"For Rent" sign in the front yard of a rowhouse
"For Rent" sign in the front yard of a rowhouse. Photo by Eric Falquero

This article is part of our 2021 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press

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Back in February 2019, Donté Turner asked himself a question that so many people experiencing homelessness have posed time and again: How does someone in my situation go about getting a place of their own? 

Turner, 36, has never had a place to call his own. Originally from Chicago, he spent much of the past two decades floating between jobs and staying with different friends in D.C. He worked at Shake Shack when it first opened in the city in 2011. Another year, he worked with a home-staging company. For a while, he worked with a temp agency. Turner, now a Street Sense Media artist and vendor, has also served jail time. He remembers applying for a housing voucher back in 2009 but says he never heard back from anyone about it. 

A decade later, the question — how to secure permanent housing — began to consume him. If only he could find a stable place to live, Turner reckoned, he could start to make a better life for himself. So, who was in charge of distributing housing vouchers? How did the process for receiving one work? Turner turned to homeless service providers throughout the District in search of an explanation. But instead of finding answers, he says he was immediately hit with a list of entirely different questions.

“‘Do you need therapy? Do you need counseling? Do you need a psychiatrist or a doctor? Do you need SSI [supplemental security income]? What can we help you with?’” Turner recalled being asked on visits to at least five nonprofit organizations.

Every time, Turner would respond by saying he was seeking help to secure stable permanent housing. And every time, someone would give him an impromptu lecture about something he felt was unrelated, telling him he needed help with things like personal responsibility or time management. Each encounter made him a little more annoyed and a little more disillusioned with the whole system.

Turner still wonders why there was no straight answer. To find one, The DC Line and Street Sense Media talked to various homeless service providers and with homeless and formerly homeless people who have navigated this system. The resulting guide is specific to the resources available to single individuals. The resources available for families differ significantly.

I’ve just become homeless. How can I get a housing voucher?

 

The first step for anyone who is experiencing homelessness is to seek out a homeless service provider and ask for help with housing. All service providers in the District use a decentralized process called “coordinated entry” to match people to opportunities for housing. There is no way for an individual to log themselves in this system — each person must connect with a service provider.

There are a variety of housing programs a person may be matched with; they include permanent supportive housing (PSH) and rapid rehousing (RRH), among others. Instead of a waiting list or application for each program, everyone in need is added to this one, coordinated system.

Information that service providers might request includes a person’s name, birthdate, and any other personally identifiable documentation that’s available (such as a Social Security card).

Adam Rocap, the deputy director of Miriam’s Kitchen, a local homeless services provider based in Foggy Bottom, emphasized that people can ask about coordinated entry anywhere they might be receiving other assistance, whether that’s meals, showers, or help applying for benefits like food stamps.

“Go try to find whatever service provider you’re engaging with already, and make sure you’re engaging with them, and ask them about coordinated entry and housing applications,” Rocap said.

I asked about coordinated entry, and now they want all this personal information. Do they really need it? 

 

Yes and no. There is an assessment form associated with coordinated entry — known as the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision and Assessment Tool (VI-SPDAT) — that asks for a wide range of personal information in order to best determine what kinds of programs a person is eligible to obtain. People might qualify for different kinds of housing services depending on a number of factors such as age or whether they have a disability. But providing information to a service provider is optional.

Completing the VI-SPDAT, however, does not guarantee a person that they will be matched with housing.

“The assessment gives a recommendation of the intervention that can be helpful to ending homelessness,” said Sean Reed, the chief program officer of community solutions at Friendship Place, another homeless services provider in D.C.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) required all jurisdictions to adopt the coordinated entry system by the next year. Standardizing the process for seeking housing, the agency argued, makes the system more equitable.

People are matched with housing services based on whether they are on the “by-name list,” a roster they are added to either through a coordinated entry assessment or after accessing services from the broader homeless services system within the last 30 days. 

Service providers prioritize giving permanent housing vouchers to people who have been homeless the longest and have the highest medical needs, Rocap said.

I applied for housing years ago. Why don’t I have a voucher yet?

 

D.C. first adopted the coordinated entry system in February 2014, but a VI-SPDAT is valid for only 12 months and is supposed to be updated if there are any major changes in a person’s life such as getting married or having a child. 

