By: Rosie Allen-Herring, President & CEO of United Way of the National Capital Area
Washington D.C., including the surrounding areas of Virginia and Maryland, is considered the third-richest area in America. According to a recent study published in the USA Today, D.C. is home to many high-paying legal, government, and other professional jobs. The D.C. area is one of eight places where over 50 percent of adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. As of March 2018, the unemployment rate was 3.6 percent.
However, D.C. has one of the highest rates of homelessness in the country. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, D.C. ranked number one out of 32 major cities with the highest rate of homelessness. In a 2018 D.C.-based Point–in-Time count on January 24, 2018, there were 6,904 persons experiencing homelessness.
In fact, 600 people were unsheltered, 5,095 were in an emergency shelter, and 1,209 were in a transitional housing program on the night of the count.
Over the 25 years that I’ve worked in this city, I’ve seen the number of people experiencing homelessness decrease one year. And it would increase the next.
Moreover, the unresolved ebb and flow of homelessness as a major issue facing the D.C. community indicates there’s still a lot to be learned. Everyone deserves a safe, affordable place to lay their head. Housing is the bedrock of society.
Furthermore, children should be sheltered from the harsh realities of living on the street. And they should not worry about their next meal. Women and men should have access to mental and physical health care, job training, and employment opportunities. Seniors should not have to choose between obtaining medication or food.
Those of us fighting to end homelessness have become keenly aware of the needs and barriers our homeless neighbors face. Unfortunately, homeless people have low access to health care. And their numbers are missing on public housing lists due to the lack of a stable address or form of communication.
But I have hope for those teetering on the edge of homelessness. United Way of the National Capital Area and its partner organizations believe one way to reduce the number of homeless individuals and families is through diversion services. These services will rapidly identify temporary housing to prevent those at risk of losing their homes from becoming homeless. More importantly, these services will work towards reducing the amount of barriers homeless individuals are challenged with to receive services.
United Way NCA hosts an annual Project Homeless Connect (PHC) event as part of the organization’s fight against homelessness.
The success of PHC relies heavily on two factors: a united, holistic approach supported by a group of organizations, government agencies and volunteers who care about our homeless neighbors, and the human touch points and connections provided to participants throughout the event.
For one day, we provide critical resources to individuals experiencing homelessness in an easy to access environment. Those who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness have an opportunity to receive and connect with much-needed health care, employment information, access to vital records, housing information, legal consultation, and veterans assistance.
They can also receive basic care such as haircuts, dental and medical services—services that could otherwise take months to receive.
What’s key to moving our neighbors from homelessness to self-sufficiency is each participant is paired with a volunteer who is committed to guide him or her to each service and resource for the entire duration of the event.
This model helps to significantly reduce the barriers many homeless individuals face when trying to seek help on their own, which is often the reason many individuals continue to miss resource opportunities for shelter, employment, medical services and more.
Furthermore, PHC has served 1,095 participants in the last three years. On Thursday, September 20, those human touch points will help approximately 800 more homeless people, veterans, and families who are participating in the fourth annual Project Homeless Connect event.
Our community’s battle against homelessness can be won if we continue to see, hear, and handhold our homeless neighbors and lead them to a place of stability.