Photo by brian.gratwicke.

Homelessness is increasing in cities across America. Social service programs are reporting an increase in requests for food, housing assistance, and shelter space. While the economy in the Washington area is stronger than other regions in the country, the area is not immune from homelessness. Foreclosures, increasing demand for housing and shelter services, and the lack of affordable housing have contributed to the homeless crisis.

The increase in demand has put a strain on local shelters. Year around, there are approximately 1,402 emergency shelter beds for single adults in DC and 128 emergency shelter units for families. According to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, approximately 16,000 people are homeless in Washington, DC over the course of a year, one of the highest rates in the country. The number of DC homeless families increased by 25 percent in 2008, and more than 200 families remain on the waitlist for emergency shelter.

Why are there so many homeless in DC? As many of us know, living in the DC area can be very expensive. In the District, a worker earning the federal minimum wage of $7.55 would have to work almost 135 hours a week in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at fair market rent is currently costs $1,288 per month.  Also, welfare benefits and food stamps often do not cover the basic needs of families.

Homeless advocates argue that Mayor Fenty has ignored the lack of emergency shelter beds by primarily focusing on the Housing First program. The goal of the Housing First program is to move the homeless immediately from the streets or homeless shelters into their own apartments. Individuals and families are also put into contact with social service programs to provide further stability. While the program has had promising results in other cities, the District has decreased the number of emergency shelter beds as it moves towards the Housing First program, putting many families and individuals at jeopardy until the program is fully ready. The wait for emergency family shelter is approximately 6 months and the closure of Franklin Shelter has further decreased the number of bed for homeless individuals, especially in downtown DC.

The D.C. Right to Housing Campaign (a collation of activists and nonprofits including the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, National Law Center on the Homeless and Poverty, and Bread for the City) is calling on Mayor Fenty and the DC Council to address the homelessness crisis by:

  • Increasing homeless assistance funds to ensure no one is without safe and adequate shelter.
  • Tracking the unmet demand for shelter to determine the adequate number of beds needed as required by the Homeless Services Reform Act.
  • Improving and monitor shelter conditions.
  • Maintaining an adequate emergency shelter safety net while moving toward a Housing First approach to ending homelessness.

Fenty is on the right track with the Housing First Program, but families and individuals can’t wait. Access to housing is a basic human right.  The Mayor and city council are currently hashing out the budget for the next fiscal year, and it important that funding for homeless shelters and affordable housing programs are not cut, for cuts in such crucial problems will only exacerbate th problem.  The District is slated to receive approximately $19 million for the Housing First program from the federal economic stimulus plan. However, it will take time to find housing for the program and shelters will be needed in between.

Homelessness is the result of the convergence of several factors including housing market dynamics, housing and welfare policy, economic restructuring of the labor market, and personal difficulties such as mental illness, substance use, and health problems. Homelessness will not go away overnight, but it is time for the District to help end the revolving door of homelessness.

Lynda Laughlin is a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau. She holds a PhD in sociology and enjoys reading, writing, and researching issues related to families and communities, urban economics, and urban development. Lynda lives in Mt. Pleasant. Views expressed here are strictly her own.