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The big story of the winter in D.C. was the same one as last year: a family homelessness crisis that overwhelmed the shelter system and forced the city to resort to unconventional venues to shelter families. Last year, it was recreation centers, until a judge ruled that their use violated the city law that requires the District to shelter homeless residents when temperatures drop below freezing. This year, it was motels, where the city sheltered more than 500 families for lack of space elsewhere, eventually turning to Maryland hotels once rooms in the District were exhausted.
There were two main reasons for the crisis. First, more families were entering shelter, a product of rising housing costs and other factors that saw families unable to make rent. During last year’s hypothermia season, from Nov. 1 to March 31, 723 families sought shelter; this winter, the number was 997. Second, and more within the city’s control, the D.C. government was struggling mightily to move families quickly enough out of shelter and into housing. Last summer, amid a push from the administration of Mayor Vince Gray to boost shelter exits into housing, the city managed to increase the number of exits to 64 per month. It aimed to sustain that pace as winter set in so the shelter crunch wouldn’t be as bad as the previous winter’s.
Instead, sheltered exits dropped sharply in the fall and winter, to 56 in October, 35 in November, and 38 in December. In the first half of January, the Department of Human Services reported to the D.C. Council in February, the number was just 17.
And then something surprising happened. The numbers started to climb—and fast.
In the second half of January, according to DHS, the pace of exits more than quadrupled, bringing that month’s exit total to 89. In February, there were 78 exits. In March, the number jumped to 126. And in the first three days of April, the latest dates for which DHS has data, there were 24 exits, putting the city on pace for 240 exits this month.
These numbers are remarkable. Almost suspiciously so.
When I ask DHS spokesman Jay Melder to account for the sudden increase, he repeatedly invokes one word: focus.
“The numbers speak to the kind of increased focus we’re talking about,” he says. “A lot of it takes focus, and that’s what’s been renewed in a real way.”
Focus is certainly important. But the Gray administration was focused on this problem, too. It was the major policy shortcoming that dogged Gray is his re-election campaign. And with the exception of the new DHS director, Laura Zeilinger, many of the DHS staffers under Mayor Muriel Bowser are the same people who were in charge under Gray.
There are a couple of possible explanations, beyond the administration’s renewed focus, for the spike in exits. First, with so many more families in shelter, there was simply a bigger pool of candidates for exits into the city’s programs for people leaving shelter, like rapid rehousing. Some families in shelter have fundamental problems that prevent them from holding down long-term housing, but others have simply fallen on hard times and just need a place to stay before finding new work and housing. With more families cycling into shelter, there were more families to cycle out.
The numbers would appear to bear this out. Last winter, shelter exits picked up in February, March, and April, when there were the most families in shelter, and then dropped off in May. This year, the same thing seems to be happening. Here are the monthly exit numbers provided by DHS:
In fact, even with a record number of shelter exits this March, the dent in the shelter population is much smaller than it was at the same time last year. The net decrease in the number of families in shelter this March was just one; last March, it was 40, after an equally successful February.
Then there’s the question of where these families are going. It’s possible that the city has truly found a way to make its troubled rapid rehousing program work, and that more families are moving into apartments under the program, which subsidizes their rent for a limited period before they have to cover rent on their own. Or it’s possible that the city has redirected resources from other programs to boost the number of shelter exits. That would represent a shuffling of priorities, perhaps for the better, but not necessarily progress. If, say, the city reallocated some of the Local Rent Supplement Vouchers that were supposed to assist some of the more than 40,000 households on the waiting list for housing assistance and gave them to shelter families instead, it would be good news for one population in need, but bad news for another.
I’ve requested a detailed breakdown of the shelter exits from DHS, but so far have not received one. In its absence, there’s little to do but speculate on numbers that, on their face, would appear to signify great progress in an area where the city has struggled.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery