On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
At least 117 homeless people died in D.C. in 2019, according to a recent investigation by The Washington Post. The unofficial tally of deaths maintained by advocacy organizations is lower, but no matter what data is used, the number of deaths reached a five-year high last year.
Advocates say that the homeless population in this region is aging and that brings with it a slew of new health challenges that are contributing to the rise in deaths. As the shortage of affordable housing in the region continues to make headlines, finding permanent housing solutions for the homeless is tasking the resources of many support organizations.
As Homeward DC, the city’s five-year strategic plan for curbing homelessness draws to a close, we check in on the state of homelessness in the District and find out which if any of the plan’s goals have been met.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned into the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll check in on the state of live music venues in this region in the aftermath of several old time favorites closing in recent weeks. But first the Washington Post recently reported that at least a 117 homeless people died in the District in 2019. Advocates say that's most deaths in five years. As the shortage of affordable housing in the region continues to make headlines finding permanent housing solutions for the homeless is tasking the resources of many support organizations.
KOJO NNAMDIAnd as we enter 2020, Homeward D.C. the city's five year strategic plan for curbing homelessness is drawing to a close. So what progress has been made towards the plan's goals? Joining me to discuss this is Kristy Greenwalt director of the D. C. interagency council on homelessness. Kristy Greenwalt, good to see you again. Thank you.
KRISTY GREENWALTThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Adam Rocap. He is the Deputy Director of Miriam's Kitchen, a non-profit organization that has made it its mission to end chronic homelessness in the District. Adam Rocap, thank you for joining us.
ADAM ROCAPThank you. It's great to be here.
NNAMDIKristy Greenwalt, I'd like to get your reaction to the number of deaths reported by The Washington Post 117.
GREENWALTYes. Well, for those of us that work in the field, I mean, it's heartbreaking and it's certainly distressing, but it's not all together unanticipated. One thing that we know about especially the single adult population is that it's an aging one. And this is something we've been seeing in the data for a number of years now. It's what researchers call a birth cohort. So people at the tail end of the baby boom generation are actually at heightened risk of homelessness, and so we've seen the average age increasing over time.
GREENWALTSo when you see the number of people that have passed away during the year it's certainly not exposure deaths. We're tracking that closely and generally we see only one or two people die each year from exposure. What we're seeing is that the majority of deaths are age related under treated chronic health conditions. And so that's something we're looking at tracking very closely, because we know that's going to have huge implications for our housing and healthcare systems in the years ahead.
NNAMDIBefore we go any further, can you give us a sense of how many people in the District are currently homeless and how many people does the Department of Human Services serve through its various support services for the homeless over the course of a year?
GREENWALTSure. So at a point in time we generally have about 6500 people that we're serving and that's roughly split between single adults and families. So, for example, we have about 3600 single adults in our system, 12,000 single adults and about 1800 families that we serve annually.
NNAMDIAdam Rocap, what is leading to this higher number of deaths within the homeless population?
ROCAPI mean, on some level even tracking the number of people that have died or why they've died can be difficult. But some of the things we do know are as Kristy was saying that as the people experiencing homelessness are becoming older and as we know that people are experiencing homelessness are experiencing the type of medical conditions that you would experience 20 years older than your age. So for instance, at the vigil that we had in December the average age of the people that we were remembering died was 55.
ROCAPSo on average someone who's 55 is experiencing the type of health conditions whether that's diabetes or heart conditions or other medical conditions that someone who is 75 is. And when you're without housing and it's harder to get treatment or see your doctor, follow-up. I mean, that's some of things that lead to people dying at higher rates than they would if they were housed.
NNAMDIKristy Greenwalt, research shows that the average age of homeless individuals is going up nationwide. What's contributing to this and why is this older generation at greater risk?
GREENWALTSo like I said researchers have been seeing this in the data. Back in 1990 just 11 percent of people experiencing homelessness were over the age of 50 and that compares to over 50 percent today. And that's not the same people. Again, it's people at the tail end of the baby boom generation that came to age in a period of deep recession, depressed wages for unskilled workers, high rates of youth and young adult unemployment. There's a number of reasons that they attribute to this sort of cohort effect. But, again, what we see is that people from this particular era are really at heightened risk and like I mentioned earlier, it's not the same people. So over 45 percent of those aging individuals are experiencing first time homelessness. So that's really sort of a frightening statistic.
NNAMDIWhat are the other trends we're seeing as far as homelessness in the District? I'm thinking particularly about opioid and drug overdoses.
GREENWALTI would say, you know, it's similar to what we're seeing the across the country and in major cities. That's certainly a contributing factor. Unlike other cities where opioids have hit younger and often white populations, in the District we're seeing that it's older African Americans that are particularly hard hit by this epidemic. So that's -- I mean, that's obviously a piece of our work. But the economic factors and just the significant gap between what housing costs and what people earn is the largest driver of homelessness in this city. And so that's generally -- that's what puts the most pressure on the homeless services system.
NNAMDISpeaking of opioids and drug addiction here is Robert Warren who is identified as the Director of the People for Fairness Coalition. Robert Warren, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTYes, sir. How is everybody doing? Happy New Year.
NNAMDISame to you.
ROBERTMay you be very blessed and us not have the number of deaths that we've had in the community in past years. And I would just like to thank your guests for the work that they do especially my brother Adam there from Miriam's Kitchen.
ROBERTYeah, I just want to thank you man for work you've been doing for so many years. And to help to prevent those deaths that we're having in the community. And I just can't say enough, but thank you guys. But, yeah, I think for me it's just amount discrimination and racism that's the applied to our black folks in Washington D.C., especially the baby boomers. And them having the right to, you know, having housing and being able to live and prosper and have the health services and the care that they need to live in the District of Columbia. So, you know, that's what it is for me. And that's the folks that I advocate for, and, you know, as Director of the People Fairness Coalition have been fighting for for years.
ROBERTAnd just trying to bring, you know, fairness in the housing in District of Columbia. And I think it's based on, you know, just past racism and discrimination.
ROBERTAnd it's still (unintelligible) ways out today.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Robert Warren, thank you very much for your call. It's difficult to discuss homelessness or practically frankly any issue in the District of Columbia without invoking race. What does the relationship that you see between race and homelessness in the District?
ROCAPYou know, I agree that it's inextricable. One of the hardest things when we looked at national research around race and homelessness is that when you control for factors of income or poverty or, you know, other things that people associate with race, there's still more people that experience homeless who are black or brown than who are white. So you, you know, we've seen in the hard data how much that, you know, racism is involved in creating people becoming homeless and as well as making it harder for people to get out of homelessness.
NNAMDIAgain, Robert Warren, thank you very much for your call. Adam, where do you see the greatest need as far as the people you work with at Miriam's Kitchen? What are the services that are most in demand?
ROCAPSo at Miriam's Kitchen in our work to end chronic homelessness in our direct services we do everything from meals to housing to help connect people to housing and the other support services that they need in addition to the local policy and advocacy that we work to try to help change happen at the city level. And I'd say, I mean, number one when people come into our dining room for a meal the first question that they want to ask is, "How can I find a place to stay? How can I get back into housing?" So for us, you know, both on the policy level everything comes back to how to create housing solutions for people who are homeless and that's the individual story that we hear from our guests every day in and day out.
NNAMDIKristy Greenwalt, obviously the shortage of affordable housing is something that's permeating many aspects of life in this region. But you have said that the support services for the homeless community are quoting here, "The emergency room for the larger affordable housing system." What do you mean by that?
GREENWALTYeah. So we know housing is the answer to homelessness. And in, you know, everyone that we serve would benefit tremendously from a housing subsidy to help them remain stably housed. In the homeless services system though we sort of operate as a triage room where we do not have the resources we need to assist every single person that's touching in the system. So we very much use a process where we are examining vulnerability and trying to match those with worse case housing needs. And frankly those that are at greatest risk of dying on the street with the next housing resource, but, you know, we seen nationally that only one out of four people that need housing assistance gets it from the federal government.
GREENWALTI was just reading last week that, you know, the House just passed a $717 billion defense bill compared to HUD's $44 billion annual budget. If everyone that needed affordable housing received help with it we would have so much less pressure on the homeless services system.
NNAMDIAdam, the affordable housing crisis is something that's been unfolding for many years now, but advocates say that finding permanent housing solutions now is much more difficult than in the past. How is the situation different now than it was in the, say, 80s or 90s?
ROCAPWhen I think of, you know, what's been difficult about helping people find housing solutions recently it has to do with -- I mean, some of what Robert from the People for Fairness Coalition was alluding to about the, you know, ongoing housing discrimination or the way that racism plays out. Where at the same time when we have the city being a great partner investing millions of dollars in housing solutions that's often with something like a voucher where you're going to find a private landlord to rent from. And most of the landlords that we work with are accommodating and know the program works and know that they'll have a case manager that they can call.
ROCAPBut there's always, you know, pockets of landlords, who don't want to rent to our population. And so even when there's been good policy around not being able to discriminate based on a voucher or brining more regulation to what criminal backgrounds people could look at. I mean, some landlords we're finding are adding additional fees like for amenities fees or application fees that we see at least in practice are working to keep people out of some of the housing that they want to be in.
NNAMDIHere is James Slagal in Bethesda, Maryland. James Slagal, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JAMESYes. Wouldn't it be a good idea to greatly increase the taxes on vacant property? This would decrease the amount of vacant properties. That would be good for the neighborhood. It would be good for the people, who are living in the houses instead of them being vacant. And the extra money could be used to help the homeless.
NNAMDIIs that something that you have explored Kristy Greenwalt?
GREENWALTIt's a important point to be thinking about how we're raising revenue. It's not something that I have a lot of expertise in. I will say that we've been very fortunate. The mayor has been very committed to the Homeward D.C. strategy. You know, she's committed over a $170 million. In past years we have our biggest budget investment coming in the FY20 budget, $48 million to help us provide housing resources and supports to people experiencing homelessness. So I know that's it's an administration that's constantly looking for sources of revenue to fund new housing.
GREENWALTThe mayor is also in addition to all those resources for the Homeward D.C. plan invested over half a billion dollars in the Housing Production Trust Fund. I think that's more per capita than any other state in the country right now. So I do agree that we need to continue to be looking for additional revenue sources, and our partners in Maryland and in Virginia needs to step up to the plate as well.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we will continue this conversation on D.C.'s homeless population and the challenges faced by the advocates for the homeless. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back we're talking about the challenges facing D.C.'s homeless population with Kristy Greenwalt, Director of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, and Adam Rocap, Deputy Director of Miriam's Kitchen, a non-profit that has made its mission to end chronic homeless in the District. Kristy, the city launched an initiative called Home for the Holidays a few weeks ago with the goal of housing 400 households by January 15th. Where are you as far as meeting that goal?
GREENWALTYep. That's a great question. So as of last week we had housed -- helped 240 households exit homeless to permanent housing since the November 15th launch. I think it's just important to underscore that this is the work that the Department of Human Services and our other non-profit partners do day in and day out helping people stabilize in housing. We always use the holiday period as a time to really try to raise awareness and bring new partners to the table. So the Home for the Holidays is, you know, a special initiative for us every year.
NNAMDIThe Interagency on Homelessness launched its strategic plan Homeward D.C. in 2015 with three main goals, to end homelessness among veterans, to end chronic homelessness and to rehouse households experiencing housing loss within 60 days or less. We are now in the final year of that plan. Have these goals been achieved?
GREENWALTWell, first I have to say the Homeward D.C. for us is a living plan. When we developed the plan back in 2014 we felt it was really important to align with the federal government goals that had been established around single adults and families and veterans. And so those 2020 timelines aligned with the Obama administration's goals. Of course, there has been very little in the way of federal support, but thanks to significant leadership and investments at the local level by Mayor Bowser I do think we are making very good progress.
