DC Mayor Muriel Bowser wearing a mask standing in front of a microphone outdoors with DC officials in background
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Mayor Muriel Bowser has made so many promises about ending homelessness in D.C. that it can be hard to keep them all straight. But after years of missed deadlines and broken promises, advocates say her budget investments are finally starting to match her rhetoric.

As debate over the 2023 budget begins, Bowser is once again pledging that the city is on the path to ending chronic homelessness, perhaps as soon as 2028. Her deputies say that D.C. could become one of the first major cities in the country to manage that achievement, with $31 million in proposed spending to get people off the streets and another $114 million to improve local shelters.

That vow will sound familiar to anyone following her first term as mayor, of course, when she committed to ending family homelessness by 2018 and housing every single resident by 2025. Those deadlines have all proved elusive, and the goalposts have shifted a bit. Bowser’s new commitment to ending “chronic homelessness,” defined as a person spending more than a year without a home, is a much narrower target than her original pledge to end homelessness entirely.

But even if Bowser hasn’t lived up to some of these big promises, people working on this issue still feel more optimistic than they have in years. When taken in concert with the D.C. Council’s new investments last year (via a new tax on the wealthy), many activists believe it’s not unreasonable to expect major progress within the next few years in getting people housed. Bowser’s proposal still contains some major gaps (and it’s worth questioning whether some of these investments will endure when it’s not an election year) but, for once, advocates don’t fear an uphill battle as budget season kicks into gear.

“Homelessness is the result of 50 or more years of slashing social safety net programs, compounded on top of 400 years of White supremacy,” says Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, offering some helpful context. “So we’re not going to end homelessness in any one budget cycle. But through the sustained investments from the mayor and the Council over the past seven to eight years, we are in a good place right now.”

The budget proposal is all still preliminary, as the Council will spend the next few months slicing and dicing it, but to start with the good news: For now, it includes enough money to fund permanent supportive housing vouchers for 500 individuals, 260 families, and 10 children. Those vouchers are targeted specifically to defray rent costs for people who have been homeless for more than a year and have some sort of disabling condition that makes it likely they would become homeless again without intensive support—essentially, the most challenged renters in the market.

That $31 million investment fully meets the request from the Way Home campaign, a coalition of organizations working to end chronic homelessness. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, the chair of the Committee on Human Services, says it’s the first time in her eight years on the Council that there hasn’t been an “additional ask” from advocates on PSH vouchers heading into budget season. And Kate Coventry, a senior policy analyst focused on homelessness at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, estimates that it’s the largest investment in vouchers for individuals in at least the past decade. 

“I’d say it’s a fair assessment that this gets us to a place where we’re ending chronic homelessness,” Coventry says. “We don’t know what the future will hold, there could always be another COVID variant … but we were pleasantly surprised here.”

Nadeau, a leading proponent of last year’s wealth tax, is quick to note that such a development probably wouldn’t be possible without the Council’s $65 million investment in new vouchers last year (half of which was specifically earmarked for PSH). And Coventry offers an even starker warning: “By the time people get into PSH, they’re often so ill that they die soon afterward.”

So it’s not enough to simply pour all of the city’s resources into PSH. That’s why Coventry was also pleased to see investments in shelter construction and renovation to help people survive until they can find housing. Bowser’s budget continues to fund improvements for the city’s New York Avenue Low Barrier Shelter, as well as full replacements for the Adam’s Place facility in Northeast and the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter in Hill East.

In both of those latter cases, Coventry notes, the city hopes to build two smaller facilities to replace the existing shelters, a strategy Bowser also embraced with some success as she sought to build replacements for the D.C. General Family Shelter. There is still no money for a replacement for the Federal City Shelter downtown, even though such an expense is highlighted explicitly in Bowser’s “Homeward DC 2.0,” her second crack at a comprehensive plan to tackle homelessness.

And that is not the only place where Bowser’s budget fails to meet critical needs for people experiencing homelessness, advocates say. The city’s rapid rehousing program, which is designed to help people afford rent for up to a year while they find work or otherwise stabilize their lives, is an area of particular concern.

The basic idea behind the program is to let people leave shelters quickly by getting housing right away, then help them afford rent on their own. But activists note that many people are often pushed out of rapid rehousing before they have the wherewithal to pay bills without a city subsidy. Bowser paused these phaseouts during the height of the public health emergency but restarted them last summer; 596 households were phased out of the program between October and February, according to figures provided to the Council by the Department of Human Services. In all of fiscal year 2021, 751 households were phased out.

So even though the mayor wants to increase her rapid rehousing investment by about $44 million in her new budget, that’s not enough money to keep everyone who can’t afford rent on their own in the program. About 913 families are set to have their subsidies cut off this year, Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger told the Council during a March 31 hearing, and the vast majority won’t be able to pay rent without assistance.

Amber Harding, senior counsel at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, observes that roughly 500 families enter the program each year. If the city is already pushing people out with this level of funding, the problem is likely to compound without some sort of significant change. 

“It’s just an incredibly destabilizing and cruel policy that is inextricably linked to our budget priorities,” Harding says. “[The city has] said in every other public benefit that arbitrary time limits are unfair and unjust, except this one.”

Zeilinger, whose office did not respond to requests for comment for this article, assured lawmakers that her agency has already worked to find solutions for all but 273 of those families. Some were able to get PSH vouchers. Others moved into related programs to keep them housed.

But for those remaining families, Zeilinger admitted that many have “no plan” once their rapid rehousing subsidy runs out because they haven’t qualified for other assistance.

“We’re in a very challenging circumstance based on the reality that our budget is not unlimited,”  Zeilinger said.

Kathy Zeisel, a senior supervising attorney at the Children’s Law Center, says the better solution is to fund targeted affordable housing vouchers, a program that helps pay bills for people who don’t qualify for PSH or other assistance. She suspects there’s a need for another 1,040 such vouchers, at a price tag of $27.7 million.

Bowser did not devote a single dollar to targeted affordable vouchers in her budget, and Nadeau says that it will be a real challenge to meet that figure. Plus, Nadeau expects she will probably need to find more money for emergency rental assistance to keep people from losing their homes in the first place (a battle she manages just about every year). Advocates have suggested adding $100 million or more to Bowser’s proposed budget for each of the next two fiscal years to meet rising demand.

“It’s unlikely we’ll be able to redirect that much, but you’ve got to aim high,” Nadeau says. “It all depends on how much money is available for me to move around in the budget.”