Its shelters overwhelmed, the city has been forced to house homeless families at motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.
Its shelters overwhelmed, the city has been forced to house homeless families at motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.

On Sept. 3, Sharde Wright came home to her room at the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE to find a letter on her door. Wright, 28, and her three children—she’s seven months pregnant with her fourth—have been living at the hotel since July. They’re one of 51 homeless families the city is putting up at the Days Inn as they try to find permanent housing.

The letter asked Wright to attend a meeting the following day. There, she and the other homeless residents were informed by the director of the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, which is administering the city program that’s housing them at the Days Inn, that they have to vacate the hotel by the end of the month.

“It’s just like an eviction,” says Wright. “For them to say I have to go, well, I don’t know which way to go.”

Wright lives on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. She has an eviction on her credit record from when she lived in Florida, which has made it even more difficult for her to find a place to live.

Wright and the other families at the Days Inn all qualify for a program called rapid rehousing. It works like this: The city subsidizes the families’ rent for a limited period of time until they can afford to pay the rent on their own. Then the city steps away, and the families become self-sufficient.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work, anyway. The Department of Human Services boasts that after ending their rent subsidy, 91 percent of rapid rehousing participants stay housed and don’t re-enter the city’s shelters or homeless programs. But that figure doesn’t include all the people who can’t get into housing in the first place.

Like Wright. She’s been looking for suitable housing but is having trouble finding three-bedroom units to meet her family’s needs. The ones she has found cost around $1,400 to $1,600 a month—more, she says, than the rapid rehousing administrators will allow.

Another Days Inn resident, who asks to remain anonymous while she continues to work with the program, says many potential landlords are unfamiliar with rapid rehousing and won’t take its vouchers. The Child and Family Services Agency, which is overseeing the families at the Days Inn, has suggested a couple of apartments that are in poor shape and in dangerous neighborhoods.

“I asked the gentleman, ‘Would you put your kids here?’ and he said, ‘No, I wouldn’t,’” says the resident, who moved into the Days Inn with her two children in August after staying with friends and family that would have them since April. “It’s hard. I’ve been looking since I got into this program, since day one.”

Rapid rehousing was first implemented nationally in 2009, as part of the federal stimulus program, and D.C. started its own program when stimulus funding ran out in 2011. The rationale, says DHS Director David Berns, is that indefinite housing subsidies are unsustainable, and so rapid rehousing offers temporary ones, with a guarantee of just four months. After the four months expire, participants can be renewed for up to a year—though even then, Berns says, his agency doesn’t cut them off if they’re still unable to pay their own rent.

“The idea is to keep that sense of urgency,” says Berns of the four-month guarantee. “We know from experience that if there’s a one-year limit, all the work goes in at the ninth, 10th, 11th month.”

But the problem, as Wright notes, is that housing has gotten very expensive in D.C. That’s meant a double whammy for the city: more homeless people who can’t afford to pay the skyrocketing rents, but also fewer affordable units for the city to place them in through rapid rehousing.

“We don’t have apartments,” Berns says, agreeing with the residents who have struggled to find housing. “They’re right. This has been my biggest frustration, that we can’t put them in an apartment that costs thousands of dollars per month, with the thought that at the end of four months or a year or even two years, after rapid rehousing ends, that they’d put up that rent.”

Placing the participants in more expensive apartments, says Berns, would be “setting them up for failure,” since they’d have trouble paying the rent once they’re on their own and could end up back in the shelters or hotels.

“D.C. has failed to adapt its rapid rehousing program to the realities of an expensive housing market and a highly competitive population of renters,” says Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Homeless families, many with poor credit and low incomes, are competing with renters with good rental and credit histories and much higher income.”

As a result, there’s a tremendous backlog. Berns says his agency has plenty of funds to place more families into rapid rehousing but simply can’t find enough affordable units. There’s a need for about 100 units per month, he says, but DHS has only been able to place families into about 40.

There are currently 247 families at the D.C. General shelter, plus 41 in hotels through DHS and 53 in hotels through CFSA (51 at the Days Inn, and two at a Motel 6 on Georgia Avenue NW). Of these families, 150 have been screened and approved for rapid rehousing. With such a long waiting list, DHS has stopped accepting new applications for the program.

“It’s not for lack of money,” Berns says. “It’d be ridiculous to keep putting families on a waiting list when we have a five-month, six-month pent-up need. We don’t want to give people a sense of false hope.”

The backlog has consequences beyond the fates of the families currently stuck in a holding pattern. Once hypothermia conditions set in, DHS is required by law to house all homeless people in need. For the past two years, with inadequate shelter space, the city has put some of these people up in hotels, at a cost of $100 a night. DHS estimates that the city will spend about $2.5 million on hotel rooms in the new fiscal year that starts next week.

But with so many families in the rapid rehousing pipeline already in the hotels the city uses, Berns is worried that even the hotels could run out of space. DHS may have to start putting homeless people up at hotels outside the city, potentially at a greater cost.

CFSA Director Brenda Donald says it’s important to move families out of the hotels promptly, in part because housing them there is “ridiculously expensive.” A $100 per night room comes out to about $3,000 a month, Donald notes, making it a pretty uneconomical way to house homeless residents. “D.C. does have high rents,” she says, “but not that high.”

But Donald also stresses that despite what Wright and others were told, Sept. 30 is not a “drop-dead date,” and the families living at the hotels will be able to stay there as long as funding remains. And quite a bit of funding does remain. Of the approximately $730,000 that CFSA started with for the hotel program in July, there’s $422,000 left as of Sept. 15, according to CFSA spokeswoman Mindy Good.

When I tell Wright that she’ll be able to stay past the end of the month if she can’t find housing, she’s pleasantly surprised; nobody told her that, she says. Still, she’d prefer not to remain at the Days Inn too much longer.

“It’s crowded, it’s depressing,” she says. “I have to go over to people’s houses and ask them to cook for my kids.”

But before Wright and the other hotel dwellers can move into new housing, they’ll have to locate apartments that the city deems affordable. And that, in an ever more expensive housing market, is an increasingly tall order.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery