Homelessness In D.C. Has Steadily Dropped For Years. Coronavirus Could Change That. Homelessness has been declining in D.C., but advocates fear the pandemic will change that trend.
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NPR logo Homelessness In D.C. Has Steadily Dropped For Years. Coronavirus Could Change That.

Homelessness In D.C. Has Steadily Dropped For Years. Coronavirus Could Change That.

The Brooks is a new family homeless shelter in D.C. Chris Chester/WAMU hide caption

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Chris Chester/WAMU

Tamika Morris and her two children were staying at her aunt's house when the coronavirus lockdowns began. But it was a little too crowded.

"She wanted us gone," Morris says.

Morris called D.C.'s shelter hotline to find temporary housing. They told her there was a place in a shelter for her, but not her kids, who are 5 and 7. After several phone calls, she found someone at the Department of Human Services (DHS), which runs the hotline, who could get the family into temporary housing.

Without that intervention, Morris and her children might have become one of hundreds of families forced to live on the streets of Washington every year. According to the Point-in-Time Count, over 800 families were without a home in the District last year. That number is down by a little over 11% from the year prior. But advocates fear the downward trend could change, as the coronavirus pandemic continues as both a public health and an economic crisis, and as efforts to fight the virus complicate the strategies for keeping families like Morris's in stable housing.

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"Now we're going to see a lot more families that end up losing their housing and falling into homelessness," says Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

According to Harding, the 2008 financial crisis pushed a lot of families into homelessness. More than 600 children lived in the D.C. General Family shelter before it closed in 2018. And the situation could be worse in the coming months and years. At the Great Recession's peak in 2009, over 600,000 Americans filed for unemployment. Since March, more than 16 million have filed, including over 30,000 D.C. residents.

The Pandemic Has Forced Housing Services To Adapt

D.C., like many other jurisdictions, has suspended evictions during the crisis and will require landlords to work out repayment plans with tenants for overdue rent. But these are temporary measures that may not last as long as a person's unemployment.

"Our advice is that if somebody has lost a job and they've become housing insecure, that there are financial resources to help people maintain the housing they're in," says DHS Director Laura Zeilinger, referring to rental assistance the department can offer. "The earlier that people identify that need, the more able we are to prevent homelessness."

For those who do lose their homes, the process of getting into housing has changed since the pandemic began. Normally, those in need could go to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center in Ward 5 to be assigned to a shelter (in the wake of closing D.C. General, the District has sought to open new shelters for families). But now, everything is done over the phone. There have been other changes as well, including a softening of eligibility requirements in order to get people into interim housing.

Organizations that support the city's homeless population have adjusted their operations, too. Community of Hope, a nonprofit that provides resources like health care and housing for people experiencing homelessness, has expanded some services — they typically provide two meals a day, and now they're providing lunch in addition to breakfast and dinner — and they've had to pull back some services that involve in-person contact.

"We do have core essential staff onsite," says CEO Kelly Sweeney McShane. "But then from guidance from Department Human Services, a lot of our other case management site staff members are working remotely. So they're calling to check in and see how families are doing, make sure that they're healthy, checking on their needs."

And at a time that's difficult for everyone, the pandemic has added new burdens to the lives of families facing housing insecurity.

"It's all of those same challenges and worries, and just even further escalated by fewer resources, sometimes fewer family connections, smaller spaces that you're confined to," McShane says. "So it's just escalating that stress that all the rest of us are feeling on a regular basis."

Jamila Larson, co-founder of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project, has seen this stress firsthand. The playtime project serves family shelters as well as the hotels on New York Avenue that are used for temporary housing. Unlike shelters, the hotels don't offer food services, which presents a challenge for families staying there.

"It's even harder because you're on your own and you have to take your kids on the bus to go to the grocery store," Larson says. "Every time you leave your little quarantine nest, you're at risk."

The Digital Divide Makes Classwork Tough

In addition to finding and keeping housing, one of the biggest hurdles for families with children is education. Many parents are struggling with balancing work, child care and keeping their kids up-to-speed on classwork via distance learning. This is made harder when a family doesn't have access to wifi or a computer.

Morris has dealt with this firsthand. Prior to their placement in a shelter, her kids did work on packets distributed by the school district, rather than participating in online classes. "The teachers were understanding," she says. But now, the shelter has given her kids internet access.

"They were doing their paperwork, but they like to go online" for classes, Morris says.

This is a challenge that families with secure housing face as well.

"One of the things we knew going in [is] that there is this digital divide that exists in D.C. and across the nation," Elliot says. Over 80% of households in Wards 2 and 3 have internet access — that number hovers a little over 40% for Wards 7 and 8, where the average incomes are $62,472 and $58,716, respectively. The average in Wards 2 and 3 are $157,656 and $211,284.

Remote learning also makes it more difficult for schools to identify students who don't have stable housing. Typically, schools find out about a student's housing status when they enroll or if there are changes in attendance.

"Most of our focus has been on the students that we knew going into this health crisis," says Bren Elliott, Chief of School Improvement and Supports for D.C. Public School. "So we've just tried to really set up additional support for them, knowing that this crisis is going to have even a greater impact to their ability to access online learning."

While low-wage workers have borne the brunt of coronavirus in many ways — either losing their jobs or having their health at risk as essential staff — the pandemic has exposed how precarious providing for a family is to a lot of people across the economic spectrum.

"The whole country — the whole world — is going through this together," McShane says, recalling a conversation with a staff member when the pandemic first hit. "One of them just said, 'Well, when are we going to get back to normal?' And I said I don't know. None of us knows that answer. I think that's the question we all want to know. And we're just not going to know until we get through it."

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