DC homelessness: Unemployment and unaffordable housing collide

DC homelessness: Unemployment and unaffordable housing collide

Washington, D.C. falls within the top 10 U.S. states and territories that have the highest unemployment rates, at 6.3 percent, and the median price for a single family home in D.C. was $600,000 in 2014 and is slated to rise to $1 million by 2018.

By TMN Interns   
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Michael Allen, 62, currently stays at CCNV shelter in Washington D.C. (photo by Danielle Wilde

Washington, D.C. falls within the top 10 U.S. states and territories that have the highest unemployment rates, at 6.3 percent, and the median price for a single family home in D.C. was $600,000 in 2014 and is slated to rise to $1 million by 2018.

By CAROLINE COLVIN

WASHINGTON (Talk Media News) – Gregory Vines, 57, does not fit the archetype of a homeless person. He owned a house and has been steadily employed for most of his life.

“When I graduated from school, I started doing construction. I always found work,” Vines said. “I never had a problem with that.”

Everything unraveled for Vines about a year and a half ago when his American dream turned into a nightmare. He lost his job and then his house.

Vines now stays at Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) — one of the largest homeless shelters in Washington, D.C and just a 10 minute drive from the Capitol.

Vines is one of about 7,450 people in the District who are homeless, according to a 2016 National Alliance to End Homelessness report. At a rate of about 111 per 10,000 people, D.C.’s homelessness rate is the highest across all U.S. states and territories. The national average is about 18 homeless people for every 10,000, according to the same report.

Gregory Vines, 57, currently stays at CCNV shelter in Washington D.C. (photo by Danielle Wilde
Gregory Vines, 57, currently stays at CCNV shelter in Washington D.C. Photo: Danielle Wilde/Talk Media News

For Vines, the stint at CCNV is temporary. He plans to stay at the shelter until he can find a job and make enough money to get his own place.

“As soon as I get back re-employed, within six months to a year. However long it takes me to save my money back up and I’ll move out,” said Vines of his timeline. He said the most of the people he’s met at CCNV became homeless after unemployment, not because of a downward spiral into substance abuse as the narrative often goes.

“I’d say a lot of people in here have lost their jobs,” said Vines. “But they always try to give us a bad name, like we’re all on drugs or alcohol and that’s not the case.”

The reverberating effects of unemployment in D.C. can also be seen in the story of Michael Allen, 62. The D.C. native has lived at CCNV for more than six years and said he’s tried to re-enter the workforce to no avail.

“I was working doing landscaping and construction work. And I didn’t make enough money to get a room or an apartment, so I was pretty much on the street for about 16 to 18 months. But the weather got so bad that I came here,” said Allen.

“I tried hard not to come here.”

Michael Allen, 62, currently stays at CCNV shelter in Washington D.C. (photo by Danielle Wilde
Michael Allen, 62, currently stays at CCNV shelter in Washington D.C. Photo: Danielle Wide/Talk Media News

The hunt for a job and the hunt for a home

Vines’ and Allen’s stories are not an uncommon given the economic climate of the city. A high cost of living combined with an unemployment problem contribute to D.C.’s concentrated homeless population.

Unemployment has declined nationally over the past year and that the number of people unemployed for more than six months is on the downswing, according to recent data from the BLS. But D.C. falls within the top 10 U.S. states and territories that have the highest unemployment rates, at 6.3 percent, according to May 2016 data from the BLS.

Still, even the D.C. residents who are employed are not immune to becoming homeless. Salaries for higher paid jobs in D.C., such as those in the law field, averaged at $145,660 per year in June 2015, according to data published by D.C. Office of Revenue Analysis. Meanwhile, salaries for sales and related occupations in the District ran around $28,240 per year.

Consider then, that the median price for a single family home in D.C. was $600,000 in 2014 and is slated to rise to $1 million by 2018, according to the D.C. Office of the chief financial officer.

Van Tran, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University, does not deny that mental illness and weak social support networks can be causes for homelessness, but he also points to a lack of affordable housing and inflated home prices widening the scope of who is susceptible to homelessness.

“What happened in the last five years since the Great Recession is that, as a country — which is especially true in D.C. and New York — we are experiencing the housing affordability crisis. With rent rising dramatically over the past five years,” Tran said.