Both Rocap and Reed advise anyone who is seeking to be connected with housing to stay active within the homeless services system. If a person seldom visits a homeless service provider in the District, the organization might assume the person has moved out of the city.

Reed said that sometimes he sees clients fill out the assessment, move to another state for some time, and then return. What these clients may not realize, Reed said, is that doing so could mean they miss out on an opportunity for housing. Once a housing provider is informed that someone has matched with housing, the case manager has a limited amount of time — usually a matter of weeks — to reconnect with the person and let them know, even if the person began seeking housing a year earlier.

“Come in, check in. This is really important. It helps us identify that you are still here in the District and that your situation has not changed,” Reed said.

Rocap agreed with Reed’s advice. “Make sure to keep staying in touch with whoever you’re engaging with to make sure you stay on the by-name list. And that way, if you ever do get matched, someone would be able to find you and let you know,” he said.

Turner said he had no idea that it was important to stay continually connected with providers when he first started looking for housing. 

“It wasn’t until this year that I learned about the ‘checkpoints,’” he said. 

How long is it going to take to get housing?

 

There’s no simple, definitive answer. It is mostly dependent on two factors: individual circumstance (age, having a disability, having an exceptional medical condition, and so on) and housing availability. For many people, the process can take years.

One former vendor and artist for Street Sense Media obtained housing in 2018 just two and a half days after connecting with Pathways to Housing, another contracted service provider in D.C. Before connecting with this organization, he had waited for years.

Another vendor and artist spent close to 30 years struggling with chronic homelessness but wasn’t approved for a voucher until one day after he died. Yet another waited 10 years before she received a voucher. 

A spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) said the agency is excited to have additional housing resources in this year’s budget — including 1,924 PSH vouchers for individuals, an increase of more than 30% from the prior fiscal year thanks to a tax increase passed by the D.C. Council. The new budget, which took effect Oct. 1, also includes 395 permanent supportive housing vouchers for families and 307 targeted affordable housing vouchers for fiscal year 2022. But the spokesperson did not respond to a question about how many people experiencing homelessness are tracked through the coordinated entry system or what percentage of those people are matched to housing resources each year.

Are there common misconceptions about D.C.’s policies? If so, what are they?

 

Rocap advises clients not to put all their hopes into the coordinated entry system. He encourages people to explore all their options for possible housing.

One such option could be finding roommates to lessen the overall cost of rent, and another could be to reconnect with family, if possible.

Turner, Rocap, Reed and Street Sense Media vendor Michelle Rochon all said the coordinated entry system doesn’t always work as hoped. People aren’t always immediately connected with a housing voucher even after filling out an assessment.

“Let’s be creative. Let’s try to think if there is something else outside of [coordinated entry] where I can help you try to find employment and find affordable housing somewhere else,” Rocap said.

Does where I stay influence how soon I get help?

 

Officially, no. Unofficially, maybe. In the fall of 2015, the Bowser administration began clearing homeless encampments and giving unsheltered residents housing vouchers. This worried housing advocates at the time, who accused the city of bypassing its process for giving the most medically vulnerable residents first access to housing. In years following that event, the city considered the length of a person’s shelter stay as a “tie-breaking factor” when deciding how to prioritize housing to two equally vulnerable individuals, so as not to incentivize living outdoors.

A new pilot program that promises to permanently close three of the city’s largest encampments and connect the people living there to expedited housing opportunities has once again called this policy into question, however.

When asked, the DHS spokesperson wrote in an email that “living outside does not increase chances for obtaining a voucher sooner since the coordinated entry process utilizes community agreed upon prioritization metrics to guide housing placements.” 

During the past year, the agency prioritized people who were “chronically homeless” and had “exceptional medical vulnerabilities” to receive housing vouchers. HUD designates a person as being “chronically homeless” when they have been living without a home for at least 12 months, or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years.

The District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) recently voted to change the criteria, according to Reginald Black, advocacy director for the People for Fairness Coalition and a constituent representative on the ICH. The new policy calls for the District to prioritize housing resources for people with “three or more years’ history of homelessness, exceptional medical vulnerabilities, and severe mental illness.”                                 

