Jeneil Leans son in their apartments son in their apartment
Jeneil Leans son in their apartments son in their apartment Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Each backstory is different. Some begin with abuse. Others involve layoffs, or evictions, or pregnancies, or a falling-out with family. They’re stories of the Great Recession, or of inherited poverty, or of plain bad luck. But they all lead to the same place.

Nikki’s story goes like this. She got her first apartment in 2008. But she was young, she was wild; she lost the apartment. She found another one. The rent, at $850 a month, was manageable. Then she was laid off. She got evicted.

She and her daughter, now 17, went to stay with her mom. Her mom is on and off drugs. In the middle of the night, she kicked Nikki and her daughter out. They slept where they could. First, it was a picnic area behind the First District police headquarters on M Street SW. Then they’d split up, each crashing on a friend’s couch.

It was hard on Nikki’s daughter. She’d never had it easy. Her father’s been incarcerated since she was three. She looked up to Nikki’s fiancé as a father figure, but he was murdered in 2011, in what Nikki says was a random incident. Her grades at Wilson High School have slipped badly.

Nikki found another job, at the Costco in Wheaton. But Costco wouldn’t give her more than 20 hours a week. It cost her so much time and money to commute to work that she thought about quitting. She couldn’t afford to quit.

Nikki and her daughter continued sleeping where they could. There was one place they couldn’t go. They’d stayed at the D.C. General family shelter once before, and Nikki’s daughter got very sick.

“If I have any other option,” Nikki told me, “I make that my last.”

That was in November. As the winter wore on, the options dwindled for Nikki, who asked me not to use her real name in order to protect her privacy. She sought city shelter. D.C. General was full. She and her daughter were placed in a room at the Quality Inn on New York Avenue NE. They’ve been there since Jan. 5.

There are hundreds of families in the District like Nikki’s. Each has its own distinct history, but their disparate paths have led them to the same place. As of mid-March, there are 528 homeless families living in motels, for lack of another safe place to sleep and of space at D.C. General, where another 240 homeless families are living.

In the winter of 2013–2014, a huge spike in the number of homeless families seeking shelter took the city by surprise. Then, as now, the families had their unique backstories, but the spike resulted largely from broad economic factors. People like Nikki lost their jobs, and then their homes, in the aftermath of the recession. They bounced around among friends and relatives who offered a couch or air mattress. They ran out of options, and they sought shelter. The same thing was happening in cities around the country.

Until the District changed its shelter practices at the end of January 2014, the number of families seeking shelter was more than double what it had been the previous winter. Overwhelmed and unprepared, the city scrambled to find a way to accommodate them all, as it’s required to do by law whenever the temperature drops below freezing. It tried putting them up in recreation centers; when a judge deemed that illegal, the District turned to motels.

This winter, the city saw the crisis coming. A September report commissioned by the city government anticipated a 16 percent increase in the number of families requiring shelter. The administration of then-Mayor Vince Gray had been preparing. It launched an initiative to move families more quickly out of shelter and into housing. It tried to toughen up its requirements for families to get into shelter and to stay there. Administration officials confidently predicted that things would be under control by the time winter rolled around.

Instead, the crisis has grown even worse. The September report predicted that 840 families would enter shelter this winter, up from 723 last winter. By early March, the actual number had already eclipsed the forecast, as families continued to pour into the shelter system. As of March 13, the figure stood at 904—and climbing. The city has only 369 permanent units of family shelter.

Those 904 families have entered what’s known, figuratively, as the front door to shelter, the one families pass through when they have nowhere else to go. There are things the city can do to manage the front door, but there are also factors out of its control, primarily the lack of affordable housing and of decent-paying jobs for residents without a college degree.

The bigger problem this winter, however, has been the back door. The city has fallen well short of its targets for moving families from shelter to housing. And the families who do secure housing often discover it’s not so secure after all, and find themselves at risk of slipping back through the front door into shelter again.

As a result, the District has once again been swamped by a family homelessness crisis it can’t control. Now, with winter behind them, city officials are left to grapple with the same challenge they confronted a year ago, without success: Unless things improve dramatically over the coming months, the District is hurtling toward yet another crisis when winter returns.

For a snapshot of the factors that have brought the District to this point, you could do worse than the view from the sixth-floor conference room at the Department of Human Services headquarters on New York Avenue NE. Across the sea of surface parking stands a strip of retail that epitomizes the sweeping changes that have overtaken the city. On the left is the weathered Downtown Auto Repair, a reminder of the way the NoMa area used to look long before anyone called it NoMa. Then there’s the gleaming new 14-story Hyatt Place hotel, followed by Covenant House, which serves homeless youth.

One block behind Covenant House is 2M, a luxury apartment building that embodies the neighborhood’s dissonance. It features mostly high-end units, renting for as much as $3,000 a month, but also 59 apartments for residents who were displaced when the nearby Temple Courts low-income complex was demolished seven years ago as part of the city’s ill-fated New Communities Initiative to replace distressed public housing with mixed-income neighborhoods. Between Covenant House and 2M sits the building that until this fall housed the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center. That building was the epicenter of last winter’s homeless crisis: It was where homeless families went to apply for shelter. In October, Virginia Williams moved back into its previous home, which had been renovated, a mile and a half to the northeast—out of sight from DHS, but hardly out of mind.

The whiteboard at one end of the conference room is covered in scribbles when I pay a recent visit. They’re the work of Laura Zeilinger, whom Mayor Muriel Bowser picked to direct DHS two months earlier. (She would be confirmed by the D.C. Council on March 17.) As soon as I bring them up, Zeilinger tries to steer me away from them.

“That’s not on the record, that whiteboard,” she says, although we didn’t agree beforehand to keep the contents of the office off the record. “That’s my brain dump to try to organize myself. You don’t get to report on it. That is not for publication.”

For all her caution, her notes are largely what you’d expect to be on the mind of an incoming department head who’s inherited a mess and been tasked with turning it around. There are her scheduled interviews: “Kojo, City Paper, WaPo profile, Al Jazeera.” There’s a reference to her upcoming confirmation hearing.

And then there are all the problems she’s facing. At the top, and underlined, is “TCP contract.” The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness is the organization that runs the troubled D.C. General shelter and oversees the rest of the city’s shelter operations. TCP has come under fire for a slew of allegations, including poor conditions at D.C. General, failure to pay certain housing subsidies, overbilling the city by more than $5 million, and an incident that’s also on Zeilinger’s priority list.

“DCG Relisha Rudd,” reads a line on the whiteboard. Eight-year-old Relisha vanished from D.C. General a year ago, apparently kidnapped by a shelter janitor. Her disappearance has raised questions about TCP’s enforcement of safety procedures at the shelter. But her 18-month stay at the shelter, with her mother, prior to being abducted also highlighted a troubling trend: the entrenched nature of family homelessness in the District. The median homeless family has been in so-called emergency shelter for 168 days, or nearly six months, according to DHS. The longest stay to date is four years.

As a result, D.C. General has been full all winter, forcing the city to put families up in six motels. That’s the next item on Zeilinger’s list: “Motels: role clarity, accountability, financial controls.” The city doesn’t want to use motels: They’re expensive—DHS won’t reveal how much the city spends on them, but the cost this winter has run into the millions of dollars—and city officials worry that they’re cushy enough to cause families to seek shelter when they have other options. (Nikki’s story underscores the appeal of the motels: She paid a visit to Virginia Williams after learning that D.C. General was full and she’d be placed at a motel.)

But behind these issues—the maxed-out D.C. General, the ballooning motel population—is another one that, just as much as rising housing costs and falling employment opportunities, is responsible for this winter’s crisis. Under the “family homelessness” heading, Zeilinger has written:

rapid rehousing providers

rapid rehousing program rules/regs

Rapid rehousing is the city’s main way of moving families from shelter to housing. An outgrowth of a similar federal program born out of the Obama administration’s stimulus package, rapid rehousing allows a homeless family to move into an apartment for steeply discounted rent. The family pays 30 percent of its income (including non-wage payments through Social Security and unemployment insurance) toward rent—the widely accepted standard of affordability—and the city covers the rest. But the subsidy is guaranteed for just four months. The city can extend it up to a year, or sometimes longer, but at some point it ends, and the family must pay its own way.

The program conforms to the housing-first model that’s become the new orthodoxy across the country. In the old system, homeless residents often had to overcome addiction or mental-health issues before they received housing. Backers of rapid rehousing and other housing-first programs, like Zeilinger, believe that reliable housing is essential to surmounting these problems. In theory, a family placed into rapid rehousing gains a degree of stability that makes it easier to find work, pay rent, and eventually get by on its own.

It doesn’t always work out that neatly. Many homeless families have found that the program is neither rapid nor a guarantee of housing. One problem is the lack of affordable housing in the District. DHS tries not to place families into apartments they won’t eventually be able to afford on their own, and as a result, it’s been hard to locate a sufficient number of apartments. Some families that qualify for rapid rehousing struggle to find buildings that will accept them, because many have prior evictions or bad credit. Then there’s what happens at the end of the subsidy: Fearing they won’t be able to pay their own way and will end up back in shelter, many families are reluctant to take rapid rehousing in the first place.

“We are sort of learning,” says Zeilinger. “You know, this is a relatively new intervention nationally, and the District has recently taken this very quickly to scale.”

Last spring, with shelter exits into rapid rehousing and other programs not taking place quickly enough to free up space in D.C. General before winter struck, the Gray administration launched the 500 Families 100 Days program, which aimed to move that many families into housing in that timeframe. The initiative didn’t quite hit its goal, but through outreach to landlords, it did manage to speed up shelter exits, to 64 per month last summer.

But when winter struck, city agencies were forced to devote their resources to sheltering families, and the trend reversed. The number of exits dropped to 56 in October, 35 in November, and 38 in December. (According to DHS, they picked up again in January and February.)

“During 500 Families 100 Days, they had about 65 families moving out a month,” says Zeilinger. “We weren’t able to keep that up. Not only were we not able to keep that up, but I’ll tell you that since I’ve been here, we’ve had, on average, 10 families entering [shelter] every day that there’s an alert on [indicating hypothermia conditions and a legal right to shelter] and we’ve not been exiting anywhere near that number of people.” She says that while the city has invested in the social-service side of moving people out of shelter, “we are not putting the same kind of attention on the real-estate side” to help secure housing.

Most housing advocates in D.C. support rapid rehousing in principle, but see the need for substantial changes. The program suffers from a conundrum. In order to keep families from becoming complacent with their subsidy and to encourage them to look for gainful employment, the city guarantees its subsidy for just four months. But landlords are wary of signing a yearlong lease with tenants who are exiting homelessness with no real assurance that they’ll be able to keep paying the rent beyond four months. Many of these families have fixed incomes from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits, which give just $428 a month to a family of three, provided the family hasn’t yet exhausted its 60 months of full benefits. (The city has recently begun assuring landlords that they’ll get a full year of payments, although clarity surrounding the policy is lacking.)

“As long as they are guaranteeing a four-month subsidy, they’re going to have trouble finding landlords to sign a 12-month contract with someone making $428 a month,” says Marta Beresin, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Rapid rehousing needs to be fixed. It’s got huge problems.”

Nikki keeps running into those problems. She’s been looking for a rapid rehousing apartment for months, to no avail. It doesn’t help that Costco laid her off last month.

“They’re still sending me out to get apartments,” she says. “I’m still being denied because I have an eviction. I just keep hitting bump after bump.”

Lean and her children in their apartment. Lean is facing eviction six months after her rapid rehousing subsidy ended. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Rapid rehousing does have its success stories. The managers at Patricia Chances’ apartment complex are constantly telling her that she’s one of them.

The 47-year-old Chances grew up near the Navy Yard but moved to Maine in 1989 to get her associate degree. She settled in Boston, but returned to D.C. in a hurry in 2012 with her son, now 15, to escape a messy divorce.

“Because of the situation, I kind of walked away with my son, and just left everything,” says Chances. “So once I got here, it was kind of a struggle, because we didn’t have anywhere to go. Well, we stayed with my brother, but it was the same mental controlling and abuse that I left.”

Chances’ son went to stay with her niece, while Chances couch-surfed with friends and relatives. She slept in a couple of women’s shelters but disliked the experience and the separation from her son.

