[Hpn] HOMELESSNESS UP in DC & USA, indicators show (fwd)
Sun, 18 Feb 2001 16:04:21 -0800 (PST)
FWD Washington Post - Friday, February 16, 2001; Page A01
INDICATORS SHOW D.C. HOMELESSNESS GETTING WORSE
By Serge F. Kovaleski and Sewell Chan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Six years after an ambitious partnership was launched to combat
homelessness in the District, outreach agencies, shelters and soup kitchens
are reporting a growing number of adults in need of services, signaling an
increase in what is already one of the highest homeless rates in the nation.
New data and anecdotal evidence provided by dozens of homeless service
providers contradict the official estimates of the Community Partnership
for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit entity that has managed
services for the homeless in Washington since 1994 and has spent about $20
million a year in federal and District funds.
The partnership had estimated that the number of homeless men, who make up
more than half the city's total homeless population, had dropped by as much
as half since 1996. But the nonprofit, which has been criticized by
front-line workers for understating the magnitude of the overall problem,
now acknowledges it overestimated the decline.
The number of homeless women with children also has risen -- more than 150
await placement in shelters -- even as the partnership has touted its
success in creating more temporary housing as a step toward
The extent of homelessness in the city and the inadequacy of available
services have attracted newfound attention after the deaths of five adults
this winter in the cold in Northwest Washington. The fatalities exposed
cracks in the system of care and highlighted the challenges in aiding
homeless men and women.
New concern over the acute prevalence of homelessness in the District is
bolstered by a report the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
plans to present to Congress this spring. The findings, based on shelter
records from 1999, show that the District ranked first among 13
jurisdictions surveyed in the percentage of the population that was
homeless at some point that year. In 1999, 7,493 people, or 1.4 percent of
Washington's population, were homeless at one point, compared with rates of
0.9 percent in Philadelphia, 0.8 percent in New York City and 0.4 percent
in Montgomery County.
But the actual number is likely to be even higher, experts say, because the
federal study counted only shelters. Counting people living in or awaiting
transitional housing, and formerly homeless individuals residing in
permanent housing because of disabilities, the partnership estimates that
12,700 people, or 2.2 percent of the population, were homeless at some
point in 1999.
The situation in the District appears to play out in other major
metropolitan areas: A 1999 U.S. Conference of Mayors survey of 25 other
cities reported that requests for emergency shelter increased 15 percent,
and requests for emergency food assistance rose 17 percent.
In the District's case, experts point to an array of reasons for the
worsening problem. The causes include the decline of affordable housing
because of the economic boom, a breakdown in government services for
substance abusers and the mentally ill, cuts in public assistance and the
unique character of the nation's capital, which makes it a magnet for
troubled adults who often come to the District seeking redress from the
Several looming developments make the future appear grimmer, particularly
for families. Roughly 10,000 housing units will be pulled out of the
federal rent subsidy program in the next three years as landlords move to
cash in on market-rate rents. Meanwhile, an estimated 4,700 households
receiving welfare will lose eligibility by the end of next year. Experts
note that the District has been slow to set up job-readiness and training
services to help those adults prepare for an uncertain future.
But already, front-line workers are describing a distinct spike in requests
for services from the homeless.
More homeless women with children have been asking for assistance over the
last year at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the city's largest
shelter. Terri Bishop, the shelter's executive director, also pointed to a
sizable increase in people returning to homelessness after fleeting
successes in finding a job and housing while curtailing drug or alcohol use.
At other nonprofits, program directors say resources are taxed by an
increase in the number of people who become homeless because treatment for
substance abuse or mental illness is lacking.
Overall, said Brian Anders, a worker at Neighbors' Consejo, an outreach
organization in Mount Pleasant, "the numbers, particularly of single Latino
men, are dramatically increasing." He added, "We are also getting a lot
more people from surrounding jurisdictions, like Montgomery, Fairfax and
Anders said Consejo now serves on average 75 to 100 dinners a night; two
years ago, it distributed about 60 meals.
"People are going to fall through the cracks and die, and the cracks are
going to get wider," he said. "If these outreach groups stopped the little
band-aid work we are doing, there would be homeless folks everywhere."
Gunther Stern, executive director of the Georgetown Ministry Center, said
his outreach organization deals with about 400 people annually, compared
with 300 clients three or four years ago. The overall numbers, however,
remain below the 600 adults the group was seeing in 1990.
Among social scientists, accurately counting the number of homeless is a
notoriously difficult task. The most common estimates try to count all the
people who are "literally" homeless -- on streets or in shelters -- at a
single point in time. Such measures are criticized for overlooking the
intermittently homeless and overestimating the chronically homeless.
Moreover, any study will miss the "hidden" homeless, who stay in
automobiles or makeshift housing or temporarily double up with friends or
Since homelessness emerged as a national issue in the early 1980s, there
have been only a handful of efforts to conduct a count in the District:
2,652 found in a 1987 study by the Urban Institute, 4,400 found in
emergency shelters by the 1990 Census, and 7,373 found by the National
Institute on Drug Abuse in 1991.
The partnership today believes there are 6,600 homeless people on a given
day, 600 of whom live on the street. That figure -- derived from overflow
counts at shelters, estimates by outreach workers and anecdotal evidence --
is "not that scientific," said J. Stephen Cleghorn, the organization's
"When we report our figures, we always have a lot of footnotes, because
otherwise it wouldn't really be honest," Cleghorn said.
Cleghorn said he still believes there has been some drop in shelter use.
"It's not an artifact of numbers, but it's not something to jump up and
shout about either," he said.
Although experts concur that there is a marked increase in the homeless
population, a legacy of poor record-keeping makes it impossible to say
definitively whether homelessness has lessened since the 1994 start of the
D.C. Initiative, the federal-local experiment to turn over services for the
homeless to community-based organizations. The city lacks a computerized
system to track shelter users, although HUD has required all cities
receiving homeless services grants to install such a system by 2003.
The pending HUD study relies on a new method that tracks who uses shelters
over the course of a year and for how long, said Dennis P. Culhane, an
associate professor of social welfare policy at the University of
Pennsylvania and the report's lead author.
"The Washington numbers have the most estimation in them" because the
partnership keeps records manually and uses an estimate for the population
of CCNV, which the partnership does not fund.
Counting the homeless can be inherently political. Brian Carome, the
executive director of Project Northstar, a literacy and tutoring program
for homeless and other children, contended that the District has a "vested
interest" in saying that homelessness has been ameliorated to show that the
problem has been addressed successfully.
For its part, the partnership says its estimate is derived from figures
provided by the organizations it funds.
"Bring the data and let's reconcile: We're open," said Executive Director
Sue A. Marshall. "We're not trying to low-ball it. There's no reason for us
to substitute our judgment from here for that of a front-line outreach
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