Last winter’s homeless crisis took the District by surprise. Through January, the number of homeless families entering shelter was more than double what it had been a year earlier. The city scrambled to find shelter for all of them, as it’s required to do by law when temperatures drop below freezing. The D.C. General family shelter was full. The city tried putting families up in recreation centers. Then a judge ruled that illegal, so the city turned to motels. It was expensive, and it was chaotic, and city officials were determined not to let it happen again.
This winter, they saw the crisis coming from far away. They prepared. They launched initiatives to move families more quickly out of shelter and into housing. They tightened the rules for who can enter and stay in shelter. They predicted things would be better this winter.
Instead, they got worse. Much worse.
Last winter, 723 homeless families entered shelter. The city predicted that 840 families would do so this winter. That number was already eclipsed by early March, and topped 900 by mid-month. With only 369 units of permanent family shelter, the city was forced to contract out motel rooms for more than 500 homeless families.
What went wrong? Partly, it’s still the aftermath of the recession that’s causing family homelessness to rise. But the answer largely has to do with the inadequate number of families exiting shelter into permanent housing.
That’s the short version. Want the long version? I just published a cover story on this question, with explores in depth the city’s signature rehousing program and the ways in which it’s falling short—-creating this winter’s crisis and suggesting that we’re likely heading toward another one next winter.
You can read it here.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery