The Way to the Future Opens for DC’s Homeless Families, Children
 

Blog Post by Jean-Michel Giraud, Friendship Place President & CEO

Last week, Mayor Bowser announced that the DC General Family Shelter will close in 2018. Anybody following news on homelessness in DC would probably agree that this is a good way to start the year.

By now, most of us are aware of the challenges the current site has presented in delivering adequate services. For one, the building was designed in the 1920s to be a public hospital, not a shelter. The old hospital and makeshift shelter only became a choice for families following the closing of DC Village during the Fenty administration.

Demolition will actually start soon, permanently moving the shelter and this phase of family sheltering in DC into the realm of memories.

The Mayor’s stand on homelessness has been a courageous one during her first term in office.

The closing may very well be the most prominent part of her Homeward DC strategy. It realizes her administration’s vision to build—and place families in—short-term housing programs in every ward. But a reduction of 22% in the number of families experiencing homelessness between 2016 and 2017 also illustrates that many of her other efforts have yielded positive results. For example, some urban centers would envy a $100 million annual investment in the Housing Production Trust Fund, our ability to house 3,300 single adults over the past three years and our robust street outreach for transitional age youth, among other initiatives.

All of these accomplishments are to be credited to the current administration in City Hall.

About the Homeward DC Plan:

For the uninitiated, the title plays on meaning and might be better read “Home-Ward.” The pun points to the necessity for each of the eight wards to do its part in the process to end homelessness in the city.

The initiative is well laid out and covers the period from 2015 to 2020 with a goal to make homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurrent,” a phrase that is transparent and accurate. Ending homelessness means that we are building systems strong enough to catch people on time, therefore significantly reducing the amount of time in homelessness. It does not mean that homelessness will disappear all-together. We know that in any economic system some people will fall through the cracks, but how quickly and effectively homeless services systems help people rebuild their lives is the determining factor here.

Going back to the short-term housing programs for families.

The term “short-term housing” is meant to diffuse the stigma associated with shelters. In my conversations with community groups in the city, misconceptions have become apparent. Some audience members do not know, for instance, that the short-term housing programs will be service-enriched, meaning that an array of effective and cost-effective services will be offered on site to help parents rebuild quickly and well. Some wonder about the added burden on local public schools when neither demographics nor the anticipated service patterns actually point to a significant surge in enrollment there.

The combination of person-centric, outcomes-driven services and inviting sites is an essential part of the plan. Quality services in the right environment make the whole difference in human services. This is where the promise lays in this plan: with state-of the-art supports in the right environment, families will be able to rebuild better and in a more sustainable way.

Director Zeilinger of DHS recently shared that three programs will open by October 2018. The other five are slated for delivery in 2019 and 2020 to bring the overall system up to capacity. The plan will relieve the current pressure the system is experiencing once it is fully implemented and each facility is operating.

As with any great vision, the rubber hits the road at some point. However, for my part, looking back on a few decades of building community-based programming, starting with the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1980s, I am thrilled at the idea of the new programs opening in the next few years.

The impressive new facilities will no doubt reflect positively on the Nation’s Capital in its daring effort to solve family homelessness.

Much has been said about the new family programs and some of it, not so positive. My dream for the new short-term housing facility in Ward 3, our historical neighborhood, is that any child or parent walking in will feel welcomed from the start, look at the great building, meet the friendly, well trained staff and think: “We’re going to be all right!”

Every one of us has a responsibility to make this dream come true and to open the way to a better future for our homeless families.

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