Donnell Harris and his family sought shelter last winter amid a spike in the number of homeless families.
Donnell Harris and his family sought shelter last winter amid a spike in the number of homeless families.

After a disastrous capacity crunch last winter, D.C. is bracing for an even larger population of homeless families requiring shelter this coming winter—-16 percent larger, according to the winter plan approved yesterday by the Interagency Council on Homelessness. But the official charged with overseeing homeless services says the city could avoid a crisis this winter if it’s able to pick up the rate at which families exit shelter.

The city is required by law to shelter all homeless families in need when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing. Last winter, amid colder-than-usual weather and rising housing costs, the number of families placed in shelter more than doubled from the previous winter through the end of January, at which point the city started placing families in recreation centers, where they complained of poor conditions, causing a reduction in the number of families seeking shelter. (A judge later ruled that the partitioned cot areas in the rec centers didn’t meet the legal requirement for “private rooms.”)

But with more resources and outreach to landlords to find apartments that homeless families can move into through the rapid rehousing program, David Berns, the director of the Department of Human Services until he stepped down in June, was optimistic earlier this year about the city’s ability to clear out its backlog of homeless families in shelters before winter set in. He predicted that by the time the so-called hypothermia season begins in November, the city would have moved all homeless families out of the motel rooms that the city had resorted to in the absence of other available shelter, and that the main family shelter at D.C. General would be partly emptied.

Berns’ successor, DHS interim director Deborah Carroll, says the city’s still on track to meet that goal, provided it steps up its game. “I would say yes,” she says. “And there are a couple caveats to that ‘yes.’ Right now we’re trending somewhere around 12 to 15 exits [from shelter into housing] a week. We’d need to increase those exits in order to hit the target by Nov. 1.” That’ll require families in shelter to cooperate by seeking out and accepting apartments through rapid rehousing, and the apartments themselves to meet the city’s needs in terms of size and cost. (Under rapid rehousing, the city subsidizes a family’s rent for a limited time, after which the family pays its own way, so the city won’t place families into apartments they can’t eventually afford on their own.)

Berns forecast that by the end of a 100-day push to move families out of shelter, around 150 families a month would be transitioning to apartments through rapid rehousing. The real rate, reported by Carroll, is barely a third of that. “I can’t comment on what was in his head when he estimated it,” Carroll says.

But she says the city’s already made considerable progress, even if it’s taking time to register in the number of families in shelter. Since April, the city has identified 504 potential rapid rehousing units, and placed 300 families into those units. That leaves 204 units remaining, in addition to 103 Local Rent Supplement Program vouchers, for the 331 families still in shelters and motels. In theory, that means all but 24 families could be housed. But it’s not that simple. Not all of the units will be deemed adequate for rapid rehousing—-some may not pass inspection or may be too expensive—-and they could be the wrong sizes, say studios and one-bedrooms, when the homeless population is mostly families of three or larger. Additionally, Carroll says, some families may be resistant to rapid rehousing if they’re unemployed or underemployed and concerned about their ability to pay the rent when the subsidy ends.

Still, she says, “we’re trending in the right direction. From that perspective, we’re on target.”

But is that trend enough to counteract the expected 16 percent rise in the number of families requiring shelter? Here, Carroll is more circumspect. “No,” she says, “I think we’re going to have to continue the same level of diligence throughout the year. We’re going to have to keep the pace or even increase the pace.” That’ll require greater efforts to prevent families from needing shelter in the first place, like providing incentives to stay with friends or relatives and using the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to subsidize rent for tenants in danger of falling into homelessness.

Otherwise, we’ll be in an even direr place come hypothermia season this winter.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery