D.C.’s homeless population may have dropped over the past year, but you won’t find Laura Zeilinger celebrating.
The results of the annual point-in-time count, released today, show that the number of homeless residents in the District is down 6 percent from a year ago. That includes an 8 percent decline in family homelessness, a crisis-level problem in the District for the past two winters, after the number of homeless families had jumped by 20 percent between 2013 and 2014.
But the point-in-time count can be less than reliable, since it depends on volunteers physically counting homeless residents on a single night whose weather can skew the results. Zeilinger, the director of D.C.’s Department of Human Services, also believes that it’s too soon to declare any sort of victory, given that D.C. still has an unacceptably high number of homeless residents: 7,298, according to the count.
“I don’t think we can celebrate that homelessness is down 6 percent in a point-in-time, because there are still far too many people,” she says.
Still, Zeilinger does think there are lessons to be drawn from the report. “What I make of this is that given how challenging the situation here is with affordable housing, the fact that the numbers are fairly flat but a little bit in the right direction means we need to continue to make the right investment in things that work,” she says.
The spike in family homelessness stems in part from the city’s struggle to move families out of shelter and into housing. Data from DHS indicate that the number of shelter exits has shot up in recent months, but Zeilinger says that a count today would probably yield similar numbers to the one conducted on Jan. 28, given that the number of entries also increased in the late winter.
“We’d see more people staying outside,” she says, given the warmer weather and the city’s lack of legal obligation to shelter residents when temperatures are above freezing. “The family numbers would be really similar to what we saw on the night of the point-in-time. But we’ve also had a concentrated effort around veteran homelessness. And so that number has probably dropped from what it was at the point-in-time.”
Along with many advocates for the homeless, Zeilinger has spoken in favor of restoring year-round access to shelter. But first, she says, the city will need to have “more policies and practices in place that make shelter stays shorter,” so that the city’s shelters won’t be completely overwhelmed. She hopes to start providing year-round access sometime this year.
Photo via U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness