In response to the daunting problem of affordable housing in DC, our Mayor has mounted an admirable 82.2 million dollar effort to preserve and create approximately 804 units of affordable housing. This housing is designed for residents making between 30-80% below the area median income.
The Mayor’s plan is certainly better than nothing and will help those who are lucky enough to be first in line and eligible for the housing offered. However, many, many more will be left behind without even the hope of being able to work their way out of their circumstances.
For example, the city’s Point In Time count of homelessness in 2015 estimated 6,500 people who were currently homeless. While we applaud the effort to increase affordable housing for even one family, we have to understand that these housing units represent a mere drop in the bucket of required assistance.
Even if every unit of new housing established by the city were dedicated to the homeless community, this would only help 12% percent of the identified homeless persons in DC.
In other news, a new study published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) shows it is impossible for an individual working full-time at minimum wage to rent even a basic apartment. The NLIHC found that individuals working in the District of Columbia would need to make $23.65/hour to afford a one bedroom. Someone making our current minimum wage at $10.50/hour would need to work two full time jobs just keep a roof over their heads.
For poor individuals, let alone single mothers with children, it is simply not possible to work hard enough to afford adequate housing.
This study represents a very sad truth that even 82 million dollars is not enough to solve our housing problems. The approach to solving housing instability has to be multifaceted and include elements which allow individuals the ability to become self sufficient.
First, we as a city (and country!) must decide that people deserve to earn a living wage. We must also commit to creating ample opportunities to earn that living wage, and we must insure that there are sufficient affordable and decent dwellings in which to live.
Finally, we must provide the necessary and consistent supports for people to achieve and maintain their lives. It makes no sense to provide a person transitioning from homelessness or housing instability a beautiful new home if they do not have what they need to maintain it. These kinds of support range from ongoing case management, to accommodations for physical disabilities, to job development and more.
Thrive DC believes that every individual deserves a safe place to sleep at night, employment that allows them to afford that place, and external support to help when times get rough. The District’s new commitment to affordable housing is commendable, but will be ultimately insufficient without broader systemic change.
A few weeks ago, Mayor Bowser and the City Council successfully passed a budget that gives a new focus to homelessness. This is great news!
But with all the positive attention, it's important to temper optimism with the weight of challenges ahead. Executive Director Alicia Horton responds below to the 2015 DC Budget with important context.
Kudos to the new administration for putting their money where their problems lie! The new DC budget has made tackling the issue of homelessness a priority. The new Administration and the City Council have made allocations that should have measurable effects on the acquisition of housing for some of our most vulnerable community members.
This is a great start and we at Thrive DC are anxious to help Mayor Bowser and other city officials accomplish our mutual goals of stabilizing individuals and families through the provision of effective services and housing.
One thing that the budget did not address was the continued need for wraparound services which emphasize a system of care framework. For services and supports to be effective they should be individualized, family driven, culturally competent, and community based.
Simply because someone has a home does not mean they are safe from homelessness. Services are needed for those that are able to access housing as well as for those that are not.
Despite the ambitious and laudable goals, the unfortunate reality is that not everyone in need will be provided the assistance they require. Vulnerable individuals and families with homes will still need support to stay housed and those without housing will still need services to help them survive and take the steps necessary to secure permanent housing.
Another concern not wholly addressed by the current plan is the development of effective strategies that address the root causes of extreme poverty and homelessness.
We need long term solutions that will slow down, if not eliminate the stream of families and individuals that will become homeless in the next few years.
The problems are stagnant wages, high unemployment, poor mental health services, domestic violence and a lack of affordable housing.
The solutions are living wages, dedicated mixed income housing, functional and enforceable domestic violence laws, as well as effective, accessible, comprehensive, and affordable mental health and substance abuse services.
These systemic solutions will require a critical focus on successful anti- poverty initiatives, profound system overhauls and honest housing equity efforts, particularly in high profile urban areas. Housing without all of the above equals failure.
