Approximately 14 years ago, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless drafted for the first time a document which has since come to be known simply as “The Fact Sheet.” This document was originally entitled “Homelessness in D.C.—Some Basic Facts”, but eventually evolved into the “Fact Sheet On Homelessness and Poverty.” It was initially conceived of and created for use in a new training, called “Homelessness 101”, for D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). While that training is now a permanent part of MPD’s training curriculum, and the Fact Sheet is still an integral part of those education efforts, its use as a source of facts and statistics about poverty in the District has grown far beyond that original purpose. Whenever we get an inquiry from the media or other social or legal services organizations asking for information about homelessness, or need some statistics to back up our advocacy efforts, the first place most of us look is to the latest version of the Fact Sheet.
This document, which is updated on a regular basis because of the constantly changing nature of the information we cite, is more than mere facts and figures, however. It is a constant reminder to us, and to the people with whom we collaborate, about the entrenched nature of poverty in the District of Columbia. It is also damning evidence of just how little things have changed over the years in terms of the factors that contribute to the high rate of homelessness in Washington, D.C.
The Fact Sheet consists of 4 sections: “Who is Homeless?”; “Why Are So Many Homeless?”; “Is There Enough Shelter?”; and “Is There Enough Housing?”, categories which attempt to get to the heart of both the causes and the face of homelessness in the District.
One of the most telling statistics included in the Fact Sheet is the number of people who are homeless in D.C. over the course of a year, as well as the average number of homeless individuals in the city on any given night. The latter statistic is gleaned from a once a year “count” of homeless persons in the District every January, known as the “Point in Time” survey. For 2011, this number was 6,546 individuals, a figure which has actually decreased since the Fact Sheet was first created, but has not budged by more than a few hundred for the past several years. The more alarming statistic is the number of people who access the homeless services system over the course of a given year, which has stubbornly remained at approximately 16,000 people since the Fact Sheet was first created in 1998. That is close to 3% of the entire population of Washington, D.C., which is one of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the country, and a sad testament to the state of poverty in our Nation’s Capital.
Hiding beneath these numbers is another, more troubling statistic: the dramatic increase in the number of homeless families in D.C. since the economy started its freefall in 2008. While the net number of persons who are homeless has stayed somewhat steady for the past few years, due in part to increased efforts to place single homeless adults into permanent housing, the number of homeless families increased more than 30% between 2008 and 2011. 2,024 families applied for emergency shelter in 2010, and D.C.’s homeless count from January, 2011 included 1,620 children. Yet the number of emergency shelter slots for those families has increased very little since the Fact Sheet was first conceived, with a total of 160 apartment-style units and fewer than 200 overflow slots to accommodate this burgeoning population. As a result, today, as in 1998, the wait for emergency family shelter is at least 6 months for the majority of families who find themselves without a place to live.
Underlying these statistics are some numbers that help tell the story behind homelessness in Washington, DC. While the amount of public benefits received by many in D.C.’s homeless community has increased very little over the past 14 years, the price of virtually everything, but especially housing, has gone through the roof. For instance, the TANF benefit for a family of 3 in 1998 was $379/month; today it is $428/month. Yet the Fair Market Rent for a 2-BR home has increased from $814/month to $1,461/month during that same period, putting permanent housing out of reach for the vast majority of homeless persons in D.C. At the same time, the waiting list for subsidized housing through the DC Housing Authority, the primary source of affordable housing in the city, has gone from 26,430 in 1998 to 40,200 as of late 2011.
While facts and figures can often seem dry and impersonal, the Fact Sheet tries to bring them to life. It paints a picture of the stark realities that underlie the deep-rooted and seemingly hopeless poverty that many of our clients experience everyday. As we head into budget season, let’s hope it can help us convince those in positions of power to use this city’s vast resources to truly make a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors.