Mayor Bowser speaking on the Housing For All initiative
Six years ago, at a Feb. 7, 2015, Housing For All Campaign rally, Mayor Bowser promised to work toward eliminating homelessness and to not settle for short-term solutions like shelters. Archive photo by Julie Gallagher

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office released its second five-year strategic plan to end homelessness in D.C. at the beginning of July. The document was released during a July 6 celebration of seven residents of the 801 East Men’s Shelter who were hired to help build its replacement. More than 200 men reside there on any given night, with a capacity of 240 residents. 

The updated plan aims to make D.C. homelessness largely nonexistent by 2025, with a focus on unaccompanied adult homelessness following a previous model used to reduce family homelessness in the District. This would require expansion of the permanent supportive housing (PSH) and rapid rehousing programs, according to the document. It also calls for leadership to make housing a protected right for D.C. residents. The first version of Homeward D.C. was published by the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness in 2015 with the aim of making homelessness “rare, brief and nonrecurring” in the District by 2020. While that goal has not yet been met — this update continues to pursue it. 

Those first five years were designed to focus on families first, but then move on after addressing unhoused families to overhaul the full crisis response system. Some items took more time than expected. The District drastically reformed the family shelter system, with the 2018 closure of the D.C. General shelter in favor of multiple smaller sites, the last of which opened earlier this year. 

Efforts to reduce family homelessness achieved a 73% decrease between 2015 and 2021, based on the Point-in-Time (PIT) census of the population conducted every January. This decrease is also due to the Homelessness Prevention Program, a D.C. Department of Human Services initiative to prevent people from entering shelters, instead “doubling up” families with other households, such as friends or relatives. 

[Read More: Seeing Double: DC drastically reduces the number of people in shelter as more double up]

While Bowser reduced family homelessness, progress on individual homelessness was much less dramatic. Homeward D.C. 1.0 aimed to reduce overall homelessness in the District by 65% by the end of 2020, but the official count only decreased by approximately 30%, based on PIT Count data collected in 2015 and 2021. Because PIT data is largely considered an undercount, the decrease also does not account for all people experiencing homelessness in D.C.

“Despite the significant progress we have made in the last five years, we still have a long way to go, particularly for single adults,” said Theresa Silla, a policy advisor for Interagency Council on Homelessness. “We look forward to applying lessons learned from the transformation of the family system to maintain our progress on the family front as well as realize resounding success in the reduction of homelessness for single adults.”

Now, Homeward D.C. 2.0 includes many priorities for unaccompanied adults and aims to nearly eliminate homelessness by 2025. 

The plan outlines two scenarios, one that explains what D.C. ‘s system would look like if the plan failed to prevent “inflow” into homelessness and maintained a “steady level of investment” in permanent housing programs. The second, and preferable scenario “imagine[s] significant increases in financial resources and capacity to more fully meet the need” while assuming the same level of inflow as the first scenario.

“We know that if people are flowing into our system no matter what their residence is, whether from outside or inside the District, if we aren’t proactive and fast enough with our housing resources, those individuals will end up in chronic homelessness,” said Reginald Black, a Street Sense Media vendor and an appointed member of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness. 

A draft of Homeward D.C. 2.0 was released in February of last year, but its rollout was delayed due to COVID-19. At the time it was proposed, Homeward 2.0 received criticism for not securing enough housing options for single adults who might not qualify for permanent supportive housing. 

To meet Bowser’s goal of ending homelessness in D.C. by 2025, the government must speed up the rate of people who receive housing through various programs each year. 

Black acknowledged the drawbacks of the original plan that Homeward 2.0 attempts to remedy. “A lot of partners have said that those [2015-2020] goals were aspirational and they were estimates, so we fell significantly short of what we had planned in terms of permanent supportive housing.”

In response to concerns about resources for unhoused and unaccompanied individuals, the revamped strategy includes rapid rehousing for single adults which, according to the plan, “helps prevent inflow into long-term homelessness.” One scenario proposed adding 100 new slots of rapid rehousing annually. 

Rapid rehousing (RRH) has received mixed feedback with criticisms that people are given temporary housing support  without a living-wage job or enough support to attain one quickly, meaning they return to homelessness when their RRH time limits run out. The subsidy helps fund rent for a set time period, usually a year, with available extensions. The recipient must cover the full market-rate rent when the subsidy ends. Black has criticized the program because it provides participants rapid but temporary stability.  After the financial support runs out, participants often become homeless again. He pointed out that some recipients have felt they were “set up to fail,” which was also the title of a 2017 Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless report documenting how many participants return to homelessness.

Homeward D.C. 2.0 admits that the frequently relied upon rapid rehousing program is not perfect, but is based on the idea that it is better to provide some rent-stabilization to households, even in cost-burdened units, than to provide no help at all. “RRH is not a replacement for the long-term investments in affordable housing – it is an emergency response while the District continues efforts to build that stock,” the plan states. 

Advocates consider permanent supportive housing a better alternative to RRH. This most expensive option, while it has limited eligibility, supports residents without a time limit. In March 2021, Councilmember Brianne Nadeau proposed the city purchase hotels that were being used for the temporary Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals (PEP-V) to use the hotels for development of permanent supportive housing. 

The 2.0 plan calls for 35% of future PSH investments be in such site-based projects where 50% – 100% of the units are PSH, based on recommendations from the Interagency Council on Homelessness. Homeward D.C. encourages PSH site development, to create supportive communities for an aging single adult population experiencing homelessness. The plan cites examples at the Dunbar, a 19-unit PSH facility for women, and the John and Jill Ker Conway Residence, a 124-unit building with 77 units of PSH and 47 units of affordable housing.

Expanded permanent housing capacity, however, is only possible with significantly more funding as described in the second scenario of the plan. According to Homeward D.C. 2.0, the preexisting level would “push our system and existing provider capacity to the limits.” 

The Way Home Campaign, a coalition of nonprofit organizations attempting to end chronic homelessness in D.C., advocated for an amendment to the fiscal year 2022 budget that would set aside another $66 million toward permanent supportive housing. 

[Disclaimer: Street Sense Media is a member of The Way Home Campaign but our newsroom is independent. Read more at streetsensemedia.org/ethics]

That proposal was adopted during a July 20 vote, with support from councilmembers Brianne Nadeau, Janeese Lewis-George, Charles Allen, Trayon White, Vincent Gray, Robert White, Elissa Silverman and Christina Henderson. The passed amendment, which proposes an increase to the marginal income tax rate for D.C. residents earning more than $250,000 annually, would also fund a wage increase for childcare professionals and a monthly basic income for households earning less than $57,414 per year for a family of three. 

If the amendment passes a final vote on Aug. 3, it will be the first time permanent supportive housing has had a dedicated revenue stream to support the city’s annual investments in the program.

Ideally, Black pointed out, no housing support systems are necessary if the city invests substantially in affordable housing for its residents. The plan calls for increased affordable housing development in the city, pointing to a goal Mayor Bowser announced in May 2019 of adding 36,000 new units of housing, including 12,000 affordable housing opportunities, to the District by 2025. 

[Read More: Bowser’s $400M for housing could be a game changer, but the program struggles to produce for those most in need]

Homeward D.C. 2.0’s focus on single adult homelessness is also part of an effort to view homelessness through the perspective of racial equity. Black residents make up less than half of the D.C. population, but more than 85% of adults experiencing homelessness in the District. The plan includes a racial equity impact assessment tool to evaluate the effect of policies on different racial groups experiencing homelessness and two task forces: one to review system operations and one to review data on client race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and linguistics.

Reginald Black, the ICH member and Street Sense Media vendor, explained that since the plan’s initial 2020 release, it has been modified to account for the challenges of COVID-19 as well as issues of structural racism that were highlighted during the pandemic. The end of COVID-19 protection programs like the eviction moratorium has raised concerns over an expected increase in the unhoused population. “We decided to reopen the plan to take a look at what is happening with COVID and make sure we have a plan for the next year that is comprehensive enough to serve unaccompanied unhoused populations that are underserved,” Black said.

While the plan includes language that acknowledges the pandemic, Silla of ICH said their modeling of the homeless services system relies on pre-pandemic analysis. These estimates will be updated later this year after evaluating the impact of COVID-19 on D.C. homelessness.

Outside of specific plans for rapid rehousing or permanent supportive housing, Black emphasized goal 12 of the plan: “Provide leadership on creating a right to housing in the United States.” Black, who is a long-term advocate of the proposal, believes that if housing was a protected right, people would be able to rent affordably without need for as many emergency or supportive housing resources. 

“We believe that safe, stable, affordable housing should be a human right, not a privilege,” the plan states

According to the plan, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development annually invests more in subsidies for wealthy homeowners than in affordable rent for people experiencing homelessness. Homeward D.C. 2.0 argues that D.C. could be a leading voice in encouraging the federal government to establish a Housing Assistance Entitlement Benefit that would dedicate more funding to homeless populations.

“We can be a model city to make sure all other cities follow our lead in terms of being able to provide decent, safe, and affordable housing to people.” Black said.