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Following years of rising homelessness in the District, the city’s homeless population took a welcome dip in 2015, according to an annual homelessness count released today.
On the night of Jan. 28, volunteers in the city and the region struck out to canvass every street and alley and count all the homeless residents, in addition to those in shelters. They counted 7,298 homeless residents in the District. That’s 63 percent of the total homeless population in the region, which stretches as far as Prince William County, Va., and Frederick County, Md. But it represents a 6 percent drop from last year’s figure for the District, after the city had experienced a 13 percent increase from the previous year.
The region as a whole also saw a decline in homelessness, albeit a smaller one. There were 323 fewer homeless residents in the D.C. area this January than the previous year, marking a 2.7 percent drop.
Still, homelessness in the District, which has reached crisis proportions for the past two winters, remains stubbornly high. Despite this year’s decline, total homelessness in the city is still 12 percent higher than it was in 2011. That’s due almost entirely to the spike in the number of homeless families, a product of the recession and the subsequent jump in housing costs in the District. Even though the number of homeless residents in families declined by 8.4 percent between 2014 and 2015, it’s still 29 percent higher than it was in 2011.
The annual point-in-time count, organized by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, is self-admittedly imperfect. It relies on numbers from a single night. In the case of cold weather—-on Jan. 28, temperatures hovered below 30 degrees in D.C., or closer to 20 with windchill—-the count is likely to underestimate the homeless population, as some residents take refuge with friends or families, or huddle in hallways, businesses, or public buildings.
But it’s the only comprehensive count of homeless populations in cities across the country, leading government officials to rely on it for data on homelessness. The report released by MWCOG also contains valuable information about homeless residents, some of which can dispel misconceptions about the homeless. For instance, 24 percent of homeless adults are employed in the region. That includes 39 percent of homeless adults in families, while the employment status of another 10 percent is unknown. In other words, just half of homeless adults in families are known to be unemployed. (In the District proper, however, unemployment is higher, affecting at least 67 percent of homeless adults in families.)
While D.C. law requires the city to provide shelter for all homeless residents when temperatures drop below freezing, many of them remain on the streets. The number of unsheltered homeless single adults in D.C. rose from 396 last year to 544 this year, and has increased by 78 percent since 2011.
D.C. has put a substantial dent in chronic homelessness, defined as continuous homelessness for more than a year or at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years, combined with a disabling condition. In 2011, there were 2,093 chronically homeless individuals in the District; this year, there were just 1,593. That’s a drop of 21 percent. The region as a whole saw a 31 percent decline over the same time period. D.C.’s chronically homeless individuals are also the most likely to be sheltered of any in the region. Just 20 percent lack shelter, compared with 78 percent in Prince William County and 26 percent on average in the region.
Veteran homelessness in the District has declined by 20 percent since 2010. But with 408 homeless veterans remaining—-the same number as last year—-the city remains a long way off from its goal of ending veteran homelessness.
While the number of homeless residents in the region has remained fairly steady over the past couple of years, the number of formerly homeless residents continues to rise. Some of these people have moved into permanent supportive housing, with extensive support services for those most in need. But the biggest increase has been in the rapid rehousing program, a system by which a city subsidizes a household’s apartment for a limited time before the household takes over and pays the rent on its own. Officials have hailed it as an effective and cost-efficient program, although it’s not without its flaws, as many families reach the end of their subsidies and find they can’t afford to pay rent, sometimes forcing them back into shelter.
It’s important that the region continue providing more housing for people exiting homeless, the MWCOG report states. More important, though, is the creation of affordable housing so families don’t find themselves facing homelessness in the first place.
“Affordable housing for all income levels, including subsidized housing targeted for extremely low income households, must be available across the region in order for the metropolitan Washington region to realistically reduce and eliminate homelessness,” the report states. “Resources from the local, state, and federal level should be maximized in order to achieve an end to homelessness.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery; charts via MWCOG