“That’s when my niece said, ‘Go to Virginia Williams, they can help you with the shelter,’” Chances recalls. “And I kind of blew her off. And I finally couldn’t take it and said, ‘OK, I’m going.’ I had to humble myself quite a bit.”

So she paid a visit to the building behind Covenant House, and she was approved for rapid rehousing in spring 2013. It took her three months to find her first prospective apartment through the program, but it fell through because she didn’t yet have her rapid rehousing approval letter. After another three months, she found herself in a “touch-and-go” situation with two apartments; neither worked out. Finally, three weeks later, she signed a lease.

She and her son now live on Southern Avenue SE. “We feel safe,” she says. “We have our own laundry there. I mean, the neighborhood can be a little rowdy. But overall, it’s nice.”

Chances and her son share a one-bedroom apartment that rents for $895 a month. Initially, she paid just $210 of that, and TCP covered the rest. Then she found a part-time job; her rent share increased to $235 a month. Finally she found full-time work taking reservations at the Dupont Circle Hotel. TCP’s subsidy dropped to $17 a month. Chances had to pay the rest, but she wasn’t complaining.

“I was kind of happy about that,” she says. “It was showing me, you can do this, because you’re basically paying your rent. The last three months of the program, I was just like, OK, they can keep their $17.”

She’s been such a reliable tenant that the building actually decreased her rent, ever so slightly, from $895 to $888 a month. Her only trouble is a balance of about $250 on her ledger, money that TCP owed but had inexplicably failed to pay, she says—a problem more than a few rapid rehousing participants have cited.

In October 2014, a year after Chances moved into her apartment, the rapid rehousing subsidy ended. It’s exactly how the program is supposed to work. But Chances is something of an anomaly: Back in April 2014, when Chances was ready for her subsidy to begin phasing out, her case manager at the nonprofit Community of Hope, Yolam Anderson-Golhor, told her that her move away from the subsidy was the fastest Anderson-Golhor had ever seen.

Anderson-Golhor, who’s been assisting rapid rehousing participants for nearly three years, says it’s basically impossible to make rent after only the guaranteed four months of subsidy. The average, in her experience, is just shy of a year. She estimates that three-quarters of the families she sees are able to pay the full rent after exiting rapid rehousing, “but at the same time they’re still living in poverty” because they’re paying more than they can really afford.

“It’s just, D.C. right now, the price of living and the price of rent is just crazy,” she says. “It’s skyrocketing. There’s a very limited number of apartments for under $800 in the city. Families can get housed, but they’re getting housed in these apartments that are $1,200, $1,300.”

Nordika Burton, another client of Anderson-Golhor’s, has a more typical story. The 31-year-old’s troubles began in 2008, when she had her second son. She stopped working in order to care for him, and she fell behind on her rent at her apartment off Stanton Road SE.

“I left before they could evict me, because I didn’t want them to throw me and my kids out on the street,” she says. They went to stay with her father in Bowie, but that didn’t work out. They returned to D.C. and crashed with a friend of hers, but the friend wasn’t paying her rent and got evicted. They started sleeping in her car, which she parked near her work in Congress Heights, where she assists an elderly woman as a home health aide.

“When the police saw us sleeping in the car, the next day I called Virginia Williams and told them what happened,” says Burton, who had tried to get into shelter before but was denied because it was too warm out. “And then they let us in. I told them the police were going to take my kids from me because we were sleeping in the car and didn’t have anywhere else to go.”

In October 2013, they moved into D.C. General, where they stayed for 10 months. Burton describes the shelter as “hell on earth.”

“It would get violent,” she says. “Before Relisha went missing, it was chaos. Constant, every day.” There were rats and roaches, and she witnessed rampant drug use around the shelter. The close proximity of homeless men and the lax security made her feel unsafe. Her children’s behavior at school suffered.

“I felt like I was in jail,” she says. “The kids were telling me all the time, ‘Mama, are we in prison?’ Because we have to walk through metal detectors, they have to search our stuff, we have to sign in.”

Her first month at the shelter was a blur; she continued working full time and learned little about the process for exiting shelter. After two months, she was approved for rapid rehousing. She began applying for apartments, and shelling out lots of application fees. But she was repeatedly denied. It took her a while to realize why: Like so many homeless residents, she had bad credit because of the apartment she’d been forced to leave when her second son was born.

The landlords she approached weren’t familiar with rapid rehousing. “They didn’t know anything about it,” she says. “Every apartment complex I went to, I had to explain to them what it was, what it was for, what I was going through. I constantly had to repeat my story over and over again. But half the time it really didn’t matter because most people just don’t want to help when it comes to low-income families or people in need.”

She finally secured a two-bedroom apartment on E Street SE, near Southern Avenue, and moved there last August. The rent, at $1,200 a month, is higher than she’d like. She initially paid just $300 of it, but her share is now up to $1,000 a month.

“It has its little problems, but it’s home,” she says. “It’s better than being in the shelter.” She’s working to avoid a return to shelter by updating her résumé and looking into obtaining a degree so she can stabilize her finances. But the danger of losing her job or apartment looms in her mind.

“It’s a fear of mine,” she says. “But I use that to propel me to get up every day and go to work. It’s like a motivation in a way. Because I do not want to go back there. Some people tell me they’ve been there five times, and they’re OK with it. It’s a revolving door that I do not want to go through. Because to drag the boys through that would be devastating.”

Lean and her dog Prada Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Far too many D.C. families have experienced this devastation. For every success story, there’s a cautionary tale. And it’s these tales that have kept the city from getting on top of its homelessness crisis.

Jeneil Lean can’t pinpoint exactly when she became homeless. Was it when her mother abandoned her, at 9 years old, with her younger brother and sister, leaving them to fend for themselves in a basement for three months? Or when she was separated from her siblings and sent to live in a hospital for lashing out like a “caged dog”? Was it when, shortly after securing her first apartment with her young first son, it burned down in 2006, along with all her possessions? Or how about when she and her son started sleeping in her car, or sought shelter at the deeply troubled and since-shuttered D.C. Village?

However you slice it, Lean has never really known stable housing. For the past few years, she’s bounced around with her two kids, now ages 8 and 9, and moved in and out of shelter. Their most recent stint at D.C. General lasted 18 months, ending in October 2013, when she moved into an apartment through rapid rehousing. She’d found the apartment herself and helped bring it up to code, working with a sympathetic landlady.

“My credit’s so bad, I couldn’t apply to another apartment complex,” she says. “Really, she was the only option I had, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to move anywhere else.”

That’s getting her into trouble now. At the start, she paid just $80 of the three-bedroom’s $1,300 monthly rent. But October marked the end of her subsidy, after a year.

“I pay full market rent now,” she says. “Well, ‘paying’ is kind of an understatement: I haven’t been able to pay it.”

Lean had picked up a second job while in the rapid rehousing program, but then she lost both jobs in rapid succession. I’m sitting with her in the Anacostia office of the nonprofit Bread for the City, where she’s receiving legal assistance as she faces eviction from her apartment. Given her credit and her financial standing, she has few illusions about where she’s headed next.

“It’s common knowledge at the shelters that you’re coming back if you do it,” Lean says of rapid rehousing. “Everybody says, ‘Don’t take rapid rehousing, because you’re coming back.’ There’s no way that you’re going to be able to sustain market rent and take care of your family in the allotted amount of time they give you, unless you have the education or something to really gain employment where you make enough right out of the gate.”

This is rapid rehousing’s fatal flaw. It works for people like Chances and Burton, who have stable employment. But it’s the city’s main way of moving families out of shelter, and one the government is trying to beef up: The Bowser administration launched its own version of the 500 Families initiative in February, with a new team of “housing navigators” tasked with helping homeless families find apartments. And for many homeless residents, like Lean, it simply isn’t realistic to think they’ll have enough income to support themselves at the program’s end. That’s why they became homeless in the first place.

DHS claims that 85 percent of rapid rehousing participants don’t require homeless services in the year after their subsidy ends. But that doesn’t mean they all remain stably housed. Some land on the streets, or in their cars, or in public spaces. Others double up with friends or relatives, whose abuse they may have been fleeing when they first sought shelter.

Some advocates question DHS’ figures, given the actual experience of homeless residents they see. “I think there’s just a disconnect between the data that DHS has on the success of the program and the reality of what we see coming through landlord-tenant court,” says Taylor Healy, an attorney with Bread for the City. Healy says the “vast majority” of rapid rehousing clients she sees are at the end of their subsidy and facing eviction; most of the others are nearing the end and trying to stave off eviction.

