Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) expressed her support Tuesday for a bill to make it harder for non-D.C. residents to use the city’s homeless shelter system.
The bill follows the release of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress on Nov. 17, which detailed a 14 percent spike in homelessness in the District over the past year, tied with Idaho for the largest percentage increase of states nationwide.
At the mayor’s monthly breakfast with the D.C. Council on Tuesday, she urged the passage of a bill introduced in September that would tighten the paperwork requirements for the homeless to verify that they are D.C. residents as well as disqualify those with access to safe housing options from emergency shelters.
Only California and Washington state surpassed D.C. in terms of the largest raw number increase of homeless people since last year. The District’s homeless population increased by 1,052 people since last year, compared with California’s 2,400 person increase and Washington’s 1,400 person increase.
D.C. Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Michael L. Ferrell attributed the increase to the rising cost of housing in the District, specifically for the larger homes that tend to be more suitable for families.
“There’s no one simple solution to the problem of homelessness, but certainly what our leaders can focus more on is creating more housing opportunities in general for low-income people, not just persons who are experiencing homelessness, but low-income citizens as a whole,” Ferrell said.
Ferrell also predicted that unless the D.C. government increases low-income housing or offers housing voucher programs, wherein the District would help fund low-income residents’ housing, the number of local homeless residents could continue to rise.
Bowser additionally cited the risk of overflowing shelters once temperatures drop below freezing as a reason to act on the legislation. According to the D.C. Department of Human Services, the District spends $80,000 every night on motel rooms for homeless families. During the winter months, the DHS lists 12 percent of those families as non-D.C. residents.
A coalition of six homeless advocacy organizations wrote a letter to the D.C. Council urging it not to act until a full hearing is held.
The Homeless Assessment Report highlighted that fewer than 5 percent of D.C.’s homeless population was unsheltered during the night in January. The District enforces a right-to-shelter law, which guarantees homeless individuals and families shelter during hypothermia season between Nov. 1 and March 31 when temperatures fall below freezing temperatures.
HUD measures data for the report each year by picking one night in late January during which researchers assess the homeless population within certain localities and use those estimates to make nationwide projections. HUD found a total of 8,350 homeless people living in the District on Jan. 28.
Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 3) said homelessness in the District contributes to a wider range of issues and added that there may be solutions the D.C. Council can work toward in attempting to lower homelessness rates.
“Ending homelessness in D.C. requires that we provide ample human services and job training, access to emergency shelter and affordable housing,” Evans wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Ferrell added that he would like to see a greater awareness of the prevalence of homelessness in the District among area residents.
“Homelessness can affect anyone,” Ferrell said. “Most people are only one, two or three checks away from being homeless themselves, so people should realize that by and large it’s an economic issue above all else, so it really can happen to anyone.”
Georgetown University Homeless Outreach Programs and Education member Mandy Brouillard (NHS ’18) echoed that one of the most important steps policymakers can take in combating homelessness is garnering public attention to the issue.
“It doesn’t get the same amount of attention as other social issues and individuals experiencing homelessness in general don’t get a lot of publicity in the media,” Brouillard said.
Brouillard emphasized the homeless community in D.C. is plagued with complex issues of mental illness and violence, which need to be addressed along with economic factors.
“They face a number of disadvantages and civil rights abuses,” Brouillard said. “What’s important is recognizing that it is a problem and getting the public on board with that is important.”
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