The city’s next 5-year-plan to end homelessness provides more questions than answers
A proposed update to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Homeward D.C. plan is drawing some flak over complaints about inadequate transparency as well as doubts about the city government’s ability to fulfill ambitious goals.
The D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness presented a draft of the new “Homeward D.C. 2.0” strategic plan on Jan. 21 at the first quarterly full council meeting in 2020. The document is the next iteration of the five-year plan created in Bowser’s first term to reduce homelessness and create more efficient avenues for residents to obtain stable housing. The ICH is set to vote on a final draft at its next full council meeting on March 10.
The version circulated to attendees at the Jan. 21 public meeting maintains the same overall objectives of the original Homeward D.C. plan — to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring. Homeward D.C. has helped bring myriad gains, with homelessness in the District dropping overall by 22% over a three-year period, according to a progress report released by the ICH in September. However, the city did not see similar momentum on other major goals such as providing enough rapid re-housing to meet demand — an estimated 1,500 more “slots” are needed for singles — and ending chronic homelessness during the initial plan’s implementation.
Included in the draft plan — which, despite distribution at the open meeting, carried a note on each page asking that it not be cited or quoted — is a list of lessons learned from the deficiencies within Homeward D.C., culminating in a summary of challenges officials hope to avoid with Homeward 2.0. For instance, the ICH hopes to correct past errors by taking steps such as providing more comprehensive support to individuals. The draft repeatedly contrasts success in the family system with unexpected setbacks for unaccompanied people.
Under the first iteration of Homeward D.C., the city overhauled family shelters and heavily invested in housing programs as well as preventative measures; services for singles, however, were not scaled up on multiple fronts in the same way. The draft also newly classifies stable employment as a critical need for helping people exit homelessness and highlights the provision of job opportunities as a way for the private sector to get involved.
Comprehensive system reform, rapid re-housing, capacity challenges, and employment are identified as among the top issues influencing the modeling of the new plan. Additional areas of focus include addressing the vulnerability of those who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of doing so; finding ways to minimize the growth in housing program costs; and adapting to declining financial support from the federal government.
While the plan outlines objectives, the specific strategies for achieving these goals remain unclear. On a slide presented during the meeting, the ICH described Homeward D.C. 2.0 as including over 100 strategies under the umbrella of their overarching goals. Members of the community, however, characterized the language as too broad to be effective.
“We need to tighten it up — it’s a little vague,” said Janet Sharp, a formerly homeless D.C. resident. “It could be a little more specific, particularly on the housing discrimination issue. I think the ICH could sink their teeth into this by adding a paragraph saying, ‘This is illegal.’ I’m finding more people who are turned down for vouchers for the pettiest reasons. We need to tighten it!”
In an interview, ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt explained that laws regarding housing discrimination and systems to enforce those laws already exist, although the government does need to do more to ensure compliance.
“There isn’t a review of existing laws in the plan,” she said. “I don’t disagree that discrimination in the market still happens, so we continue to work with [the Office of Human Rights] to make sure that those laws are enforced. However, it is also the job of landlords to be educated on the law and how their actions may be violating those laws.”
During the meeting, Greenwalt said some suggestions still under consideration were not reflected in the draft being presented that day due to the high volume of comments submitted during an initial round of reviews.
“Something you’re going to see in Homeward 2.0 is how much more partnership and coordination we need from the other agencies around the table,” Greenwalt said, going on to ask for further assistance from other agencies in attendance so as not to repeat past miscalculations. In addition to four homeless or formerly homeless community members, the full council consists of 20 participants selected as representatives of three D.C. Council members, four private-sector organizations, four advocacy groups, eight service providers, and The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which is a quasi-governmental contractor; rounding out the council are D.C. officials from 16 agencies, including the Department of Human Services, the Office of the City Administrator and the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.
Housing was a focal point for public comment as those in attendance called for some form of subsidy awarded to people experiencing homelessness as well as an easier pathway to obtaining vouchers. Reginald Black, one of the appointed constituent representatives, noted that many people have trouble using vouchers even if they do receive them.
“This body has established housing as a human right,” said Black, who is also an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media. “With [the use of] that word, we also feel that it is now time for this body to actually have a discussion around what that policy should be when it comes to folks who qualify for subsidies to be able to get those subsidies without experiencing chronic homelessness.”
In regards to policy, people experiencing homelessness and their advocates pushed for greater involvement in the decision-making of the D.C. Housing Authority — which manages public housing, all federal housing vouchers, and some local vouchers. A formerly homeless resident who now works for Pathways to Housing said more transparency regarding DCHA operations is needed so that community members have access to information about the plans and policies that affect them.
The housing authority is an independent agency that does not answer to the Bowser administration, though eight D.C. Council members introduced a bill last year that would give the mayor and council more authority over DCHA. No action has been taken since then, and it was not included in an Oct. 30 public hearing on another bill that would expand the DCHA board of commissioners and revise qualifications for nominees.
While there were many concerns raised during last month’s ICH meeting, there was a notable omission: The new policy enacted by the mayor in early January that led to the permanent closure of the K Street NE tent encampment in NoMa never came up during the discussion of the Homeward D.C. 2.0 draft. Other than a footnote on page 35 saying the Department of Human Services asked the ICH to more directly address tent communities in the final plan, the word “encampment” did not appear in the draft.
According to a slide presented at the meeting, Jan. 31 was the last day to submit comments and suggestions before the final draft is presented at the March 10 full council meeting. The draft will be circulated internally no later than March 3.
This article was co-published with TheDCLine.org.