Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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There were 1,491 D.C. families in shelter on Jan. 28, according to the just-released point-in-time count. That’s nearly a 32 percent increase over last year’s number, which at first glance seems alarming. But officials and advocates say this year’s count—an annual event during which regional governments take a snapshot of homelessness on a single night—more accurately reflects the scope of need in the District.

For the first time in its history, the D.C. Department of Human Services last year began providing year-round shelter access to families. That means between April and October 2015, 464 families were able to enter shelter. Compare that to the 12 families who entered during that period in 2014. (D.C. is a right-to-shelter jurisdiction, which means that single adults and families are guaranteed a place to sleep on nights when the temperature dips below a certain threshold; this period, called hypothermia season, usually spans November to March.)

Amber Harding of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless says families were still homeless during the warmer months in years past—they just weren’t in shelter. She says this year’s count more “realistically” and “fairly reflects the need” for homeless services and affordable housing in the District.

“We have an even more severe affordable housing crisis than we knew,” Harding says.

DHS Director Laura Zeilinger says the agency has instituted a number of system-wide changes over the past year, including a prevention program that has diverted more than 1,200 families from shelter (read more about that program in tomorrow’s edition of Washington City Paper).

“To have a system that works for families who experience homelessness, we need to prevent homelessness more frequently,” she says. “We also need families to have access to safety… when they need it, regardless of the weather.”

The prevention program didn’t launch until September, which means that families who could have qualified during the lead-up to hypothermia season instead went into shelter.

Another key point: While the count was higher this year, essentially the same number of families entered shelter during hypothermia season in the 2015-16 period and 2014-15 one (just over 1,000). In past years, D.C. has seen a flood of families attempt to enter shelter during the cold-weather months. D.C. routinely underestimated the amount of placements needed, which led the Gray administration to house families in recreation centers, a practice later deemed illegal.

Exits from shelter into housing are also up compared with years past. “On average, there were 104 exits per month in the 2015-16 hypothermia season, which is more than a 27 percent increase in the monthly exit rate over the 2014-15 hypothermia season (81.6 per month),” DHS says. Despite the increase in exits, there are still more than 300 families at D.C. General and other city shelters and more than 800 families in motels, which the city is using as overflow facilities.

Zeilinger says if DHS were “only doing year-round access [to shelter]… then we wouldn’t be able to afford it.”

“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 in order for it to be realistic,” she says.

The “reforms” don’t stop with prevention and an increase in funding for housing vouchers, however: “It also has to do with the conditions in which families experience shelter, which is why we have the initiative to close and replace D.C. General.”

Harding calls year-round access to shelter and the prevention program “positive developments.” But, she says, these changes will only led to lasting improvement if the money is there to support them. By the Legal Clinic’sanalysis, Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s proposed budget falls short of the money needed to achieve goals set out in a strategic plan to end chronic and family homelessness by at least $26.7 million.

When asked if DHS plans to continue year-round access, Zeilinger replied, “We have not backed off our commitment.”