Lean’s mother was homeless. Her mother’s mother was homeless. Lean has been without a long-term stable home for more than 20 years. It’s not reasonable, she argues, for the city to think that she can turn around her finances in a year’s time.

“They were made very aware of the fact that I came from foster care, that I had no support, be it family, friends, or anything,” Lean says. And yet “because I have two working arms and legs,” they approved her for rapid rehousing. (Shelter residents can be kicked out of shelter if they’re approved for rapid rehousing and turn down two housing placements.) “If I get sick, if something happens to a child, if something happens where my job no longer sees it as necessary to keep me employed, I don’t have any resources to tap into. And I’m living check to check on top of that. You put all that together, and every time something happens, I’m going to fall down and need to go into the shelter. And it’s never going to stop.”

“Rapid rehousing,” Healy says, “is not designed in a way that it can solve generational poverty in 12 months.”

What’s needed, Lean and Healy argue, is an additional option. Rapid rehousing works for families with a reliable income. Permanent supportive housing is intended for residents in need of substantial support services. Long-term shelter stays are good for no one.

So what about families who can take care of themselves with minimal social-service supports but don’t have quite the income for market rent—those that couldn’t make rent after their rapid rehousing subsidy ended or avoided the program in the first place? Currently, they’re left in the awkward position of not really fitting into any category—except for long-term shelter stays.

That could change. Last month, the Interagency Council on Homelessness, a group of government and nonprofit leaders and formerly homeless residents, drafted a plan aimed at slashing homelessness in D.C. in the next five years. One of its goals is to reduce the average family shelter stay to 60 days or fewer. Part of the solution is a new proposal called “targeted affordable housing” for people who don’t fit neatly into the existing categories and could use moderate assistance with their rent. It’s designed for people who don’t need extensive support services but are unlikely to have adequate incomes to pay their own rent: seniors exiting shelter, for example, or people whose rapid rehousing subsidy has ended. It’s a version of the longstanding voucher program for housing subsidies—except that the waiting list for those vouchers is more than 40,000 names long. Given the difficulty D.C. has securing apartments for existing programs like rapid rehousing, it’s not clear how the city would locate all the units needed for the program, even if the funding is there. The Bowser administration has yet to take up any of the proposals in the plan.

For now, the cycle in and out of shelter continues. But in this cycle, timing is everything. And Lean’s timing is bad. If she finds herself out of a home this month, it’s likely to be another six or seven months before temperatures drop enough for the city’s shelters to let her in with her kids. I ask her where someone like her can go outside of hypothermia season, which technically ended on April 1, although families can still receive shelter when the temperature falls below freezing.

“Where the wind takes you,” she says whimsically, and laughs. “You live like a fairy, you know? You just kind of dance from petal to petal.”

She pauses. “There isn’t anywhere. You just make a way; you have faith in God. You can’t die, you know what I mean? You can’t just stop breathing. So day to day, you figure it out. You figure out how to eat, you figure out how to get your kids to school, you figure out how to still maintain being a parent and make them feel like they’re not completely homeless.”

Lean has the poise of a model. She is a part-time model, in fact, in addition to the other odd jobs she picks up, like tattooing and hosting and occasionally singing. She was once a finalist for America’s Next Top Model, but didn’t make it onto the show. Her friends call her London, she says, “because I look kind of like I’m from the U.K.” Throughout our conversation, she maintains a cool nonchalance, never removing her pink earphones from under her black earmuffs. But at this point, her composure begins to crack.

“It’s chaos all the time,” she says. “It’s been chaos for me as far back as I can remember. I’m one of those people that was born alone, almost. I chose to have kids so I wouldn’t be alone. And that might be selfish or whatever the case may be, but I love them, they love me, and it’s us. And that’s all I have. So we go through it, but it’s complete and total chaos.”

Lean’s two children, who have been playing noisily with a bead maze the whole time, are suddenly quiet. Her son whispers to her daughter, “She’s crying.”

Lean collects herself. “So for that time when they put us in a shelter, or that time when we have 12 months, we’re normal. And then we go back out into the chaos.”