DC’s homeless population keeps declining, but encampments are up

D.C. leaders are touting another decline in overall homelessness around the city, even as they admit the number of encampments in parks and around the downtown area have gone up.

“For the sixth consecutive year, overall homelessness is down,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said Thursday. “It’s not just down, it’s down to its lowest point in 17 years.”

In January, the city counted just over 4,400 people experiencing homelessness, either living on the streets or in city-provided shelters that aren’t considered permanent housing. In 2016, over 8,300 people were homeless — a nearly 50% drop, Bowser noted.

“We have reduced chronic homelessness among single adults in the last year alone by over 22%,” said Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.

Zeilinger also touted continued progress even after the survey was conducted in January.

“We had a very small number of families, we counted 17 in our point-in-time count, who were experiencing chronic homelessness in January,” she said. “I’m thrilled to say that nine of them are in housing now. The other eight are working on their housing, which means that we have effectively created an end to chronic homelessness among families in the District of Columbia.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gives a gift box and new keys to an apartment across the street to Donald Brundage, who was homeless and is now transitioning in the permanent housing. (WTOP/John Domen)

While the overall numbers are down, not every number saw a decline.

“The number of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness was effectively flat,” said Zeilinger, who noted that number actually went up by nine this year: “That would be a 1% increase, likely consistent with the margin of error.”

The homeless veteran population was up 11%, to 205, and she said the Department of Veterans Affair  was working to help them out. The number of unaccompanied youths counted in the city was also up.

“We actually take this as a good sign because we are reaching and seeing more young people,” Zeilinger said. “We’ve added beds within our system so we’ve got people in good services. So while that number is higher, an 8% increase, it’s also likely due to the increase in our services and our ability to see those folks because we’re engaging them with services.”

Bowser also encouraged those living in the increasing number of tent encampments around the city to find a better place to stay.

“In a city with the resources that we have,” Bowser said, “no one needs to live in a tent … we need them to work with us, accept the help that we’re offering, and get out of tents.”

Asked what the city was doing to reduce the number of tent encampments, Bowser said the city takes a deliberate approach toward encouraging homeless residents to find better housing.

“We have explored all of the encampments where there are multiple tents and have prioritized how we’re going to approach them,” Bowser said.

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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