A child outside D.C. General

Nkechi Feaster’s story begins like those of so many other victims of the Great Recession. After she was laid off from her job at a law firm in 2007, work became increasingly difficult to come by. Three times over the next four years, she was hired, and three times she was laid off. Then the hiring stopped altogether. Even the temp jobs dried up.

“Everything just stopped, basically,” she says. “The interviewing was really sporadic. The hiring wasn’t happening.”

Feaster fell behind on her rent, was evicted from her apartment, and landed, with her teenage son, at the family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. They spent 11 months there, during which time her son graduated from high school and was admitted to Michigan State University. Then the city tossed her a lifeline.

The city’s primary tool for placing homeless families into homes is a program called rapid rehousing. Rather than becoming permanent recipients of subsidy vouchers, rapid rehousing participants receive rental assistance for just a short period of time: a guaranteed four months, with possible extensions for up to a year or more. After that, the subsidy stops, and the family continues to pay rent on its own. Instead of a crutch, the family gets a leg up to help it support itself.

But for Feaster and many other rapid rehousing participants, self-sufficiency at a time of increasingly unaffordable housing is a longshot. When Feaster was placed into an apartment through the program in 2012—her son had just left for college—she had been unemployed for three years and was doubtful she’d be able to pay her own way when the city cut off her subsidy.

“I did not want rapid rehousing, because that was my longest layoff,” Feaster says. “And I was thinking, if I’ve been laid off this long, what am I going to find in four months before I have to pay market-rate rent again?”

Feaster did receive an extension of her rapid rehousing subsidy, but since she found a job at a nonprofit, the city determined that she could support herself and set a May 1 end date for her subsidy. The trouble is that her part-time job is on a contract basis. Her initial six-month contract was extended, but her current contract expires on the same day as her subsidy. After that, she has no idea if she’ll have any source of income. If she’s out of work, she’ll file for unemployment, but she doubts it’ll be enough to cover her $950-a-month rent and other expenses.

“That’s the part I don’t get,” Feaster says. “When you get a little bit of money, they say fine, you’re OK, you’re on your own.”

In a February response to a questionnaire from the D.C. Council, the Department of Human Services stated that of the 227 families who had exited the rapid rehousing program in the prior 14 months, only eight had gone on to pay their rent independently. DHS Director David Berns says the situation isn’t quite as dire as it appears: 155 of those families were already set to receive permanent housing subsidies and were simply placed into rapid rehousing as a stopgap measure. Moreover, because DHS had only a matter of days to answer the questions, he says, the agency was unable to track down every family; upon further accounting, of the other 72 families in the program, 23 continued to live in their apartment and pay rent independently. Others may have supported themselves in a different location. Eleven returned to the shelter system.

City officials are anticipating a major expansion of the rapid rehousing program, one that could see hundreds of families moving out of shelter and into homes during the next several months. But with rents continuing to rise, it’s not clear how many of those families will actually be able to support themselves when their subsidies expire, raising the question of what, exactly, the program is helping them accomplish.

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Last week, a month into the search for a missing 8-year-old girl who was living at D.C. General, Mayor Vince Gray called for the shelter to be shut down. It wasn’t the first time city officials have taken that stand; ever since the shuttered hospital became a homeless shelter in 2007, it’s been a nominally temporary solution to tide the city over until a more permanent space is established. The problem, Gray said, was “NIMBYism”: If only residents across town stopped objecting to the creation of smaller shelters in their neighborhoods, D.C. General might be replaced.

But young Relisha Rudd’s story demonstrates just how hard it’ll be to shut down D.C. General. At the time of her disappearance, she and her mother had been living there for 18 months. Other families have been there much longer, as long as three years. For the past three winters, when D.C. law requires the city to shelter all homeless families in need, D.C. General has been at capacity, forcing the city to turn to motels and other forms of overflow shelter.

This winter, a combination of cold weather and economics created a huge spike in the number of families seeking shelter. Through January this year, the number of homeless families placed in shelter was more than double the number last winter. Macroeconomic factors certainly played a role: Many families who lost their homes during the recession and haven’t been able to find decent-paying jobs have maxed out their options for friends and relatives to stay with, so they’ve sought city assistance. But there would be much more room for those families at the shelters if the city succeeded in moving families more quickly out of shelter and into permanent housing.

That’s where rapid rehousing is supposed to come into play. The city, however, has been unable to come close to meeting its goals for placements into the rapid rehousing program, largely because it won’t place families into apartments that they won’t someday be able to afford on their own, and the number of affordable apartments continues to decline.

But Berns says the number of rapid rehousing placements is about to skyrocket. In fact, as part of Gray’s recently announced initiative to house 500 homeless families within 100 days, Berns expects the number of families entering rapid rehousing to jump from the current 40 to 60 families per month all the way to 150 families per month.

“We think it will be so successful that we will be able to clear everybody out of the hotels by the end of the 100 days and make a substantial dent in the number of people at D.C. General,” he predicts.

That would be, to put it mildly, quite a turnaround. Berns cites three policy changes that could enable the shift by enticing more landlords to rent apartments to rapid rehousing tenants, in addition to the new “One Congregation, One Family” program to encourage religious organizations to provide support services to these families. First, the city’s Department of General Services will begin helping rapid rehousing landlords with minor renovations to help them pass inspection. Second, to combat landlords’ concerns over tenants’ failure to pay their portion of the rent, the city will begin paying that portion directly out of participants’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families checks if the families are struggling to pay rent. And finally, to assuage landlords worried about the difficulty of evicting rapid rehousing tenants, the city will assist with some of the eviction costs and help line up a replacement tenant.

That last policy irks some affordable housing advocates. Will Merrifield, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, calls it “a waste of city resources if we’re going to spend affordable-housing dollars to evict families.” But beyond the wisdom of the move, Merrifield worries about what it says about the effectiveness of rapid rehousing generally. “If one of the landlords’ key complaints about the program is that they have to take people to eviction court, that means a lot of people aren’t successful in the program,” he says. (Berns counters that the number of evictions from rapid rehousing is actually quite low—eviction accounts for just two of DHS’ reported 72 exits from the program—but that landlords nonetheless fear the challenge of removing a problematic tenant.)

According to a recent study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a D.C. resident making minimum wage needs to work 137 hours per week—or nearly 20 hours a day, seven days a week—to afford fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment. Merrifield argues that rapid rehousing might make sense for employed individuals, but that “to try to plug everyone into this program is insane.”

“Where I don’t see it working is for families that are going to be a single mom working one or two minimum-wage jobs that are going to be put in an apartment that’s $1,400, $1,500, $1,600 a month, and then falling off a cliff when the six months is up and the rapid rehousing runs out,” Merrifield says. “There’s no way that that can be successful in my opinion.”

Merrifield would prefer to see more permanent housing vouchers for these types of families. The city, he says, gains considerable tax revenue from its growing wealth, and should use some of that revenue to mitigate the effects of gentrification on families who can no longer afford housing here.

There’s plenty of reason to think the city won’t be able to hit its goal of placing 150 families into rapid rehousing each month—remember that according to DHS, only 72 families exited the program in a period of nearly a year and a half. But if it does succeed, that raises another question: Why did the city wait so long to start this effort? Why, if it’s possible to move this many families out of shelter, didn’t the city do so at a time when the shelters were so far beyond capacity that families had to share space on basketball courts at recreation centers, a solution that a judge later deemed illegal?

“We’re thrilled that they’re doing this now, but we should have been doing this in October, when D.C. General was nearly full,” says Kate Coventry of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “We should have launched a full crisis campaign.”

Gray’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year allocates an additional $1 million for rapid rehousing vouchers. If the city is more successful in finding suitable housing for rapid rehousing participants than it has been, that could mean dozens of families moving out of shelters and into real housing. But it could also mean more people like Feaster, who’s thankful for her housing but doubtful that it’s sustainable. Because she had no income before her part-time contract job, she was unable to pay for transportation to job interviews, or even to keep her phone on for employment calls. So when her job and her subsidy end, she’s worried she’ll be stuck.

“Rapid rehousing helped me pay my rent, and for that, I’m absolutely grateful,” she says. “But what good is it if that’s the only thing it can do for me?”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery