Earlier this month, Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and members of the Interagency Council on Homelessness there began circulating what is likely that community's most ambitious plan ever to end chronic homelessness. Mayor Bowser has made ending homelessness a top priority and has attracted nationally-recognized experts to her administration to get the job done.
Past mayors of our nation's capital have been frustrated by efforts to turn the tide against homelessness -- it is a daunting challenge -- but we sense increased momentum and resolve in the District to embrace proven programs that work to house people and keep them off the streets.
Mayor Bowser has set concrete goals and timelines, and relies on the kind of systems changing initiatives known to make a real difference.
The District has long been grappling with their unacceptable, run-down family homeless shelter located on the campus of a former hospital, and the new plan calls for slashing the time families or individuals spend in temporary shelter, quickly moving them instead into apartments offering affordable rents and longer-term permanency. A key objective lowers the average shelter stay for homeless residents from six months to two months -- by locating them into better housing as soon as possible.
A large share of those apartments would be supportive housing -- affordable rental units stabilizing families and individuals who are then able to access intensive services to address their many needs. Supportive housing helps the most vulnerable amongst us, and the overwhelming majority of chronic homeless individuals and families are fragile and require the additional assistance.
The Mayor also is intent on cutting in half over five years the number of single adults staying in city shelters each night.
The plan will not be cheap. The price tag to create housing will be in the millions. The district will be tasked to secure additional funds, more resources than just relying on its own tax base to pay for a comprehensive initiative. But, and the evidence for this is solid, it will cost District taxpayers far more over the long run to do nothing, keeping people in temporary shelters and providing crisis services on the streets, than it will create quality affordable rental units and community-based preventive services.
The transition from shelters to apartments will not be easy either. Advocates agree the District will have to do a better job identifying and developing low-cost apartments for the homeless. Like other metropolitan areas in our country, the District has a serious shortage of affordable housing across the board and this, too, must be addressed with a sense of urgency
The bottom line is always the supply of affordable housing or the lack thereof. In other words, many people would not face the prospect of homelessness if they had an affordable place to live.
Some in our society do not think affordable housing should be a priority, but the economies of our cities are now taking direct hits because too many of the people who make them run -- cab drivers, preschool teachers, police officers, health-care workers, security guards -- cannot afford to live in them. And the further people move away from their jobs in the cities, the more the hours commuting, extra child care expense, and wasted productivity sitting in mindless traffic gridlock, makes relocating to the not-so-cheap suburbs just as impossible as finding a nice, affordable apartment downtown.
There is little doubt Mayor Bowser and her team and the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness are taking on a herculean task. They have their work cut out for them. But, as they know all too well, failure to confront these problems head on now will lead to much bigger headaches in the future.