GREENWALTSo overall since the plan was launched homelessness is down in the District 21.9 percent. That's driven by a 45 percent reduction in family homelessness since the plan was launched. We continue to see good progress in the veteran's system. That's one area where we had received a lot of support during the Obama years. Over the last four years we've continued to drive veteran homelessness down another 15.1 percent.
GREENWALTWe're nearing function zero around veteran homelessness. And then finally last year we really started to see the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness start to go down as well. So chronic homelessness is that subset of typically single adults with prolonged homelessness, and so we saw 13.4 percent reduction in chronic homelessness between 2018 and 2019. And in fact, chronic homelessness is the lowest it's been in the District in 15 years.
GREENWALTSo we know we're going in the right direction. Our work is not done. We're actually taking the lessons learned from these last five years and we're in the process of updating our plan. Homeward D.C. 2.0 will be launched in early 2020. Our commitment is to keep at it until all our neighbors have a safe and stable place to call home.
NNAMDIAdam Rocap, what do you think of the main lessons learned from the implementation of Homeward D.C. over the past five years?
ROCAPI think of a couple of things. One I think that the power of having a data driven plan that the community has helped develop and really believes in has made a huge difference. I mean, people know that when we talk about ending homelessness in D.C. it's not just a pie in the sky aspirational thing. But this is something that we're really focused on and using data to drive our work. I think the second thing is as Kristy was saying in the areas where we have invested the most housing resources and in particular when we have housing resources coming from the federal government that's where we've seen the most declines.
ROCAPSo going forward it's really important that we continue remembering that lesson and finding ways to invest in housing. And then what Kristy said about this being a living plan and a living document is I think can't be understated. Homelessness is so complex, and, you know, everything that we know today about the best ways to solve will continue to evolve and we need to keep learning. So we need to be focused on preventing homelessness whenever we can figuring out how to have our emergency shelter system be housing focused and a lot of the innovations that you'll see in the strategic plan going forward.
NNAMDISpeaking of the best ways to solve it, we got an email from Amanda Harris, Chief of Services to End and Prevent Homelessness in Montgomery County who writes, "There are known solutions to ending homelessness by employing a housing first approach by connecting people to permanent housing without preconditions. We can put a serious dent in homelessness. We also need to invest in prevention by offering short and long term housing subsidies, access to employment and addressing racial discrimination and housing. If we want to end homelessness in the region we need all the jurisdictions to work together and find solutions that serve people across the boundaries of city and state." That was the email that we got from Amanda Harris.
NNAMDIOne thing that has always puzzled me about addressing homelessness is the lack of regional collaboration on this issue especially when we've seen an increase in regional cooperation on many other systematic issues like transportation and sustainability. Why has this not come about Kristy Greenwalt?
GREENWALTWell, I think that tide is changing. You're right that it is complex when it comes to serving people. And we're talking we have three different states involved. And so often when you have an urban city surrounded by suburban counties people that are moving across county lines are at least under the same state umbrella. Here what happens is when people cross state lines their benefits change, the healthcare, TANF, food stamps. So that's one thing that can be challenging.
GREENWALTI think over the last couple of years we have really -- Amanda and I, for example, are often in conversation about how we can be working together. We've executed a data sharing agreement in recent months so we can better understand the patterns of movement. One thing that's also challenging I think we've mentioned that's there's just been an absolute deficit of federal investments. And when you're investing local dollars your local dollars typically can only be spent in the state that they're allocated in.
GREENWALTAnd when you're trying to serve people and really have a person centered approach it can be difficult to use local dollars to help people find housing if they want to transfer to a different state. So we've been talking about how we might be able to look at using private dollars to pilot some different approaches. But the, you know, your point is an important one. People need mobility and opportunity. They need to be able to move where housing is affordable to them near transportation, near jobs, near their support networks. And so it really is imperative that we figure out how to work together more closely.
