Region Forward Blog

Ending homelessness involves providing more affordable housing

Feb 2, 2012
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Housing is an essential element of Region Forward. And it pops up in some way in almost every blog post here at The Yardstick usually in the context of the region’s need for much more affordable housing.

Housing in metro Washington can be an extremely frustrating subject given the region’s exorbitant costs. For many folks that cost becomes simply too much to bear. In the direst cases this can result in temporary or permanent homelessness.

The Homelessness Resource Center and the National Coalition for the Homeless both attribute the related factors of dwindling affordable housing supply and rapidly rising housing prices in urban areas in the U.S. as principal drivers of homelessness. There are of course several other factors that contribute to homelessness including issues involving mental health substance abuse unemployment domestic violence etc.

The overall rate of homelessness in metro Washington has remained fairly stable the past few years a sign of the region’s relative economic strength compared to the rest of the country during the recent recession.

However ending homelessness not keeping it constant should remain the target. And some troubling trends have also emerged in metro Washington – such as the increase in families who are homeless – which should keep the pressure on leaders and communities to focus on ending homelessness.

Every year MWCOG organizes a point-in-time count of the entire region’s homeless population to highlight the overall figures and specific trends of the population (read last year’s report here). Last year this blog featured the reactions of two housing planners who took part in the count recounting what they saw and how they felt (search “Reactions” here on Region Forward).

This year we are sharing participant reaction again. The following is a portion of Michelle Albert’s recounting of the experience (Albert serves as the Homeless Outreach and PATH Coordinator for the city of Alexandria):

In Alexandria the point-in-time outreach volunteers represent a cross section of the larger community. This year 34 volunteers worked across four 4-hour shifts. Thirty-one volunteers assisted with outreach and another 3 organized materials and set up food and incentive items. The 34 volunteers consisted of 14 DCHS employees 7 police officers 4 Sheriff’s Deputies and 9 members of the community. Officers and deputies drove teams of civilian volunteers to designated locations and utilized their knowledge of the community to locate homeless individuals.

Three-to-four person teams began outreach efforts at 4 pm January 25 and worked through the night until 8 am January 26. Teams searched approximately 50 pre-identified locations and continued searching additional locations at their discretion again utilizing law enforcement’s and social workers’ knowledge of the community. Preliminary results indicate that approximately 20 unsheltered individuals were located in Alexandria down from 31 people in January 2011. Records from the 2011 count indicate that at least five of the individuals counted last year are now sheltered and therefore they are not part of this year’s count.

During the count teams distributed food clothing blankets sleeping bags and toiletries. Generous financial and in-kind donations from local businesses shelters Alexandria Detox and the faith-based community made this possible. Of special note the city’s outreach activities resulted in shelter and services being provided to a 70-year-old Marine Veteran who had been living in a tent near Potomac Yards after having a stroke in October 2011.

Participating in the point-in-time count provides volunteers with education as well as chance to help individuals and families experiencing homelessness. In addition it allows law enforcement to be ‘the good guys’ who give out sandwiches and sleeping bags instead of tickets and trespassing notices. As a result people experiencing homelessness are more likely to be cooperative during any future contact. As more people volunteer to assist with the outreach portion of the count awareness increases information is spread and education is provided which allows the community to develop a more mindful approach to addressing the issues surrounding homelessness.

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