Homeless man. Photo by kimberlyfaye.

This morning, homeless individuals and advocates gathered to speak to the crisis in the lack of shelter for homeless individuals and families in DC.  The Homeless Emergency Response Workgroup held a rally at Freedom Plaza at 10:00 am. They also released a report on unmet shelter need, a “Declaration of Inter-Dependence,” and a letter to the Mayor and DC Council asking them to address the crisis.

A rise in homelessness in the District of Columbia is the latest evidence of the devastating impact of the economic downturn. The number of homeless families with children is up 25% this year, and 200 families are on a waiting list just to get into emergency shelter, according to the sign-on letter.  Yet a main shelter for homeless families (at D.C. General) is slated to close because there is no funding to run it past the winter months.

A study of DC shelters in April by the Homeless Emergency Response Workgroup — a coalition of service providers, consumers, religious groups, advocacy organizations, and other community groups — found that many people were turned away due to lack of capacity, with a high of 79 turned away on one night.  They also showed that shelters in the individual emergency system were in overflow on 18 of 31 nights in May 2009, compared with zero nights in May 2008.

Both shelter and day service providers have said this is one of the worst years in terms of increased need for services.  Unlike in past years, the demand for shelter has not decreased with the warmer weather.

What do the organizers want?  The letter to the Mayor and Council asks for in increase in shelter beds and an improvement in the quality of DC shelters.  Equally important, it asks the city to live up to the legal mandate to track “unmet need” for shelter. The letter also supports increasing housing resources in order to solve homelessness, but recognizes that emergency shelter needs will continue and that the District needs to do a better job of assessing and meeting that need.

Ed Lazere is the Executive Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, which conducts research and public education on budget and tax issues in the District of Columbia, with a particular emphasis on issues that affect low- and moderate-income residents.