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Homeless shelters reaching a crisis

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.

Photo by brian.gratwicke.

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. 


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Homelessness will not go away overnight, but it is time for the District to help end the revolving door of homelessness.

As a long-time DC resident (and a life-long resident of cities in general), I'm more than a little sick of the baseline assumption that "fixing homelessness" is the sole responsibility of urban areas.

When municipalities like suburban Maryland and Virginia have anything *near* the number of services for the indigent and mentally ill that the District provides, then we can talk about how "the District needs to help end the revolving door of homelessness."

These are not DC's homeless. These are the *region's* homeless. And DC already carries an unfair share of the burden. Any effort that DC makes in this direction should be tied *directly* to beds/services provided in the 'burbs.

The days when The District was some sort of catchment basin for every manner of social ill in the region is over.

by ibc on Jul 17, 2009 12:14 pm • linkreport

What ibc said.

by Mike on Jul 17, 2009 1:09 pm • linkreport

I agree there should be a regional effort to curb homelessness, but we have little data on the homeless who use services in DC. This is why homeless advocates are demanding that demand be tracked. Good data is needed to make good policies. Furthermore, there is a real crisis NOW and it will take time for a regional effort and shared burden.

by Lynda on Jul 17, 2009 1:20 pm • linkreport

We have little data on the homeless who use services in DC. This is why homeless advocates are demanding that demand be tracked.

Absolutely, we should gather as much data as possible.

Furthermore, there is a real crisis NOW and it will take time for a regional effort and shared burden.

Yep, we're at forty years now and counting.

Look, this is the same mechanism we've seen that's created such horrors as DCPS: Suburban municipalities dump their social ills on the cities; City social services are completely overwhelmed in trying to cope with the concentration of the needy; Suburban municipalities take the money they would've spent on things like the homeless and indigent students, and spend it on aquatic centers, lovely little libraries, and walking malls.

Oh, and best of all, suburbanites get to blame the cities for the ills they've exported.

Meanwhile "A first round of cuts to the D.C. budget wasn't enough to close a newly increased budget gap, it seems, forcing Mayor Adrian Fenty to propose a new round of measures to deal with a $666 million shortfall over the next two years. The Post reports that Fenty has proposed cutting 250 more city positions, selling a bus garage, moving money from special funds to the general budget and taking $188 million in federal stimulus funds and $125 million from the city's rainy day reserve. The moves are expected to leave a $63 million shortfall for 2010. ("

by ibc on Jul 17, 2009 2:13 pm • linkreport


When the urban area has 10x the amount of homeless as the 'burbs, then yea, it is the responsibility of the city to do something about homelessness.

And how is it a regional problem? What does Virginia have anything to do with DC bums?

It's not Virginia's fault that DC has such bad income inequality. Kinda ironic considering how Democratic of a city it is...

by MPC on Jul 17, 2009 3:29 pm • linkreport

"Welfare benefits and food stamps often do not cover the basic needs of families."

At just $428 a month for a family of three, TANF (welfare) *never* covers the basic needs of families. Budgets are tight for the 1/3 of TANF recipients that are lucky enough to be in subsidized housing, and simply impossible for everyone else. Providing adequate income supports to these families would almost definitely slow the alarming rate of growth family homelessness.

by Joni Podschun on Jul 17, 2009 5:46 pm • linkreport

Tommy Wells held a hearing today on shelter capacity. Among many other things, they mentioned the issue of identifying where the homeless are coming from, if/when they are not established DC residents. At least one man who testified today talked about being homeless in Florida and another state before "settling" in DC. Another man mentioned that he would be willing to go to PG or Prince William county if he heard the shelters were better there.

