Mayor Vince Gray and Transitional Housing Corporation Executive Director Polly Donaldson encourage Chioma Nwadigo as she begins to share her story.
Mayor Vince Gray and Transitional Housing Corporation Executive Director Polly Donaldson encourage Chioma Nwadigo as she begins to share her story.

Chioma Nwadigo is not accustomed to public speaking. Until recently, she and her three-year-old autistic son were homeless, until the city helped place them into housing through a program called rapid rehousing. Under the program, the city subsidizes participating families’ rents for a period of four months to a year, or sometimes longer, after which the families pay their own way.

Nwadigo’s case worker walked her to the lectern this morning at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, the city’s intake center for homeless families. It took her several moments to work up the courage to speak. She looked to Mayor Vince Gray for support, and he squeezed her hand. Finally, and softly, she began her address.

“I’m very grateful to be a part of THC,” she said, referring to the Transitional Housing Corporation, a housing provider for rapid rehousing. “They helped us come a long way.”

The city is hoping that there will soon be many more families like Nwadigo’s. We’re now 18 days into Gray’s effort to place 500 homeless families into housing within 100 days. Department of Human Services Director David Berns hopes that timeframe will not only see all of the families staying in motels on the city’s dime moved into real housing, but will also put a dent into the maxed-out D.C. General family shelter, which has been full since before the winter began. This morning’s event represented the belated kickoff of the 500 Families, 100 Days initiative—-an outreach to landlords that Gray said he hoped would “demonstrate that the District of Columbia is a compassionate place.”

But for every Nwadigo, there’s a Nkechi Feaster. She’s also a rapid rehousing participant, but she’s coming to the end of her subsidy, which will expire on May 1. After that, she’s not sure if she’ll be able to keep paying the rent.

It’s an existential question for the rapid rehousing program, as I outlined in my column in today’s paper. Berns is hoping to triple the number of placements into rapid rehousing, to 150 per month. But between October 2012 and February 2014—-nearly a year and a half—-only 72 families exited rapid rehousing, and only a fraction of those went on to stay in their apartment and pay their rent independently. In a city with skyrocketing housing costs and limited job opportunities for residents without college degrees, it’s debatable whether it’s realistic to expect single mothers of two or three children to be able to afford market rent, particularly when they’re only a year or so removed from homelessness.

Gray noted the central cause of the swell in the city’s homeless population this winter, which Berns called “truly a crisis situation.” It’s a matter, he said, of “the law of supply and demand.”

“People coming into the city are bidding up the price of housing,” Gray said. The solution is to create more housing. Gray pointed to his $187 million commitment to affordable housing production and preservation. Gray has also pressed Congress to allow the District to erect taller buildings, although his efforts have been less than fully supported by the D.C. Council.

In the absence of abundant housing, the city is stepping up its outreach to landlords of existing units. New initiatives will allow the city to pay rapid rehousing participants’ portion of their rent directly out of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families checks, and to assist landlords in evicting problematic tenants.

Will 100 days suffice to end the crisis? We’ll know in under three months. “We have a long way to go,” Gray said, “and 83 days to get there.”

Photo by Aaron Wiener