The homeless count
A census of underserved people in the District yields a sobering — and encouraging — result.
ONE NIGHT a year, hundreds of volunteers fan out throughout the District for a physical count of every homeless person in the city. This year’s Point in Time Count catalogued 7,473 men, women and children experiencing homelessness. It’s a number that underscores the sobering magnitude of the problem but also offers encouragement: The number is smaller than it was last year, suggesting that strategies employed by the Bowser administration may be beginning to work.
Results of the count conducted Jan. 25 by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, just released, show a 10.5 percent decrease since 2016’s tally of 8,350 people. Most striking was a 21.8 percent reduction in the number of families experiencing homelessness. The count, generally seen as providing an accurate snapshot, includes those who were unsheltered, in emergency shelter and in a transitional housing program.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has made homelessness a priority. One of her first acts was to appoint Laura Zeilinger, nationally recognized for her work with the homeless and other underserved populations, to head the Department of Human Services. A number of coordinated strategies were undertaken, including extending the right to shelter beyond the cold-weather months and expanding services for youths experiencing homelessness. Officials say a focus on homelessness-prevention services has prevented a shelter stay for almost 3,000 families. Also noteworthy was Ms. Bowser’s championing of the effort, still on track, to close the notorious family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital and, despite political risks, replace it with smaller shelters throughout the city.
There is a long way to go before the District can claim to have reached its goal of making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring. The major stumbling block is the lack of affordable housing — median home prices in the District are among the nation’s highest — that puts stable and safe homes out of reach for the city’s poorest residents. Ms. Bowser and the D.C. Council have made record investments in the Housing Production Trust Fund, but there also have been problems and missteps. Post reporters recently revealed the loss of $15.8 million in federal housing funds because the city repeatedly missed key spending deadlines. The problems pre-date the Bowser administration, but that matters little to the thousands of families languishing on waiting lists for housing vouchers.
The progress reflected in this year’s count is even more noteworthy given the significant increase in the numbers between 2015 and 2016. Officials are right to celebrate the improvement, but more important is that they continue the hard work needed to sustain it.