The home­less count

A cen­sus of un­der­served peo­ple in the District yields a sober­ing — and en­cour­ag­ing — re­sult.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

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.

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