I don't think there are any reliable stats (or stats of any kind) on place of origin, but it makes sense on a basic level that if you're homeless you want to live in a place where lots of places are within walking distance, where other places are accessible by bus or metrorail, and where there are probably a good number of jobs. Like in cities.

by Jesse Lovell on Jul 17, 2009 5:47 pm • linkreport

It's disingenuous to say that a worker needs to work 135 hours a week at minimum wage to afford the average 2 bedroom apartment in the area. You don't go from "average" to homeless, it's a long slide and cherry picked data points don't help to address the problem.

by Alex on Jul 17, 2009 6:09 pm • linkreport

People absolutely go from average (working class, making at or near minimum wage) to homeless every day when one family member loses their job, has a serious health issue, or any number of other foreseeable, everyday catastrophes. These people are not the visible homeless panhandling on the street or sleeping in the park, they are desperately, quietly trying to cope, maybe staying with family members as long as they can, and often in the suburbs where they are even less visible.

It's precisely these "average" newly homeless whose numbers will rise during a recession. Chronic homelessness due to mental illness, drug abuse, etc. is not going to be as affected by the broader economy since most of these folks didn't have jobs to begin with.

It's not cherry picking to point out that the high cost of housing here means many people are stretched to the max already just to pay rent - so there is less safety net if anything goes wrong.

by Erica on Jul 17, 2009 7:15 pm • linkreport

Repost from:

First off, let me say that I'm all for DC increasing shelter space and providing more funding for homeless services. Other factors such as medical care (especially psychiatric care) and helping people stay in their homes should also be the top focus among officials.

Having said that, I do think that this is a regional and national problem that should not be dumped onto DC alone. Cities tend to be centers for homelessness because urban areas traditionally provide easier access to public services, better transportation, and increased employment opportunities (remember, many homeless people are the working poor). Foreclosures, a leading cause of this recent rise in homelessness, are also higher in far-flung exurbs where public services and transportation are much more difficult to obtain. Therefore, it is probably safe to say that many of DC's homeless are from elsewhere.

The Homeless Emergency Response Workgroup and like organizations should focus on a regional response to the problem of homelessness. Does Montgomery County have space in emergency shelters? Can Prince George's help provide mental health services? Can Loudon County, with the area's highest foreclosure rates, help provide resources for its residents that suddenly ended up on the streets of DC? Veterans make up 23% of the nation's homeless; can the federal government and the VA do more to help treat and house those who defended this country? I admire the dedication of those who work on behalf of the homeless. However, writing a letter to the mayor and city council of a single city to demand better services is not going to solve this problem.

MPC: "And how is it a regional problem? What does Virginia have anything to do with DC bums?"

DC bums are in fact a very small portion of DC homeless. Most homeless are the working poor and increasingly more are families. This is Virginia's problem as well because its likely that people end up in DC (and other urban areas) for all the reasons I mentioned above. I completely agree with ibc.

by Adam L on Jul 17, 2009 7:21 pm • linkreport

How is it Virginia's problem that DC absorbs bums?

Isn't it good for Virginia that you guys are suckers enough to care for the bums? We'll cry all the way to the bank, thank you very much.

by MPC on Jul 17, 2009 8:14 pm • linkreport

ditto Erica, "one paycheck from disaster" and "one illness from disaster" are real conditions for many who meet the criteria of "middle class". Even for people with health insurance coverage the number one reason for personal bank ruptcy is medical costs. if you have medical bills in the hundreds of thousands and your insurance only pays 80% or worse 80% of what they claim is "the going rate in your area" you can be left 10's of thousands if not 100's of thousands in debt. Not to mention that you can't work if you're ill. It can happen fast and through no fault of your own.

by Bianchi on Jul 17, 2009 8:42 pm • linkreport

one thing Fenty could do right away to help is to put into effect the inclusionary zoning regulations he (FINALLY) released. IZ was one of his campaign promises and he dragged his feet, in violation of the law, for ages on even releasing recommendations.

It will take a while for IZ to result in more affordable housing units, and they are not targeted at the visibly homeless people we see in the city but at people making 50-80% of AMI (so in the high $30s and up for single folks), but having more income-targeted units will free up other units for lower-income people, and create more mixed-income blocks and neighborhoods.

IZ won't be a cure-all, especially for people who need housing plus some pretty intensive services, but it's a good step in the right direction

by sb on Jul 17, 2009 9:12 pm • linkreport

"People absolutely go from average (working class, making at or near minimum wage)"

No, working class is not average, they are below average. The "average" household income in metro DC is over 40k a year, what you are lamenting is people going from near poverty to poverty. Those people should not be wasting their money on $1300 a month apartments. As you point out, on average half of the 2 bedroom apartments in DC proper cost less than $1288 a month.