In 2015, 7,300 homeless individuals were counted in the Nation’s Capitol. The 2015 DC Budget will not house them all, nor does the plan address those who will fall victim to situations of unemployment, economic insecurity, food insecurity, housing costs, illness, family tragedy, substance abuse, or domestic violence yet to come.
We are off to a great start. The Administration has a new will to solve homelessness that has not been seen here in a long time, if ever. But there is still a mountain of issues to tackle before we can claim a full victory over homelessness.
Let’s keep the pedal to the floor and our eye on the Administration so that we don't lose our momentum. The low-income and homeless clients that we serve cannot afford for us to backtrack on promises to help them reclaim their stability, dignity and futures.
Executive Director of Thrive DC
Jonathan started coming to Thrive DC years ago, when the breakfast program was known as the “9:30 Club." He found himself homeless and living in a shelter. He had raised nine children and previously worked as a store manager, among other things.
He first came to Thrive looking for something to eat after his friends had referred him. But, he said as soon as he walked through the doors he immediately felt comfortable. “[Thrive] gives me direction. It keeps me busy and safe,” he said. Jonathan has participated in various activities at Thrive including art group and meets with Jessica, our Director of Social Services.
Over the years, he has become friends with members of the staff including Jemahl, the employment specialist, and Terrence, our chef. Recently, with help from Mary’s Center, Jonathan was able to move into his very own apartment after living in a shelter for years. He describes his first night living in his apartment as “peaceful and relaxing. It’s a relief to have your own place,” he says.
His building is safe and secure and Jonathan feels very fortunate to be living in a brand new building. He now feels in control of his own life—“It’s good to have a place I can call my own.”
Last week Mayor Bowser's administration asked a judge to lift their obligation to house homeless families in private rooms. Homeless advocates were surprised, since there had been no warning that such a measure was needed. It's a testament to how great our challenge is to solving homelessness in DC, where there are more families and individuals without a place to stay than ever before.
Below, our Executive Director Alicia Horton responds to the current homelessness crisis.
Challenges abound! The problem of individual and familial homelessness is a complex problem that is compounded by ever increasing numbers and an on-going urgency that literally impacts one's ability to survive.
On its face the answers seem simple: get everyone housed in a decent, affordable, and supported environment. But making that seemingly simple solution a reality is more than a notion. The new administration is learning what advocates and those working at the ground level have known for some time, that there are no quick and easy solutions.
Close shelters and the question arises, where will those families go? Stop providing hotel space, where will new homeless families go? The weather is life threatening, where will we put people who need to come out of the elements? Where are the resources to provide housing for all? Can low - income individuals and families afford and sustain homes in our Nation's Capital? How will we provide support to vulnerable individuals and families once housed? These are but a few of the complex questions that impact the growing numbers of homeless people in our region.
The solutions are systemic and will never be found in the fast, turn around responses fueled by crisis and campaigns. The answers lie in long term societal changes like living wages, affordable mixed communities, supported services, housing developments, viable employment opportunities, effective mental health systems and supports, affordable and accessible healthcare, meaningful rehabilitation and reentry services, and these are just to start!
Until we begin to turn the wheels of real systemic change we will forever run behind the fast, inefficient solutions that keep us in this perpetual cycle of crisis. Our community deserves real change, the homeless we serve deserve permanent solutions. Let's start the work of really ending homelessness with long range and innovative systemic strategies built to last.
Alicia Horton has been Executive Director of Thrive DC for six years, and before that was Director of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence for 13 years. She has her JD from Catholic University and her MPH degree from Tulane. Alicia is a passionate advocate for DC’s homeless community and has been nominated for a seat on the Interagency Council on Homelessness. If you would like to support her nomination, you can fill out a ICH nomination for Alicia Horton and email it to the ICH Executive Committee (Darrell.firstname.lastname@example.org) no later than February 20, 2015.