DCPS data courtesy of the National Center for Homeless Education. Virginia Williams data courtesy of Lilah Burke. Graphic by Cammi Rood.

The Virginia Williams Family Resource Center,  the District’s access point to family shelter, opens at 8:30 every morning. Adults with children in tow are assessed, categorized, and sent off.  Some are referred to family shelter, which, since the closing of D.C. General, is now dispersed around the city. Others are sent to different service providers that can help with rent, mediation, and family concerns. And still others are turned away.  

Today, fewer applicants who come to Virginia Williams end up entering family shelter. Since 2015, the D.C. Department of Human Services, which runs the program, has decreased the number of families in its care by over 40 percent. Five years ago, DHS sheltered over 1,400 families per year. Last year, that number was just over 850. 

That decline was mirrored by a similar, though smaller, decrease in applications for family homeless services. In 2015, Virginia Williams saw more than 7,000 applications for family homeless services, including shelter. Last year, there were 5,500, representing a 22 percent decline.  

The percentage of applications that resulted in a shelter stay decreased as well, from 20 percent in 2015 to 15.5 percent in 2018.  

Behind the decline is the District’s new Homelessness Prevention Program. DHS has lauded the program as a success, evidenced by the new, lower shelter rate. The program has rerouted people from entering shelter, often by placing families with other households, “doubled-up” with relatives or friends.   

The argument for prevention 

For the department and service providers, doubling up is a laudable goal. Keeping families in their own communities and preventing a stay in shelter can lessen the trauma and stress of homelessness on children and adults alike. But other advocates question whether keeping families couchsurfing is really in their best interests. 

These prevention services, which are run by city contractors, help soon-to-be-homeless families stay in place or find new rooms to stay in. Before the prevention program was implemented in 2016, soon-to-be-homeless families could not be helped at Virginia Williams and were asked to come back only after they found themselves on the street.  

Often, prevention case managers look for friends or relatives a soon-to-be-homeless family can stay with, according to providers. In situations where the family is already couchsurfing, case managers can mediate tensions or provide money to the host. Doubling up, though, is a goal of the prevention program.  

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, the percent of homeless children in D.C. public schools who are doubled-up (as opposed to in shelter or on the street, for example) increased by over 11 percentage points from 2014 to 2017.  

A family’s stay in shelter can sever community bonds, increase stress, and impede children’s development and achievement, says Jamey Burden, vice president of housing programs and policy at the service provider Community of Hope. “The research really shows that families and particularly children do better and thrive when they are in their own communities, and so shelter is not somewhere we would want most families to have to be placed,” he said. Burden says that if families do find themselves with nowhere to go they can enter shelter, though “we’re really trying to make sure that we try everything else.” 

“Children that experience homelessness are at risk for all kinds of poor educational outcomes,” said Karen Cunningham, executive director at Everyone Home DC. “If we can avoid people from having to enter shelter, which can be really traumatic, it’s a much better outcome if we can get them stabilized and then work on long-term housing stability.”  

Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services, has praised the program and said that the agency is achieving its goal of making homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring.” 

“We’re preventing homelessness more frequently by intervening early with families,” she said, “with more effective solutions to a housing crisis to prevent an episode of homelessness and help them regain stability.”   

Zeilinger says that when homeless families stay with relatives, bonds and support systems are maintained, especially for very young parents.  

“When we speak with youth who have experienced homelessness, who are on the other side of that and have regained stability, about what has worked for them,” she said, “the thing that we hear all the time, is sort of that common factor, that it was the ability to maintain a positive relationship with a reliable adult in their lives.” 

Assessing long-term outcomes  

Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, does not think this is always a helpful approach. “Homelessness prevention doesn’t prevent [homelessness],” Harding said. “It prevents shelter entries.”  

Harding says that through her work she has seen unstable families staying somewhere different each night while being served through prevention services, though she admits that the legal clinic sees the worst cases. “We don’t think it’s in the best interest of families and children to go from couch to couch to couch to couch with no plan for how that’s going to end,” she said. “That’s incredibly destabilizing to families.” 

Harding also suggests that some families, who have legitimately no place to stay, are misplaced into the prevention program, while others are kicked out of where they’re staying and not referred to shelter quickly enough.  

“Families are asking to be placed in shelter, are saying that’s what they need, are saying they can’t go place to place anymore or they don’t have any place to go tonight and they’re still being denied shelter and still being served through prevention,” she said. “If you have a system that respected the family’s choice in what was best for their family and they chose to go into prevention over shelter, we would be 100 percent on board with that. But that’s not what’s happening.” 

Kathy Zeisel, a senior attorney with the Children’s Law Center, works with homeless families who are in unsafe situations and sometimes those families are receiving prevention services. “It’s sort of helping people shuffle around between short term stays that are not really a good solution until they eventually slip into shelter,” she said.   

Zeisel also noted that many prevention programs lead to stays in rapid re-housing, one of the District’s most criticized homeless services programs. Families in rapid re-housing are given time-limited help with their leases, but can easily end up evicted when their subsidy runs out. “Very few if any of the families we work with are able to maintain the rent at the end unless they get some other form of voucher at the end of their rapid rehousing,” Zeisel said.   

Providers, on the other hand, usually see rapid rehousing as a safe and secure alternative to shelter while someone is building up their income. In 2018, about 250 of the 780 families who received prevention services at Everyone Home DC secured private, permanent apartments, and about half of those were in rapid rehousing.  

“We do have some concerns about [shelter] capacity in the fall and whether families are going to be strongly suggested to go into rapid rehousing from shelter,” Zeisel said, “to create shelter spots for the new families coming in, whether or not the families prefer to go into rapid rehousing.” 

Do lower numbers mask the need? 

DHS has said that homelessness is decreasing, and, by many measures, it is.  

Homelessness as measured by the District’s Point in Time Count is indeed falling. The 2019 count, which tracked the number of people sleeping on the street, in shelter, or in temporary housing on a single night in January, decreased 5.5 percent from last year and nearly 22 percent from 2016. 

Other metrics are a bit fuzzier. The number of homeless children in D.C. public schools, as counted by the education system, has nearly doubled since 2014 

Similarly, the number of families who sought services from the Virginia Williams center during hypothermia season increased six percent from 2017 to 2019.  

“I think the risks that the system is taking for these families are unacceptable,” Harding said. “I think what weighs into their risk analysis is the cost of running shelters. They want to keep those costs down.” 

 “[They want] to look, with the numbers, like they are making a difference even when there is no discernable difference for family homelessness or stability.” 

At the core of the conversation about doubling up is a question about what the homeless services system is for, and what it can be expected to achieve.  

“The homelessness prevention program can’t compensate for the much, much broader challenge of lack of affordable housing in DC,” said Burden, from Community of Hope. “Poverty and lack of affordable housing are bigger issues that require a lot more.” 

Zeilinger echoed the sentiment. “I think some of our critics believe that if people have not come out of a homeless services program with paying 30 percent of their income toward their rent, that somehow we’ve failed them,” she said. 

“[Homeless services] cannot be looked to and cannot be effective when its expected to, by itself, without looking at it as part of an ecosystem, end poverty.”