As another severe winter drags on, housing prices continue to soar, and shelters fill up fast, experts look to a new mayor for solutions to D.C.’s ongoing homelessness crisis. But do they see any signs of hope
Nick warms himself on a steam grate with three other homeless men by the Federal Trade Commission, just blocks from the Capitol, during frigid temperatures in Washington, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014.
WASHINGTON — Eight-year-old Relisha Rudd was crammed into a single room at D.C. General along with her mother and three brothers and her mother’s boyfriend this time last year. She disappeared from the former hospital-turned homeless shelter on March 1, 2014, and hasn’t been seen since.
In the months following her disappearance, Relisha would become the face of homelessness in Washington, D.C., her name used as a rallying cry by those demanding reform. Local media regularly published photos of Relisha along with indictments of the administration. Her story was cited by just about every mayoral candidate, each using her name to call for radical changes to the way the city deals with homelessness.
The seat of the federal government may very well be the per capita capital of those living on the streets as well. Visitors checking out the White House are likely to come across the woman who lives in a cardboard house just a block away or possibly stumble on people huddled together in blankets lying on subway vents, using the heat to stave off the cold.
Even with a new mayor, who took office in January, the city is still in crisis mode when it comes to homelessness. While many experts are hopeful that the administration is working on the right path, many expect the situation to worsen unless significant steps are taken — something another record-setting winter makes only more clear.
“There’s never a good time to change the administration, but from a homeless services perspective, having a new mayor start in January is the worst possible time because of hypothermia issues,” said Kate Coventry, a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
However, Coventry and others are applauding efforts coming out of the mayor’s office, efforts which may have been galvanized by the tragic story of the young girl with a faint smile.
The Relisha Rudd story
The eight-year-old’s grin may have indicated a life beset by the kinds of difficulties no child should ever have to face, including neglect and homelessness. Relisha’s home had been visited by Department of Human Services officials multiple times between 2007 and 2010. Eventually, during a particularly cold winter, the family moved to D.C. General, a notoriously dangerous shelter.
According to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Crime Map, officers responded to 21 violent incidents in 2014 at or near the shelter, located at 1900 Massachusetts Ave SE, including assaults with a deadly weapon and sexual assaults, plus a few dozen non-violent offenses. On a recent evening visit to the city-run shelter, people could be seen milling outside, one of them shadow boxing, punching the air repeatedly as if unaware of where he was.
That’s where Relisha Rudd lived for about two years prior to her disappearance. But even then, no one could have predicted the story that would unfold: A 51-year-old janitor at the shelter is suspected to have abducted Relisha after killing his wife. He was found a month later, dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot. Relisha’s body has still not been recovered.
The city has all but forgotten the incident. A memorial held over the weekend for the little girl received scant attention in the press. But some speculate she might still be alive, perhaps having been sold into the sex trade.
While no one can be sure about what happened to Relisha, the eight-year-old girl with the light, crooked-tooth smile might have made a bigger impact on the 2014 mayoral race than just about any other individual.
Homelessness in the race for mayor
No other issue seemed to generate as much hand wringing in the 2014 race for District mayor than homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. Then-Mayor Vincent Gray’s tenure was marred by a spike in homelessness. Relisha’s disappearance ensured the administration’s seemingly lax response to the issue made regular headlines and provided plenty of mud to sling at the once popular mayor for his failure to get a handle on it.
Gray lost his bid for reelection in the November primary.
Yet Gray was not completely to blame, says Patricia Mullahy Fugere, co-founder and executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. A near-perfect storm of factors took hold that created what remains a constant crisis.
“The numbers really started to bump up as a result of the recession and the continued economic development in the city that began to price people out of their homes,” Fugere told MintPress News.
Families, as the most vulnerable, Fugere pointed out, were among those hit hardest. For example, according to “Point-in-Time” counts, official on-the-street and in-shelter counts taken across the country on a single night each year, the number of families without homes in the city increased 110 percent since the economic crisis began. In 2008, there were 587 homeless families in the District, but last year’s count found 1,231. (The results of the 2015 count will be made public in April.)
Fugere noted that the non-subsidized affordable housing stock dropped by more than 50 percent since 2002, exacerbating the problem. The city, she says, simply did not react fast enough to deal with the crisis as it grew.
Under the Gray administration, “there was more of a punitive view and providing the public safety net was done more begrudgingly,” she said. “It was considered more of a very last resort, which often times put people at risk.”
Gray lost the Democratic primary to challenger Muriel Bowser, a city councilwoman, who criticized the mayor for focusing on shelters rather than working for a longer-term solution, like creating more permanent affordable housing.
Pushed onto the streets
Washington is the home to some of the most powerful people in the world. It also boasts some of the greatest aggregation of wealth in the country. The $107,000 median income of the District and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs makes the area one of the highest earning in the nation — if not the highest. The influx of government contractors, lobbyists and lawyers have made the city wealthier, whiter and willing to spend considerably more on rent.
