Photo of an apartment building in Washington DC
Photo courtesy of user ok-oyot / flickr

This column was first published by The DC Line on July 18.

Mayor Muriel Bowser has decided not to extend the public health emergency past July 25. As a result, the DC Council had to scramble to phase out or extend many of the legal protections that were tied to the public health emergency, including the eviction moratorium. Despite some thoughtful protections in the law and significant federal dollars for eviction prevention, there is no doubt in my mind that we are on the precipice of historic levels of homelessness in DC — unless the council invests significant resources into ending and preventing homelessness.

Mayor Bowser claims to have drastically decreased family homelessness in her time as mayor, but this is an illusion. Her administration has drastically decreased the use of family shelters by moving homeless families into the rapid re-housing program. Rapid re-housing is time-limited, though, which means the homelessness of those families has only temporarily ended. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of families in shelter and transitional housing fell in half, from 815 to 405. Yet, at the same time, the number of families in rapid re-housing increased from 1,802 to 2,905. That’s a total increase of more than 1,100 homeless (or about-to-be homeless) families as of this spring. According to the most recent figures available, there are now more than 3,200 families in the rapid re-housing program.

Now that the public health emergency is ending, the DC Department of Human Services plans to terminate hundreds of families in rapid re-housing for reaching the time limit. The vast majority of these families — almost exclusively Black families — will not be able to afford their rent when they are cut off from assistance, leading to displacement, eviction and homelessness. Existing trauma will be amplified by its repetition. As a mother once told me, becoming homeless more than once makes it harder to tell your children that it is just a blip in a life story; instead, it is more likely to become part of one’s identity. A housing voucher — because it is permanent rather than time-limited — interrupts that pattern and creates long-term housing stability and security. If even half of these families return to homelessness after being cut off from support through rapid re-housing, DC’s family shelters will run out of space.

Mayor Bowser also committed to ending chronic homelessness by 2017, yet chronic homelessness actually increased by 21% this year. The number of tents has grown across the city, probably related to the risks of COVID transmission in shelters. Some neighbors are pushing for displacement, an approach that does nothing to solve the problem or help encampment residents, even as other neighbors demand greater housing resources. Other people who are chronically homeless still reside in emergency shelters or in the new hotel program — DC has about 650 individuals in hotel rooms who have been medically determined to be at high risk of dying of COVID-19 and another 600 on the waiting list for the program. Unfortunately, the hotel program is expected to wind down when the federal money lapses at the end of September, even as the virus remains a threat. Without more housing vouchers, medically vulnerable people will be forced to return to living on the street or in overcrowded shelters, and their lives will be at risk. Already 41 people have died while homeless this year — there was a vigil Sunday, July 18 to honor their lives. 

[Read More: Vigil honors Jose Navarro and 42 other individuals who died on D.C. streets in 2021]

Meanwhile, 43,000 households sit on the DC Housing Authority waiting list for public housing and vouchers, a list that has been closed for eight years. People who are homeless all wait more than a decade for vouchers on that waiting list. The budget as it stands now will not fund a single extra voucher for those on the waiting list, and it will inadequately fund public housing repairs — which would be an effective way to bring some vacant units back online to be matched with people waiting for housing.

Many of the DC residents struggling without housing have been doing so for years, and that is unjust and unconscionable. Soon, though, people who were teetering on the edge of homelessness before the pandemic pushed them over the edge and people newly unstable due to the pandemic will also become homeless. While we hope the federal rental assistance available through STAY DC will reach all of them, the District is not running a low-barrier, easily accessible program. When evictions start up, DC will see an increase in homelessness that it is woefully unprepared to prevent, absorb or mitigate.

DC is on the precipice of a homelessness emergency beyond anything we have ever seen, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late to turn around. The budget decisions that the DC Council makes in the next few weeks about how much money to invest in homelessness prevention, public housing repairs, and ending homelessness will determine whether we experience a humanitarian nightmare or a just and equitable recovery. We hope you join us in telling our elected leaders that ending homelessness should be their highest priority this year. They need to do whatever it takes to get it done, whether that means raising taxes on high-income earners or transferring money from poor-performing programs.

Amber W. Harding is a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, where she leads policy and budget advocacy. She is on the steering committee of the Fair Budget Coalition and The Way Home Campaign.