach families with services earlier than it has been able to historically, but DHS wants to provide services even earlier. For example, families may one day have the option to be assessed for prevention services by a community provider, instead of having to come to Virginia Williams. 

DHS knows it’s facing an uphill battle. In addition to 252 families at D.C. General—the decrepit hospital-turned-shelter the Bowser administration is trying to close—655 families are currently staying in 12 motels—most outside the District. The city is currently employing 23 people to provide case management at motels outside the District and nine to provide case management at  the Days Inn and Quality Inn on New York Avenue NE. On April 25, DHS released a request for qualifications seeking to hire 20 people to provide case management at motels. 

DHS will be able to continue improving services for families, like providing year-round access to shelter, if system-wide changes persist. “If we were only doing year-round access [to shelter]… then we wouldn’t be able to afford it,” Zeilinger says.

“We would end up far over capacity and having to repeat some of the practices that got us to where we are today. We can and should do it, but we have to do all the other things well  [like prevention] in order for it to be realistic,” she says.

Zeilinger says there isn’t a timeline for getting families out of the motels completely. It could take years. But most months, DHS is seeing more families exit shelter than enter it, and if the prevention program continues past its pilot period—the mayor’s budget provides for it to do so—the District expects to reach even more families by the end of next year.

“There’s that 10 percent we can’t prevent, but that 90 percent—that’s where it is,” says Tyler. “That is the ticket. That is the sweet spot.”