As a result, the city has seen a building boom of luxury condos and apartment buildings.
In 2010, the U.S. Census found that Washington had become majority-white for the first time in decades. Rents have also gone up more than one-third since then, making it third on a list of cities with the fastest-growing rents and second on a list of the highest rents in the country. Going back further, one finds a 2000 median gross rent of $602 in the District, compared to today’s median gross rent of nearly $1,500. (Neither number adjusted for inflation.)
Meanwhile, the homeless population has shot up, making the District and its environs a leader in terms of the number of per capita homeless.
Another winter, another crisis
There haven’t been any recorded deaths in the District so far this exceptional winter, in which temperatures have dropped to record lows multiple times, but two homeless people died during a particularly severe and unexpected cold snap last year. The low death rate is in no small part due to city policy that guarantees shelter for everyone who needs it. The policy aims to get people off the street into shelters and, when those fill up, into motel rooms with negotiated rates at the Days Inn and others along a commercial stretch of New York Avenue. At a rate of $150 per night per family, the cost to the city to temporarily house the hundreds of families who needed emergency shelter ran well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars last year.
The city hit a record number of people who were housed this way last year, but a new record may be set this year. And, again, the situation has been called a “crisis.” Shelters like D.C. General are packed and hundreds of families have been put in motel rooms.
It’s an expensive, short-term policy and doesn’t get to the heart of the problem: the lack of affordable housing ensures that people are always at risk of finding themselves on the streets. Advocates have been calling for more permanent housing help for years, but they say that just hasn’t been the priority so far.
Fugere explained that providing permanent housing subsidies would not only help effectively end homelessness, but that the approach has proven to be more efficient and cheaper, as it cuts taxpayer costs associated with homelessness such as 911 calls, hospital visits and incarceration.
“None of us wants to see the main way of responding to families or individuals be a shelter-based approach,” Fugere said. “We can end homelessness for the chronically homeless in D.C. if there’s adequate funding.”
A new mayor, a new approach?
Fugere and others have expressed hope for the new administration and point to a number of positive signs. For one, Bowser appointed well-known, avid anti-homelessness crusaders. Shortly after her election, she tapped Laura Green Zeilinger to head the District’s Department of Human Services. Zeilinger served as deputy director of that agency during the Fenty administration (2007-2011) and has also led the federal U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Bowser has also spoken of a “Housing First” approach, in which the permanent subsidized housing Fugere mentioned would take priority. Unlike in the past, applicants for such housing will not have to be “clean” — drug-free — or free of psychological illness. Such a program operates under the principle that it is easier for people to kick drug habits or find work if they have a place they can call home. The program would also provide social services to help them return to a normal productive life.
“If you don’t take your medicine, you’re not going to lose your house, right?” Fugere said. “Neither should someone who is living in permanent supportive housing.”
The biggest obstacle to such a program is spending, of course but, as Fugere noted, the alternative costs are considerably higher. That’s something other cities are already seeing, as well. As MintPress has previously reported, the cost of maintaining one mentally ill homeless person in New York City runs $56,350, but housing advocates argue providing the same person with housing costs only $24,190 — a figure which also includes the costs of social services like drug and psychiatric counseling.
“Housing First is an excellent, proven model for those chronically homeless individuals who are most at risk of dying on the streets,” said Tom Murphy of Miriam’s Kitchen, which provides various services to homeless people in the D.C. area. “The data makes it clear that for these individuals, Housing First is far more cost-effective than keeping them on the streets, where they rely on costly emergency services and are at risk for countless dangers.”
Like New York, rents in Washington run from the expensive to the sky-high, but that’s where Washington’s new “real estate navigators” come into play. Rather than leaving the impossible task to the tenant, these real estate specialists are tasked with finding the most affordable spaces and negotiate with landlords.
The addition of the navigators has been lauded by many advocates as a way to lower the barriers to permanent housing.
“This is something we’ve really been pushing for,” Fugere said. “Prior to this, families had to find housing on their own — and you know how hard that is, to move. And if you have kids you need to drag around, it can be very overwhelming. Most of these families need the cheapest apartment possible, and some of them need particular types of buildings, like if one of the children is in a wheelchair.”
Money, money, money
The city is already projecting spending $100 million on permanent housing efforts in the next year. Yet even that may not be enough to solve homelessness as fast as many hope.
“To build our way out of this it’s going to be multiple years and hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Coventry, of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.
Like other cities, the District receives federal money to tackle its homelessness issue. At just over $20 million for the coming budget, it’s just a drop in the bucket of the funds needed to eradicate homelessness in the nation’s capital.
Once the city and the federal government it houses start getting serious about eradication, maybe they can start with the woman who lives in a cardboard house across the street from the U.S. Treasury.