- The Washington Times - Monday, November 21, 2016

The number of homeless people in the District rose 14 percent this year compared to 2015 — one of the sharpest increases in the country.

But officials and advocates say that uptick could be attributable to more of the city’s homeless getting help, making the annual count more accurate.

The tally comes from a recently released U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development annual study that counts the homeless across the country on one night in January each year. HUD then crunches the number to create a snapshot of the characteristics of the homeless population in America.

On Jan. 28, HUD counted 8,350 homeless people living in the District. That’s about 1,000 people more than were counted in January 2015. Of those Washingtonians without a home that night, about 96 percent were in shelters or transitional housing, leaving about 350 people out on the streets.

The District enforces a right-to-shelter law that guarantees shelter for homeless single people and families when temperatures fall between November and March, and the homeless are most at risk for hypothermia.

Only California and Washington state had a larger increase in the number of homeless people than the District — 2,400 and 1,400, respectively. As a percentage, the District’s increase was tied with Idaho’s for the country’s biggest uptick, at 14 percent. Delaware trailed closely, with a 12 percent increase.


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Overall homelessness in the U.S. has fallen by 14 percent since 2010, HUD reported.

According to the report, HUD counted 4,667 homeless people in families with children in the District, a 34 percent increase over last year’s tally.

The increase was at least partially precipitated by the city’s decision last year to provide shelter for families year-round rather than just when temperatures drop below a certain threshold. It also is easier to count homeless living in shelters than those on the street.

Some housing advocates note that families who were homeless without shelter could have been missed last year, but were counted this year because they were in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. They say the new numbers simply represent a more accurate count, rather than a spike in homelessness.

Kristy Greenwalt, director of the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), said the overall spike in homelessness is largely due to more families being counted, noting a 4 percent decrease in individual homeless people and significant decreases in homeless veterans and the chronically homeless.

She said there are no regrets in instituting year-round family shelters, adding that the D.C. government anticipated an increase in counted homeless families.

“We made the policy change because it was the right thing to do,” Ms. Greenwalt said Monday.

Ms. Greenwalt pushed back against the idea that homeless families in Maryland and Virginia are migrating to the District for year-round shelter.

Shelter providers, she said, look at where people have been collecting benefits and where children have been enrolled in school during the intake process. The city is not required to shelter non-D.C. residents, and providers try to direct such persons to resources in their home communities, she said.

“We want to help keep people close to their support network,” Ms. Greenwalt said.

HUD’s statistics track with a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) “point-in-time” report from May that also showed a 14 percent increase in homelessness and a similar increase in homeless families. The COG report also said year-round access to shelters for families led to the dramatic increase in family homelessness in the city.

“The District expects it will take time for new investments, policies and operational protocols (particularly with regard to prevention and permanent and affordable housing) to catch up with the pent-up demand,” the COG report says.

The HUD reports notes a decrease in chronic and veteran homelessness in the District. The number of chronic homeless (those without homes for a year or more) dropped by about 11 percent, to 1,501 people. The number of homeless veterans fell to about 350, a 14 percent decrease.

That news comes just a couple weeks after Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that since August 2013, the District has housed nearly 1,800 homeless veterans. And 764 veterans housed in 2015 alone.

Ms. Greenwalt said that kind of progress is indicative of what’s possible with the broader homeless population.

In August 2013, the District implemented a coordinated entry system to better serve the homeless veterans. The system collects data on individual veterans so that when they seek help, providers can direct them to the services based on their history. Previously, there was little coordination between providers and services, making it difficult for homeless veterans to navigate the system.

“It’s a significant change in the way we do business,” Ms. Greenwalt said. “We know everyone in our system by name and we know their individual needs.”

The HUD report comes as Ms. Bowser begins to implement an ambitious plan approved earlier this year that calls for closing the dilapidated homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital by 2020 and replacing it with seven smaller facilities spread across the city and owned by the District.

The plan is expected cost about $100 million up front for land and construction. More than 250 families currently live at D.C. General. The move to close the shelter there was prompted in part by the kidnapping of two years ago of an 8-year-old girl. Relisha Rudd disappeared from the shelter and has never been found.

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