By Mary Otto
With help from housing and assistance programs, homelessness has decreased slightly in the Washington region in the past year.
Still, a total of 11,547 people in the region have no place to call home, according to the newly-released results of an annual count of the homeless in the District and its suburbs. The total includes 3,246 children.
The report found fewer homeless families and fewer people living outdoors in campsites, alleys and parks than in 2012. But the 13th annual survey, produced by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, warned that many families and individuals remain at risk of becoming homeless due to the continuing regional scarcity of affordable housing.
In addition, this year, across-the-board federal spending cuts due to sequestration add another element of uncertainty to the lives of the very poor.
The supply of subsidized rental assistance vouchers used by jurisdictions to fight and prevent homelessness is dwindling because of automatic cuts that went into place March 1. Across the country, an estimated 125,000 individuals and families are expected to lose assistance provided through the federally-funded, locally-administered Housing Choice Voucher program, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“We have already seen the effects of sequestration in the lack of housing choice vouchers,” said DC Coalition for the Homeless executive director Mike Ferrell, who presented the results of the annual homeless survey at the May meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments board of directors. Ferrell attributed much of the region’s progress in addressing homelessness to the use of permanent supportive housing and rental assistance programs.
The freeze could impact those efforts, he said.
COG board member Penelope Gross said the loss of rental assistance vouchers has already taken a toll in Fairfax County Virginia, where she serves as a supervisor.
“We had 50 families that were about to receive vouchers. We said ‘Oops. The funding has dried up from the federal government. You can’t have them.’
The decision was devastating for the county – and for the families, Gross said.
“They were getting ready to be successful and suddenly they got the legs cut out from under them.”
The county dipped into its own housing funds to avoid having to cut off subsidies to an additional 150 families. But that means less money for future assistance, Gross said. “What do we do next year? We are eating our seed corn now.”
The sequester is also having an effect on District residents seeking housing assistance. With the exception of special housing vouchers for homeless veterans, the District of Columbia Housing Authority stopped issuing vouchers on March 1.
“We usually get 140 to 200 vouchers turned back in each year and we issue them back out,” explained housing authority spokeswoman Dena Michaelson. “We are concentrating our efforts on keeping current clients housed so we are not using the vouchers to get new clients.”
At COG, housing program manager Hilary Chapman said she is working to assess the wider effects of the sequester.
“We think there is pretty devastating potential if it’s not rolled back,” said Chapman, who helped author the annual homeless report , which provides a one-day “snapshot” of the homeless population within nine jurisdictions in the Washington region.
This year’s data were collected on Jan. 30 and 31 by volunteers and outreach workers who visited meal centers, shelters, parks and wooded encampments to interview homeless people about their lives and needs.
The annual count collects ground-level data on the numbers and makeup of the region’s homeless men, women and children, providing vital information to service providers and federal agencies that fund and oversee homeless and housing programs in jurisdictions nationwide.
This year’s total of 11,547 homeless individuals reflected a 2.4 percent decrease from 2012, when 11,830 people were counted as homeless.
Two Virginia jurisdictions, the City of Alexandria and Fairfax County, reported the largest decreases in their homeless populations since last year. The District of Columbia, Frederick County, MD and Prince William County, VA experienced slight reductions in their homeless populations. Among counties that experienced increases, Prince Georges County, MD and Arlington County, VA reported the largest.
This year’s count identified 1,697 families among the homeless in the region, a four percent reduction from last year’s total of 1,765 families. Children and youth homelessness accounted for 28 percent of the region’s homeless population, also a four percent reduction from last year.
Overall, 36 percent of adults in homeless families reported they were working but percentages varied widely across the jurisdictions. In Arlington County, VA, for example, 73 percent of homeless adults in families said they had jobs, compared to 24 percent in the District.
The survey also included 1,347 people living unsheltered in places such as parks, campsites and under bridges, an 11 percent decrease from 2012. The report suggested that increased utilization of emergency beds and housing options may help explain the reduction.
The count identified a total of 9,517 formerly homeless people now residing in permanent supportive housing programs, thanks to local and regional efforts to move chronically homeless people off the streets, out of shelters and into safe and stable settings. The total reflects a 10 percent increase over last year.
COG board member David Gray said that participating in the count in Frederick County where he serves as a commissioner was an eye opener.
“I recommend every public official do this,” he said. Beyond the bucolic trees and fields in his rural county, he found the shanties and tents of the desperately poor.
“We look out the window of our car and we have an unreal feeling for the world outside,” said Gray.