Homeless Families Series Part 1: Why is Family Homelessness Rising?

This is the first in a three-part series exploring the causes of family homelessness, plans to shelter homeless families this winter, and ways to help.

“What’s going on?”
It seems that every winter, we hear in the media that hundreds’ more homeless families have needed emergency shelter than were expected. We read that D.C. General Emergency Family Shelter is full, and we hear that conditions there are bad.

We learn about the placement of hundreds of families in hotels or motels and about the now-banned practice of placing families in Recreation Centers. One winter we read in the newspapers that the DC system was so full that some families had to be placed in motels in Maryland.

People want to know why. Some people want to place blame. Everyone recommends smaller shelters, in better conditions than is possible at the old hospital site called D.C. General. Some people call for closing D.C. General. What is one to think? What is the truth, and what makes sense?

How many people are we talking about?
According to official, one-night-a-year counts, the number of homeless families increased by 29% between 2011 and 2015. In the 2015 enumeration, 1,131 families were counted, comprising 2,049 children and 1,428 adults. Read the full enumeration report.

No one knows exactly why the numbers have risen. Many potential factors are considered at official meetings on this subject:

  • More of the homeless families are headed by younger parents, ages 18 to 24.
  • There is anecdotal information about young mothers needing to, or choosing to, move out of their own mothers’ homes.
  • Some households are overcrowded, and the Housing Authority or other landlord requires that fewer people live there.
  • About 31% of homeless families report they have been victims of domestic violence.
  • Many families include a family member with physical or mental disabilities.
  • Many young families have inadequate incomes even when there is a “breadwinner.”
  • There is simply a huge gap between the need for affordable housing and the existing units available.
  • We have had several harsh winters.

And some people postulate that desperate people see the shelter system as the only path toward more stable housing.

Compounding the factors that affect large groups of individuals on the “demand” side are stresses on the service-delivery system on the “supply” side. To make room for newly homeless families, the system needs more people who are already in shelter to exit quickly.

Although there is a Rapid Re-Housing Program, until recently the rules for participants in that program were intimidating. Many shelter residents hesitated to risk leaving because they foresaw that they would not be self-sufficient in 12 months and their families would just become homeless again.

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