NNAMDIDon't have a lot of time left, but wanted to get a couple of calls in, this one from Donna in Loudoun County, Virginia. Donna, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DONNAHi. First I want to applaud you all for talking about homelessness, because it's often an overlook population. We run -- I run an organization called Mobile Hope in Loudoun County, Virginia that focuses on our homeless youth. And that is a population that is really difficult to find permanent supportive and stable housing, because they don't have that rental history. They don't have a financial history. Many are coming right out of our jails and don't have a good reputation. And so it's very difficult to find housing for them.
DONNAAnd when you speak about collaboration across state lines and county lines we are all about that and would love to figure out how we can help this population. So I just want to applaud you all for speaking, you know, about this because that 18 to 24 year old that we focus on is really really difficult in finding that housing first approach.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for sharing that with us, Donna. On now to Reggie in Washington D.C. Reggie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
REGGIEHey. Thanks for taking my call. I'm a native Washingtonian and I heard you just say that chronic homelessness is at a 15 year low in the city. That just doesn't register with what I see on the streets out there. In fact, I see more and more tent cities building up. It seems like there are more homeless people on the streets these days than I've ever seen before in my 40 plus years of living in Washington. And I wonder what you have to say about that.
NNAMDIThe expansion of tent cities, Kristy Greenwalt.
GREENWALTI think it's fair observation. We know we definitely have some hotspots where encampments are very I would say prolific. But a couple of data points isn't reflective of the entire system. And one thing we've seen about our population of folks, who are experiencing chronic homelessness is that many of them have spent years if not decades of their life in shelters. So part of our work is really thinking about how we're targeting our housing resources. We do see a lot of inflow. Some of the folks that are on the street have been in the District for a long time. Others are newly experiencing homelessness. So the number of people we see in different hotspots isn't necessarily reflective of the overall trends in the system. But I do understand what the caller's perspective.
NNAMDIYou know, in the midst of finalizing Homeward D.C. 2.0, which will be released in the next few months, what are the priorities for this new strategic plan?
GREENWALTSo, you know, I think as we were talking our data suggests that we're definitely on the right track. We have a lot of work to do ahead of us to really continue to accelerate housing production. And so, you know, the mayor set an ambitious goal of 36,000 new units by 2025. And Homeward D.C. is certainly a part of that. We have to continue to ramp up housing opportunities for people. Part of that is we need to grow the capacity. One of the things that has been a limiting factor for us is just the capacity of the housing market to absorb more people, the capacity of our provider networks and our affordable housing developers.
GREENWALTSo if we're ready to spend more we need providers and developers, who can absorb that funding. Healthcare, the connections to the healthcare system is a really important one. As we've been talking about the fact that this is an aging population. So how our system is prepared to serve folks with complex health needs and then I would say employment is a really big factor.
GREENWALTSo one of the most frequent things I hear when I go into our shelter system or talk people is that people want to work. So we know they want to be able to take care themselves and their families. And there's dignity in that, but people struggle even in this economy to find jobs and certainly jobs that allow them to afford housing. So we have a lot of work to do to help people earn and to continue to grow their income while they're earning.
NNAMDIAdam Rocap, you only have about a minute left, but what is on the must do list for Miriam's Kitchen in 2020?
ROCAPI think everything for us comes back to housing. So if we want to help end chronic homelessness, you know, in an individual level with all the guests that we serve helping connect people to housing is our focus in trying to find creative ways to do that. On a city level it's how we -- making sure that we're working with city partners and other partners to invest as much in the housing solutions that we know work is possible, because we know the track record is that housing is what reduces homelessness. We know that housing is healthcare. That housing saves lives. And that that's -- in a lot of ways that housing is the most effective thing that we can do to help people be healthy and to respond to some of these emerging trends about people aging and some of the complex health needs that we're starting to see in the population.
NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have. Adam Rocap, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIKristy Greenwalt, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIGoing to take a short break, when we come back, we'll check in on the state of live music venues in this region in the aftermath of several old time favorites closing in recent weeks. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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