Two weeks ago, temperatures dropped below freezing as 300 volunteers fanned out into the night across the District. Their mission: to seek out and count DC’s homeless residents. The volunteers were participating in the annual “Point in Time” nationwide survey, which uses a single date (this time, January 25) to come up with an estimate of the nation’s homeless population.
The results of the 2018 DC homeless census will be released in May. In 2017, the January 25th homeless figure for DC was 7,473, which was a 10.5 percent drop from the year before that. Homeless advocates credit the drop to DC’s aggressive strategy of providing housing and vouchers to get individuals and families off the street. More than 3,300 individuals have been housed from 2016 to 2017, including some who had been on the streets for many years.
Homelessness is a national challenge, and requires national, regional, and local solutions
Last year’s “Point in Time” nationwide survey counted 553,000 homeless individuals across the US. Homelessness has reached crisis proportions in a growing number of American cities, especially in California and Florida. While progress has been made in DC, it remains a persistent challenge.
The problem has ebbed and flowed in various neighborhoods, and recently there’s been an apparent increase in visibly homeless people in the Dupont area and surrounding neighborhoods like Foggy Bottom.
Last month, DC enacted the Homelessness Services Reform Amendment Act, which alters the eligibility criteria for certain services including shelters. DC is one of the few right-to-shelter jurisdictions in the country, which means that on freezing nights, people experiencing homelessness have a legal right to shelter.
DC’s right-to-shelter policy has not been without controversy, however. Some organizations and policymakers have expressed concern that people experiencing homelessness in Virginia, Maryland, and other neighboring states are coming to DC to seek shelter because surrounding jurisdictions have less generous shelter policies. It’s clear that the right-to-shelter issue requires national and regional solutions so that people experiencing homelessness are afforded the dignity, respect, and resources they deserve without having to move to another state or city.
Another aspect of the homelessness crisis in the District and nationwide is the growing number of people that have been residing in encampments. DC officials have cleared encampments in Foggy Bottom and NoMa, sparking debate about whether encampment clean-ups protect health and safety or whether they are a costly exercise that make it harder for people experiencing homelessness to get back on their feet.
This debate is playing out across the country: in December, the Los Angeles Skirball fire — one of the worst to hit Southern California — was started by someone cooking in a homeless encampment. The Los Angeles Times recently ran an extensive series digging into this complex issue, but the underlying problems — a growing population and a lack of housing, especially workforce housing and low-income housing — are problems in most large American cities, including DC.
How can we respond to homelessness?
The District government has long taken the lead in homeless outreach. DC has provided thousands of housing vouchers in recent years as well as other vital services. It also partners with local groups, churches and agencies to provide additional outreach, food, and help. The neighborhood groups that partner with the city welcome — and need — volunteers, contributions, and often contributions in-kind, such as clothing. Bras, tampons, and menstrual pads are much-needed, and local nonprofits like “I support the girls” and Thrive DC are helping address the demand.
So how can we respond? First, we need to gain a common understanding of this complex problem, the tools we have at our disposal, and the legal framework. We need to know what we can do when we see an individual in need of help, and also what we can do to help neighborhood groups and organizations that are partnering with the city. To that end, Dupont Circle ANC 2B is hosting a town hall meeting on homelessness this Tuesday to discuss the issue. We will be joined by representatives from the District government, MPD, the business community, and local groups that serve our neighborhood, including Charlie's Place, Pathways to Housing, and Miriam's Kitchen.
Our hope is this will be a one-stop shop where you can get your questions answered, learn what is already being done, meet the neighborhood players, find out who to call, and learn how you can take part.
Knowing when and how to help can literally save lives
Several years ago, ANC 2B negotiated a PUD amenities package with the developer of the property that included the Third Church of Christ Scientist. That package included $20,000 to Charlie’s Place, the homeless outreach center at St Margaret’s Episcopal Church on Connecticut Avenue. That money helped them hire a nurse to come in one day a week to see clients at the free daily breakfast.
On the nurse’s first day, one client presented symptoms of colon cancer. The staff at Charlie’s Place worked to get the man covered by Medicaid and got him into treatment. They also found church-sponsored housing and a job for the gentleman. One year later, he was cancer-free, had his own apartment, and was able to support himself.
I never dreamt that when a Christian Scientist Church representative — working with a Greek Orthodox developer and a Jewish ANC Commissioner — agreed to provide funding for a program at an Episcopal Church, we’d help save someone’s life on the very first day.
Homelessness is a national problem that knows no borders, and it’s far too big for any of us to solve. However, we can be of great help — and we can change our neighborhoods for the better.
ANC 2B is hosting a Town Hall Meeting on Homelessness this Tuesday, February 6 at 7 pm at the Keegan Theatre at 1742 Church Street NW.