What do critics say?

 

As Turner continues his quest for housing, the main problem has been a scarcity of information coupled with a lack of follow-up. He said he had been working with a case manager for months but then stopped hearing from her in April. It wasn’t until September that he learned his previous case manager had switched jobs and someone new was supposed to be working with him.

“That’s five months. Why does it take so long?” Turner said. “They never followed up to tell me, ‘Hey, you got a new caseworker.’” 

Rochon said she feels that D.C.’s heavy reliance on multiple service providers means that people often have varied experiences when seeking to be connected with help.

And that’s just one of the complicating factors. “There is no continuity,” Rochon said of the difficulties encountered just by crossing state lines in the DC metropolitan area.

Rochon, who has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Morgan State University and a master’s in organizational leadership from Nyack College, previously worked in the homeless services system in Maryland, where she says there was more consistency because they don’t rely as much on contract providers. After losing her job in August 2019, Rochon said, she stayed in Airbnbs and hotels until her savings ran out. Eventually, she began staying at a shelter in D.C. 

She said service providers ought to log notes about their interactions with their clients, which they should then share with colleagues to ensure consistent support. “But I don’t see that happening,” Rochon said. “You’re having to communicate to everybody you meet, what you’re doing. And it’s kind of unorganized.”

When asked, DHS said that all of its service providers “have the same Human Care Agreement (HCA) with the same level of care and contacts built into the contract, so the minimum requirements are consistent.”

I got a voucher. Now what?

 

Once someone receives a voucher, they begin the process of finding a place to rent. While D.C. landlords are not legally allowed to discriminate against renters that use vouchers, it happens. Therefore, it’s important for people with vouchers to understand their legal rights. The D.C. Office of the Tenant Advocate at 202-719-6560 has resources to help tenants who are experiencing discrimination.

Other organizations that can help include the Office of Human Rights at 202-727-4559, the D.C. Office of the Attorney General (OAG) at 202-727-3400, Housing Counseling Services at 202-442-7200, and the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs at 202-319-1000.

Last year, the OAG filed multiple lawsuits against half a dozen real estate companies that allegedly discriminated against residents on the basis of race, disability, or source of income.

A landlord can ask prospective tenants for credit checks but are not allowed to deny a person based on a credit score alone. They also cannot reject a renter because their source of income for rent is a voucher. In cases of discrimination, the Office of the Tenant Advocate can assist tenants in finding legal representation.

It’s not against the law for landlords to impose hefty, non-refundable application fees of all prospective renters, but housing advocates criticize the practice as a legal form of discrimination.

What about public housing?

 

The waiting list for D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) units has been closed for years with a backlog of thousands of families, in part due to challenges in repairing vacant, dilapidated units so they are available for use. In a statement to The DC Line and Street Sense Media, the agency said there are approximately 43,000 people on the waiting list for public housing. 

“DCHA also is working to quickly turn vacant traditional public housing units to assist individuals and families, while also moving them off the waitlist,” the agency said in an email.

The federal government is no longer investing in new public housing or sufficient maintenance of existing public housing, which means there’s a limited supply amid significant demand. Since 2000, the federal government has underfunded public housing for all but three years, according to the research nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.  

What about families?

 

Both Rocap and Reed said that D.C.’s homeless service providers are generally able to connect families to housing resources more quickly than they can do for individuals. As with individuals, families who are seeking to connect with permanent housing resources should connect with service providers in the city, so case managers can help guide them with the process for obtaining a housing voucher.

Can I speed up the process?

 

There’s not much a person can do individually to speed up the process other than staying in regular contact with a service provider. 

In the statement provided to The DC Line and Street Sense Media, DHS said it is working to develop revised protocols to expedite the process of connecting people to resources. In hopes of increasing the availability of units across the city, the agency said it plans to partner with the District’s Department of Housing and Community Development to “engage large property owners and small landlords to ensure that all residents are being treated fairly and provided an equal opportunity for housing.” 

The agency also said that the city will be asking landlords to “relax income and credit requirements since the District is paying all of the total rent.”


This article was co-published with The DC Line.

Will Schick covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. Year one of this joint position was made possible by the Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship, The Nash Foundation, and individual contributors.