Slow Progress on DC’s Homeless Plan
Three years into the District’s 10-year strategy to end homelessness, interviews with public representatives and local advocates revealed that the plan has made little progress in its goal of adding 6,000 units of permanent housing with support services for the homeless.
“Right now [the plan’s] in limbo because we just haven’t had time to work on it,” said Cheryl Barnes, the only formerly homeless member of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a council established by Mayor Anthony A. Williams in 2005 to implement the plan.
The District’s 10-year plan, drawn up in 2004 by Williams, aimed to end chronic homelessness by adding 6,000 new units of affordable housing, increasing preventative efforts and providing support services to people on the streets.
More than 90 communities across the country have drawn up 10-year strategies to eradicate homelessness in their communities, encouraged by a blueprint released by the National Alliance to End Homelessness in 2000 that focused on preventative measures and an increase in permanent affordable housing with mental health, medical and other support services for the chronically homeless.
Areas like Portland and Multnomah County, Ore., and Columbus, Ohio, have dramatically reduced their numbers of homeless as a result of long-term strategic partnerships between public agencies, businesses and nonprofits. (See sidebar on Portland’s success on page 5.)
However, the plan in Washington, D.C. has not seen much progress in part because of the change in administrations from Williams to new Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, advocates said. Overwhelming concerns such as improving the city’s public education system have led the city to put eradicating homelessness “on the back burner,” Barnes said. And the city is losing affordable housing units every year to high-priced developers, pushing the goal of 6,000 net additional units farther out of reach.
Tasked by the mayor to create strategies across agencies to end chronic homelessness, the Interagency Council on Homelessness held no meetings during the transition between the Williams and Fenty administrations earlier this year and only met under the Fenty administration for the first time in June.
“We need to be meeting every month,” Barnes said. The city’s 2014 deadline to end homelessness may not be realistic, Barnes said. “I think it might take another 10 years.”
The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development funded the rehabilitation and construction of more than 4,000 affordable housing units in the last two years. But this funding was not the result of inter-agency collaboration under the 10-year plan, department spokeswoman Najuma Thorpe said.
“We certainly work with the plans that are dictated to us but we are always looking for more ways to increase affordable housing,” Thorpe said.
However, the department has set aside $12.5 million for building permanent housing as a result of long-term planning with the Deputy Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, which oversees the 10-year strategy.
But that earmark does not include funds for any support services like medical or mental health, said Thorpe. Under the 10-year plan, the 6,000 new affordable units must offer permanent supportive housing.
“The city’s commitment to dollars is definitely a good step forward in the right direction, and shows that the city believes in the concept of preventing people from becoming homeless,” said Michael Ferrell, director of the nonprofit D.C. Coalition for the Homeless. “The responsibility lies with the District government.”
Ferrell said that bringing affordable housing is the biggest challenge D.C.’s government faces and that the plan will take time to implement.
“That’s why it’s a 10-year plan and not a five-year plan,” Ferrell said.
Father Jon Adams, the director of one of the largest providers of homeless services in the District, said he believes the plan is making progress. As head of So Others Might Eat (SOME), he noted that providing funds for housing is a step in the right direction to ending homelessness.
“I think [the plan] is going [forward] and I think for one thing the city itself has had enough foresight to have established the Housing Production Trust Fund,” Adams said.
The trust fund was established in the late 1980s to fund the building and rehabilitation of affordable housing. More than 5,000 affordable housing units have been completed or are under development from direct support from the Housing Production Trust Fund, according to a joint report by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute and the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development.
The number of affordable housing units added to D.C. under the trust fund has “grown dramatically” since 2001 to more than 1,500 units in the 2006 fiscal year, the report said.
However, these additions may not include supportive services for mental and medical health and are not the result of inter-agency collaboration for more permanent supportive housing under the city’s 10-year plan. Most alarmingly, these additional units coincide with the District’s loss of thousands of affordable rentals and homes each year.
The city has also not met its own deadlines under the 10-year plan for rehabilitating various homeless shelters. Although the 10-year plan called for mass renovations at Parcel 26/La Casa, Gales School and an unidentified men’s shelter by October 2006, no major renovations have taken place and no men’s shelter has been selected for renovation.
Meanwhile, Franklin School Shelter for men, located downtown, does not have air conditioning for the summer and is scheduled to shut down at the end of the year.
With funds available for construction and further implementation of the 10-year plan, progress should be on the horizon. But the patience of some of District’s homeless and their advocates is wearing thin.
“I’m appalled. They don’t understand the importance of this issue,” Barnes said, expressing her frustration at the pace of work at the Interagency Council. “There are folks who have been in the shelter system for the last seven to ten years. We’re tired of waiting for our piece of the pie.”
Despite numerous attempts to contact representatives from the mayor’s office, they were unavailable for comment on the status of the 10-year plan by press time.
By Daniel Johnson and Kaukab Jhumra Smith
Reprinted from Street Sense