Homelessness remains a problem in the District of Columbia, and is “probably the most challenging issue D.C. faces,” according to Council member Jack Evans.
During a Feb. 6 town hall meeting on homelessness, government officials and leaders from local homeless outreach programs talked about the lights and the shadows of the issue. Prompted by a question from Commissioner Kari Cunningham from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2B (Dupont Circle), participants spoke of some of their successes in helping people overcome homelessness. Sometimes the successes have come in forms not subject to statistical measurement, but nevertheless reasons for gratitude.
Bryce Moffett of N Street Village, the largest provider of housing and services for homeless women in the District, told one such story.
“For me, our biggest success involves women who move from homelessness into permanent supportive housing, and who die there. It may seem sad to look at this as a success, but I think of the people who were nearing the end of life. As they passed away, they were surrounded by people who cared about them and loved them – they were safe.”
Along with moving stories like Moffett’s, government officials at the meeting – which was organized by the Dupont Circle ANC and hosted by the Keegan Theatre – recited statistics and explained policies. They listened to comments from a sizeable crowd of neighborhood residents.
Kristy Greenwalt leads the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness. She said the city’s programs to serve the homeless draw people from all over the region and around the country, according to statistics drawn from the paperwork filled out by homeless people seeking help.
“Of the new individuals entering the system last year for the first time, 42 percent gave a D.C. ZIP code, 38 percent gave none, and 21 percent a non-D.C. ZIP code,” Greenwalt said. “We offer more services in the District, so there’s more of an inflow.”
Greenwalt said not all the people giving a non-D.C. ZIP code are from the immediate suburban area, and there is a subset of the homeless who come to Washington, D.C. because it is the seat of the national government.
“A sizable chunk are from outside the DMV,” Greenwalt said. “Some come here because of a delusion, a psychotic break. People think they have to speak to the president.”
When asked if there is a law or regulation against giving help to homeless people with a non-D.C. ZIP code, Greenwalt answered crisply, “No, there isn’t.”
Since 2015, 3,300 individuals have been helped to permanent shelter in the District, Greenwalt said. And the number of the homeless here is slowly declining. The “point-in-time” count is a federally-mandated survey taken at the end of January each year to provide a snapshot of the number and demographic characteristics of those going through homelessness.
In 2016, the point-in-time survey counted 8,350 homeless people. Last year, the number was 7,374 – a 10 percent reduction for the District.
The council led by Greenwalt is described by its website as “a group of cabinet-level leaders, providers of homeless services, advocates, homeless and formerly homeless leaders who come together to guide the District’s policies for meeting the needs of individuals and families who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless in D.C.”
Audience members wondered why officials do not take action to get people off the streets and into shelters during the bitter cold of winter.
“People have a right to public space,” Greenwalt said. “They have a right be left alone, to be outside. It’s not illegal to be homeless, or to sleep outside.”
Captain Michelle Ridlehoover of the Metropolitan Police Department said citizens “have the right to be on public space if they are not violating the law.”
In response to a question from commissioner Mike Silverstein asking what to do if you encounter someone barefoot and without a coat when it’s five degrees outside, Ridlehoover said there is a distinction between such a case and one where a person has a warm coat and lots of blankets.
Law enforcement officials have a tool for detaining people at risk, but it is one they prefer to use sparingly.
“FD 12” refers to an emergency psychiatric assessment carried out by a mental health specialist and can result in a person being detained involuntarily for up to 48 hours. Jesse Rabinowitz of Miriam’s Kitchen said it is used not only in the case of homeless people, but for “anyone at imminent risk of harming themselves or others – someone experiencing a grave mental health crisis.”
Greenwalt explained why the authorities are reluctant to execute an FD 12.
“An involuntary detainment is really trust-destroying,” she said. “Unless it is really a dangerous situation, we are reluctant to do that. It is better to try to build that trust and get a person into housing.”
The meeting was very much a neighborhood affair, and considerable discussion was devoted to the case of one homeless person in the neighborhood often seen encamped near a local grocery store.
Cunningham, the commissioner who took part in the meeting, is also the mother of a student at a neighborhood elementary school. She said children there sometimes pass the homeless man on 17th Street and comment on his situation.
“Kids at Ross Elementary talk about it,” she said. “Some say, ‘Why don’t the police put him in jail?’ My child said, ‘we don’t put people in jail for being homeless.’”
Rabinowitz encouraged people to be proactive in offering help to homeless neighbors.
“If you see someone outside and it is cold, ask them if they want to go to a shelter or need a blanket,” he said.
Rabinowitz also urged those present to keep the phone number for the District’s shelter hotline handy: 202-399-7093.
Rabinowitz said Miriam’s Kitchen is in need of volunteers to help prepare the meals served to the homeless by the Virginia Avenue ministry.
“If you want to chop 300 onions, come down and help,” he said. “And we are looking for donations of clothing for men. We are completely out of socks.”
Adam Maier of Pathways to Housing said one segment of the homeless population has mostly been able to get off the streets in recent years.
“In the past, a lot of homeless people were on crutches or in wheelchairs. Those with the most severe physical disabilities are no longer on the street.”
Nick DelleDonne, another ANC 2B member, said some services should be fairly easy to provide.
“There’s some low-lying fruit we can grab, like public restrooms in our neighborhood and a place to take showers,” he said.
According to information supplied by the Way Home DC, a campaign to end homelessness in the District, “in 2017, at least 45 individuals from D.C.’s homeless community died without a home.” The deaths in the homeless community are generally not from exposure to the elements, but from manageable and preventable diseases. “Housing is perhaps the single best health intervention that a person can have.”
The Way Home campaign also noted that providing permanent housing is cheaper than bankrolling homeless shelters and paying for hospitalization and police interventions for the homeless. “It costs less taxpayer money to provide permanent supportive housing, the gold standard for ending chronic homelessness, than it does to do nothing.”
The Way Home says it would save the city $19 million a year to house the 828 most vulnerable members of the homeless population, based on a study of the emergency services used by the population.