Mark Raymond is worried. He says funding cuts will prevent his organization's huge 1,350-bed shelter in Washington — among America's largest — from adequately serving homeless men and women in the nation's capital.
“Lots of programs that were started last year and this year are not to be funded next year,” says Raymond, director of administrative offices at the Community for Creative Non-Violence.
In late September, Clarence Carter, director of the city's Department of Human Services, announced a $12 million cut in homeless-services funding for fiscal 2010. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, D-Ward 6, contended the cut could be as large as $20 million. Either way, homeless shelters say they will have to scramble to find enough beds for the lethally cold hypothermia season.
The current economy has forced more people onto the streets, including more families in which jobs have been lost and no savings exist. The slow housing market means an increasing number of electricians and construction workers are unemployed. Half the homeless adults in Washington don't receive regular income, including Social Security and disability checks. The 20 percent who are employed have a median monthly income of $524.
According to a January 2009 survey, 6,228 homeless people live in shelters or transitional housing in the District, a 3 percent increase over 2008. In July the total included 703 homeless families and more than 1,400 homeless children. Last year, homelessness among families across the nation rose 9 percent but 25 percent in the District.
The number of teenagers without a place to live is also rising. But so is awareness of their plight. Recently, rappers Flava Flav, once homeless himself, and Chuck D., of the band Public Enemy, shared a Thanksgiving meal with the young residents at the Sasha Bruce House in Washington, which features programs for children ages 11–17. Typically, youths are reunited with their families or transitioned into more permanent care. Counseling services are provided, particularly as children without families transition into adulthood.
The two entertainers encouraged the youngsters to stay in school. “It takes three times as much to get your education later as now, so do it now,” Chuck D told the teens crowded around him. Later, Public Enemy performed, and Flava Flav stressed the importance of volunteerism. “If you're successful and can't talk to younger people in need, you got a problem,” he said.
A homeless man settles in at a Metro station in Washington, D.C., in May 2009. More than 6,000 homeless people live in shelters or transitional housing in the District. (AFP/Getty Images/Paul J. Richards)
During his term, former Mayor Anthony A. Williams called for an end to homelessness by 2014. A major component of his “Homeless No More” plan, now being implemented by current Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, is providing housing and financial support to those most at risk of becoming homeless. In early December, the District distributed $7.5 million in federal stimulus money to house homeless families and help struggling families remain in their homes. The money, from federal Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing funds awarded to the District in July, will help 680–800 households. Those who have been homeless the longest and those with the most severe disabilities will be housed first. Proponents of the plan say programs in Denver, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., have proven that providing housing and counseling is more humane and cost-effective than putting people in shelters.
Martha Burt and Sam Hall — researchers at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank — endorse Fenty's focus on permanent supportive housing, but they caution he needs to keep the momentum going if homelessness is to be ended in the next four years. However, Michael Ferrell, executive director of the District of Columbia Coalition for the Homeless, says ending homelessness by 2014 is “very highly unlikely” and calls for a multipronged approach.
“The first prong has to be prevention strategies, and quite frankly, that's preferable to addressing the problem on the back end,” he says. Homeless individuals and families should be rehoused as soon as possible, he explains, but the long-term goal should be to provide enough rental assistance or subsidies for up to 12 months to prevent homelessness from occurring in the first place.
But Raymond cautions against shifting the focus away from shelters. “So many people need subsidized housing,” he says, “that there is a year-and-a-half, two-year waiting list. Shelters are absolutely still necessary.”
The shift towards permanent supportive housing instead of shelters, however, is a national trend. Philip F. Mangano, until recently executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, had focused on getting people out of shelters and into homes. “When you ask the consumer what they want, they don't simply say a bed, blanket and a bowl of soup,” he said. “They say they want a place to live. We have resources being provided to us at record levels. If you look at the numbers for chronic homelessness, we're winning.”
— Emily DeRuy