Photo of the John A. Wilson building in Washington, D.C.
John A. Wilson building. Photo by Kaela Roeder

D.C.’s plan to eliminate homelessness for single adults appears to be faltering.

 

Prior to the start of fiscal year 2022, the District did something unprecedented. In a bid to end homelessness for single adults, the D.C. government funded a record 2,400 vouchers, including 500 available thanks to federal stimulus funds. For the past 12 months, caseworkers across the city have worked to help people use these newly funded vouchers to move into homes. 

By the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, however, only 590 people had found housing through the program, according to the Department of Human Services (DHS). Over 1,800 people are still waiting to use the remaining vouchers. 

Initially, homeless service advocates had high hopes for the 1,900 new Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) vouchers, available to people who are chronically homeless. At the time, D.C. also had access to about 500 Emergency Housing Vouchers (EHVs). The federal government issued EHVs under the American Rescue Plan to help people who were homeless at the time or at risk of homelessness. 

But PSH providers soon realized they faced several hurdles to using all 2,400 vouchers in one year. These providers are an essential resource for anyone applying for a voucher, helping applicants through the months-long application and leasing process. With the infusion of vouchers, providers needed to quickly hire staff — a particular challenge due to a tight national labor market and potentially outdated certification requirements. Add to that burdensome paperwork, slow responses from government agencies and a lack of affordable housing, and by July, only 528 individuals had moved into housing with a PSH or EHV voucher in FY 2022. Another 62 were able to get housing in the final months of the fiscal year.

Throughout the year, Street Sense reporters met a number of people experiencing homelessness trying to navigate the voucher system. Many people were told by outreach workers they would be getting a voucher, but didn’t know how far into the process they were or when they’d be able to move into housing. People applying for vouchers are given little insight into the process, and have to rely on periodic updates from caseworkers and government agencies. As they waited, some were exposed to extreme heat over the summer. Others endured encampment cleanups and closures

Carlton Johnson, a Street Sense Media vendor who has been homeless for three years, has been promised there’s a voucher for him multiple times. But so far, all he has seen is paperwork. 

“Once I get my voucher I’ll be all right,” he said in August. “Only thing I can do is be patient.” 

New vouchers, but no new caseworkers 

 

A flood of new vouchers overwhelmed the system. 

For someone to be officially assigned to a voucher, they need to be paired with a PSH service provider. And for that to happen, service providers need to have available spots, a rarity amid the struggle to hire personnel. DHS numbers indicate providers have only been able to take on 30 new cases in the last few months, bringing the number of people assigned to a FY 2022 voucher to 1,565. The Community Partnership, which leads collaboration among the city’s dozens of service providers, has identified another 857 people who can apply for a voucher as soon as they get a caseworker.

“We’re facing the same dilemma, and that is the ability to staff up,” said Adam Maier, director of housing partnerships at Pathways to Housing. 

Given the staffing shortage, Maier and representatives from at least 16 other organizations are now asking officials to change licensing requirements that they say hinder hiring new case workers. Currently, once someone graduates with a degree in social work, they have to pass an exam in order to obtain a license and handle cases. Maier wants the D.C. Board of Social Work to remove that requirement. 

Not all states in the U.S. require the exam, Maier said. The test has also come under fire for perpetuating racism in standardized testing, as Black social workers fail the exam at disproportionately high rates. 

Since 2020, at least 66 unlicensed social workers have applied to Pathways. If the test requirement were removed, they could all take on cases. 

A months-long process 

 

The staffing shortage isn’t the only cause of delays in the voucher process. Over 400 people with a voucher are currently searching for housing to rent. The time it takes to find a unit has gone up in the last few months — from 160 days in July to 180 in September. 

There are several reasons it can take awhile for voucher holders to move in. The voucher only covers rent up to a set amount, which is below market rent in some neighborhoods. Some landlords illegally discriminate against people who use vouchers to rent in an attempt to keep formerly homeless residents out of their buildings — the subject of a record $10 million settlement announced last week by Attorney General Karl Racine. And even when someone using a voucher finds a unit they like, they have to wait for DCHA to inspect it, which can take up to 10 days. 

The 1,866 individuals somewhere in this process still have a chance to get housing with an FY 2022 voucher. After D.C. failed to use over half the city’s PSH vouchers in 2020, the D.C. Council passed legislation ensuring all of the money set aside for vouchers is reserved for vouchers, even if it has to be used at a later date. In January, funding for another 500 individual PSH vouchers will kick in via the FY 2023 budget. 

But conditions are only going to get worse for the hundreds of people still waiting on their vouchers. Hypothermia season officially begins Nov. 1, and some are predicting the coming winter will be “unseasonably cold.” 

Jesse Rabinowitz, senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen, is calling on the D.C. government to figure out a way not just to use the vouchers quickly, but help the hundreds waiting find temporary housing. 

“These people were matched to PSH because they are extremely vulnerable,” Rabinowitz said. “That means they need a place to stay.” 


This article was co-published with The DC Line. 

Annemarie Cuccia covers D.C. government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.