High rates of unemployment among minorities, foreclosures, the rising cost of rent, utilities and fuel and extreme budget cuts are behind a rise in the area’s homeless population, local homeless advocates say. An upcoming report by the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments indicates the Washington region’s homeless has increased to 11,988 persons, mostly among families and African Americans, and that’s largely due to the hobbled economy.

Jewel Stroman, 22, stands outside a temporary housing facility in Northwest D.C. with her daughter, hoping one day for a place to call her own. Hamilton Jones, 47, a researcher, writer and former substance abuser has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Jones survives on a meager income of $20 a week and $200 in monthly food stamps.

“There’s an issue when people like me can’t get any benefits because we’re judged to be functional when we really aren’t. I mean, I have a felony record and history of mental illness. I can’t do much more than live in the streets,” said Jones.

The count, which was conducted in the last week of January 2011 by area governments and homeless service providers, found that the number of homeless single adults, like Jones, decreased by less than 2 percent, while the number of homeless persons in families, like Stroham, increased by 6 percent. 

Data from the count found that children represent 27 percent of the region’s homeless population and 61 percent of all people in families that are homeless. It also showed that 38 percent of all homeless adults in families and 20 percent of homeless single individuals are employed. 

Michael Ferrell, executive director of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless, said unfortunately, Blacks represent 90 percent of the homeless population in the District due to the economy and a depletion of federal funds for prevention and rapid re-housing programs.

In a departure, more and more working, middle-class residents are being counted among the homeless.

Claybourne Couts, 47, an information technology specialist, bounces around different shelters and rooms while he tries to put his professional life in order. “Every time, I think I’ve found the perfect temporary setting, something goes awry. Many individuals who need someone to help them out with their rent, take advantage of homeless people with income lack stable housing,” said Couts.

Housing activist, Darlene Dancy said D.C.’s rent control formula should be reconfigured. “It raised rents during an economic upswing. Now we are in a recession and that formula does not coincide with reality along with the fact that the ceiling cap has been removed. It was the beginning of the end for many people who are now homeless,” said Dancy, who lived out of her car for one year before securing permanent housing.

In 2010, during former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s administration, a Permanent Supportive Housing Program (PSHP) was developed and implemented to provide permanent housing and supportive services to hundreds of chronically homeless individuals and families. However, due to depleted city coffers, Mayor Vincent Gray cut deep into programs for the underserved, leaving community-based organizations without staffing or funding to provide wraparound services.

“Budget cuts on programs for the poor will weaken our ability provide the type of intensive care that is needed especially for the homeless with mental health issues,” said Russell Snyder, president and CEO of Volunteers of American Chesapeake. “It makes it much difficult to provide the type of intensive care that is needed.”

Cardozo Heights Association for Neighborhood Growth and Enrichment (CHANGE), a well-known emergency assistance program, has been operating for 44 years. Its director, Gracie Rolling, said the government should invest in jobs.

“It’s one thing to participate in training programs with a stipend. When there are no jobs available after you finish, that will keep someone homeless. The government must invest in jobs for Americans,” Rolling said.


Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO