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A Haven for the Homeless

Many Believe That Homeless From Maryland, Virginia Are Coming to D.C. in Search of Better Services

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Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
A man waits for DC Central Kitchen to open in the early morning on Capitol Hill on Dec. 1. More than 5,000 volunteers a year help to prepare 3,000 meals a day 365 days a year at the kitchen.

During the past five years, as homeless populations declined a bit across the nation, Washington, D.C., saw a veritable boom in the number of people living on the streets.

In February 2007, the Department of Housing and Urban Development compiled the first Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Known as AHAR, the report was the first of its kind to provide baseline data on homelessness, revealing population numbers and resource trends on a national and state level.

Released in June 2011, the latest report reveals that the nation’s homeless population fell 3 percent from 2006 to 2010, with detailed figures showing a reduction of almost 23,000 homeless people nationwide. 

During the same period, homeless populations in the nation’s capital rose 23 percent. In 2006, D.C. recorded a homeless population of 5,320. By 2010, the population had increased to 6,540. 

The report confirms what many local service providers have noticed for years. 

“The homeless of this city are the other 1 percent,” said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “These are people who don’t have a choice, and when [the Occupy Wall Street protesters] all leave Freedom Plaza, the homeless will still be there.” 

While the city’s growth in homelessness can be attributed to various factors, local politicians fear much of the upsurge could be a result of a perception by homeless people in neighboring states that they can access better services in the District.

A year ago, the D.C. Council passed an amendment to the Homeless Services Reform Act aimed at deterring such migration. Proposed by Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, the amendment provided strict residency verification requirements for all clients seeking homeless services, such as emergency and transitional shelter housing. 

That’s got some activists riled up.

“The residency requirement proposed in this legislation deters district families from seeking shelter,” Monica Bell, a public interest fellow at the Legal Aid Society, told the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services. “[The legislation] would leave families with children, who seek shelter as a last resort, out on the street.”

A 2011 study by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a nonprofit corporation contracted by HUD, showed the number of homeless families in D.C. increased 46 percent from 2008 to 2011. That included almost 860 homeless families, with a child population of 1,620 through 2011, making homeless families one of the fastest-growing demographics in Washington’s homeless population. 

“Homeless families are dealing with unemployment or underemployment, divorce, family issues and a lack of affordable housing options,” said Jacob Wilkins, communications and development manager for the Capitol Hill Ministry Group. “Many families also get foreclosed on, leaving them homeless with no place to stay.”

According to recent data from the D.C. Recorder of Deeds and the Office of Tax and Revenue, foreclosure inventory in the district grew from nearly 1,000 cases to more than 2,000 in the past four years.

A lack of shelter service and a rise in the foreclosure rate can help explain the stark growth in the population of homeless families in D.C., but concerns about people coming from Maryland and Virginia persist among officials and those who live on the streets.

AHAR reports that Washington’s neighboring states recently saw a decline in their local homeless populations. The report shows homeless populations in Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia fell by about 7 percent in the past three years.

Charles McCullough, who says he is a homeless veteran living on the streets of Washington, said the recent crop of homeless people are coming from other states because of social service programs offered by Washington. 

“They don’t got the things we got here,” McCullough said. “They don’t got D.C. General, or DC Central Kitchen or all these shelters and other things we got around here.”

In its latest report, HUD tracked the amount of permanent supportive housing programs that each state used during the most recently recorded fiscal year.

Maryland and Virginia have maintained a substantially higher number of housing programs than D.C. Virginia reported having almost 100 PSH programs, compared with 72 in Washington. Maryland recorded a surprising 155 PSH programs, doubling D.C.’s PSH program totals, and then some.

But of course, Maryland and Virginia have substantially higher populations.

The AHAR reveals the more crucial statistic: When calculating the ratio of beds available per homeless person in Maryland, Virginia and D.C., Maryland’s bed-to-person ratio is 1-2, Virginia’s is 1-3 and the District’s is 2-3. 

Thus, it is easier for a homeless person to find a bed in the District of Columbia than in either Maryland or Virginia.

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