The dimensions of homelessness in the Metropolitan Washington region are surging, driven mostly by an explosion in the number of homeless in the District of Columbia, according to a recently released annual report by the Council of Governments.
According to the report, “Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington,” which contains the results of the 14th annual count of the region’s homeless population, there are 11,946 homeless people living in the region, a 3.5 percent increase from 2013.
Seven of the nine jurisdictions that participate in the count –Arlington, Loudon, Fairfax and Prince William counties in Virginia; Alexandria, Va.; Montgomery, Frederick and Prince George’s counties in Maryland and the District– actually saw decreases in their homeless population. Arlington County saw the largest decrease, 39 percent; followed by Montgomery and Frederick at 11 percent; Fairfax at 9 percent and Prince George’s at 5 percent.
The District, however, experienced a 13 percent increase in its homeless population, from 6,865 persons in 2013 to 7,748 in 2014. That number was mostly driven by a spike in the number of homeless families (1,231), whose members comprised almost half (3,795) of D.C.’s homeless in 2014. Loudoun County registered an increase in homeless persons, too, according to COG. But the 13-person rise was said by the report to be “too small to be significant.”
The count of homeless persons was conducted on a single night, Jan. 29, 2014.
Children accounted for 29 percent (3,515) of the region’s total homeless population and numbered 2,236 among the District’s homeless families.
Homelessness can be especially hard on the young, said Michael Ferrell, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless. In addition to being dislocated from familiar surroundings, relatives, friends, and neighborhood schools when their families become homeless, children also have to combat the associated stigma.
“It is a traumatic experience to go from living in a home to living in a shelter,” Ferrell told the AFRO.
When the numbers were broken down by race and ethnicity, it showed that African Americans are disproportionately more likely to be homeless compared to general population categories.
Of the 6,057 homeless single adults reported in the count, 69 percent are Black; and among homeless families, 85 percent are African American.
Lack of affordable housing was the main impetus behind those homeless numbers, the report found.
“Data collected this year confirm what each jurisdiction has observed in practice, that the greatest barrier to ending homelessness in our communities is the lack of fixed, affordable permanent housing opportunities for the lowest income households,” the report observed.
And, local jurisdictions and service providers are concerned that many more of the region’s residents are “at risk” of becoming homeless.
“While not yet considered homeless, many households are believed to be ‘doubled up’ due to difficult economic conditions. Homelessness is often the next step for such households once the family members or friends who have been sheltering them can’t or no longer will do so,” according to the report.
Lack of affordable housing is of most acute concern in the District, which has more concentrated poverty than the other jurisdictions.
“In D.C. more than 80 percent of families who are homeless are receiving public assistance of less than $5,000 a year,” Ferrell said.
But even government subsidies have been drying up in the wake of the sequestration and other economics-driven changes.
“Because of the recession the amount of housing choice vouchers, which the federal government provides, are not as plentiful,” Ferrell added.
But homelessness is a problem even among those who are employed, the report showed. Among the District’s homeless adults, for example, 23 percent had a job. That’s why policies that seek to increase families’ incomes, such as living wages and minimum wage increases, can be crucial in battling homelessness, Ferrell said.
“There is not much housing that a person making $8.25 an hour can afford, even though [he or she] is working,” the housing advocate said.
Other programs that can help combat homelessness, such as preventive measures, permanent supportive housing for the disabled and other chronically homeless, rapid rehousing for persons facing a short-term economic crisis and others helped bring the regional total of formerly homeless persons to 12,140.