Not only are the houses in D.C. hard to afford, but they are hard to afford because many D.C. residents don’t have jobs that pay enough to meet the cost.

“A lot of people who are basically living paycheck-to-paycheck can easily end up on the street,” he said.

Tran gave the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 as an example of detrimental federal legislation in this regard: PRWORA pushed these at-risk populations to work jobs that don’t pay living wages instead of giving them assistance.

“For many of these young women with children, it’s impossible for them to find work because, oftentimes, daycare costs more than the salary that they end up earning,” he said.

Like Tran, Gregory Squires, a sociology professor and department chair at George Washington University’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, made the point that even hardworking or educated Americans can be struck by homelessness because of financial instability.

“People can work full-time, minimum wage jobs and not make enough money to afford a typical apartment. The cost of housing has increased much faster than wages have increased,” he said.

Fixing the District

A high cost of living, income inequality, high unemployment rate and lack of affordable housing: D.C. has a lot on its plate. Squires emphasized that solutions to homelessness should start with these issues and not the personal failings of homeless individuals.

“We tend to view homelessness as a problem of the behavior or personality or character of homeless people: ‘there’s something about their culture that puts them in that situation,’” Squires said.

“It’s important to understand that homelessness is more a function of failures in the labor market and the housing market.”

Squires spoke specifically to how the District’s higher average income prevents low-income individuals from enjoying affordable housing initiatives.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2016 median income for the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria area was $108,600 per year, as reported in the current “HUD Income Limits Briefing Material.” The number is down from 2015’s $109,200 per year, but both figures are up from 2014’s $107,000 per year median income for the same D.C. metropolitan area.

To better accommodate the range of economic lifestyles in the District, Squires proposed lowering the area median income (AMI) or the maximum income eligible for affordable housing. The AMI would need to be reduced fairly and accurately without affecting residents’ incomes, so the areas would be drawn smaller to neighborhoods and District sections instead of encompassing both the wealthy and the impoverished parts of D.C.

In practice, solutions to homelessness and unemployment fall on private shelters as well as the office of the city’s mayor, Muriel Bowser.

“Homelessness is a big issue in D.C. We’re kind of in the middle of a crisis. Some of these solutions are coming late,” said Jay Melder, chief of staff for D.C.’s Department of Human Services (DHS).

“But the mayor is really making sure that her administration was going to be focused on this and providing a level of foundation that was going to make sure that this progress can be reached.”

The Bowser administration is working to close the vast family shelter complex D.C. General and build short-term family housing in seven out of eight of the city’s districts. The size, age, disrepair and geographical isolation of the complex are seen as grounds for its closing. Construction of the new shelters across the city is expected to be finished in early 2020.

In addition to fresh housing facilities, homeless District families can also be eligible for resources such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the Women, Infants and Children program and the Temporary Cash Assistance for Needy Families.

On the other hand, shelters like Central Union Mission, CCNV and N Street Village are geared toward unaccompanied homeless adults — homeless individuals living on the street or traveling without kids. Similar to the initiatives available to D.C. families, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has an employment component as well.

N Street Village day center clients are encouraged to five activities, such as yoga, anger management or art classes, and one chore, like sweeping the courtyard or wiping down the table.
N Street Village day center clients are encouraged to five activities, such as yoga, anger management or art classes, and one chore, like sweeping the courtyard or wiping down the table. Photo: Caroline Colvin/Talk Media News

Melder, 33 and a D.C. resident, stressed that homelessness is an economic issue. But he also said it’s important to address the very human, physical aspects of the problem as well.

“In D.C., we’ve realized — just like other jurisdictions have realized and implemented a ‘housing first’ approach or invested in permanent supportive housing — it’s not an overnight fix,” Melder said. “It takes years and years of disciplined investment in those solutions and disciplined implementation in those practices that work.”

The states that practice housing first, as mentioned by Melder, have had to rethink the way they approach human services. Instead of pinpointing an individual’s mental or physical ailments to “solve” their homelessness, shelters and homelessness resources work now to actually give those in need homes, first.

“The fundamental cure for homelessness is a home,” Melder said.

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