"Average" people do not know anyone who goes from living in a $1300 a month apartment to living in their cars when they lose their jobs. They do, however, know people who have to make sacrifices, including giving up living in homes and neighborhoods they have worked very hard to afford. It does not make sense to say, "darn, I can't afford my rent controlled Cleveland Park 2 bedroom anymore, but I'd rather live on the streets than in a studio in Congress Heights." And if you do, you aren't the person these services are designed for.

from the article: "living in the DC area can be very expensive" which implies that it also *can* be more affordable. I take issue with housing advocates of all stripes that think those with the smallest incomes need to be in "average" housing stock. It defies the logic of what "average" means.

Aside: does anyone know the median price points for DC rentals? studio, 1 br, 2 br?

by Alex on Jul 20, 2009 12:44 pm • linkreport

"living in the DC area can be very expensive" which implies that it also *can* be more affordable.

There aren't a lot of affordable apartments that are of decent health and housing standards, and where kids won't get shot at or be recruited into a gang. In normal cities, jobs would tend to migrate to more affordable areas, helping to balance out the effects of income disparity. Like Aspen, CO, which invested in large-scale city financed housing for its low-income workers, DC is not a normal city.

In the meantime, I don't think it's too crazy for parents to stretch as far as they can to provide their children with a safe home.

Finally: Fair Market Rent is not the average price of DC rent, nor do 1/2 of 2BR apartments in DC cost less than $1288 (if only!) FMR is defined by HUD as "the amount that would be needed to pay the gross rent (shelter rent plus utilities) of privately owned, decent, and safe rental housing of a modest (non-luxury) nature." So the prices, or even existence, of luxury housing do not affect this figure, and it tells you nothing about average or median rents.

by Erica on Jul 20, 2009 1:46 pm • linkreport

I find your assertions ridiculous. Having to live in NE DC (for example) will not mean that you live in inadequate housing. It wont be filled with lead paint, mold, and broken windows. Nor will your children be recruited into gangs or shot (on the contrary, as this blog frequently points out suburban youth are far more likely to be hurt or killed in auto related accidents than urban youth are in gun or gang violence) that you believe so shows your bias, not reality.

And Aspen,CO is about as far away from normal as you can get. But I suppose your world must look different than mine, I'm not a Limousine Liberal (ASPEN?! Seriously!?). And anyway your example is of housing moving towards jobs, not jobs towards housing. Aspen is a tourism economy, has service sector housing become a tourism draw?

Lastly, it doesn't really matter if Fair Market Rent is $1288 or $288 if you have no savings and no job prospects either will be a long road to tow. So blaming the high housing costs in DC (or Aspen) wont do much good.

by Alex on Jul 20, 2009 2:24 pm • linkreport


If you'll read more carefully, I was saying that NEITHER Aspen nor DC is a normal city. Both are largely single industry towns (albeit different industries) with employment that by its nature can't move to cheaper suburban areas. In response, Aspen has had to build subsidized housing since service workers were commuting from two hours away.

"Limousine Liberal?" I've never even been to Aspen. I did not realize that simply reading about a program in a given city makes one a frequent, wealthy visitor there. I think I'm going to check out some books about urban planning in Fiji and wait for my free plane tickets to arrive in the mail.

BTW, I used to live in Northeast so I am well aware that the entire quadrant is not hazardous to life and limb. But I didn't see too many 2BR apartments in the three figure range in Brookland, either.

by Erica on Jul 21, 2009 10:14 am • linkreport

Hey, I wanted to let the person in charge of the volunteer program to leave me a message or an e-mail. I'm interested in doing some volunteering with your organization. Thank you

by Dennis Edwards on Jul 28, 2009 8:19 am • linkreport

I'm sorry I didn't leave my e-maill with my first blog, well it's

by Dennis Edwards on Jul 28, 2009 8:21 am • linkreport

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