Why Ending Homelessness Isn’t That Easy

Housing is only part of the equation in Arlington.

Nearly a decade after its Housing First initiative was set in motion, Arlington now faces the question of what happens when the 10-year plan ends.

New people will fall into homelessness, but county officials hope to have the capacity and resources to quickly find them homes. The Homeless Services Center, which opened in 2015, replacing a winter shelter, offers help year-round. Its arrival in Courthouse drew opposition from some occupants of nearby offices and residential towers, but Miller says the shelter and its residents are striving to be good neighbors, hosting community events, picking up litter and limiting loitering outside.

A midday meal at the Center finds men and women of various ages and races dining on soup and sandwiches, their packs nearby. A large closet offers a rainbow of T-shirts and other clothes. One man goes to the laundry room to wash his belongings. Another man, hobbling on a crutch, heads to one of the medical respite beds for nursing care.

Many of the root causes of homelessness are seemingly intractable: Arlington’s high housing costs, low wages for unskilled workers, domestic violence and mental health problems. Roughly 65 percent of the families at Sullivan House are coping with mental illness; 20 percent are victims of domestic abuse; and 98 percent have no college education. Social workers also estimate that some 70 percent of the adults seeking shelter there are employed, but many can’t get enough hours to pay the rent.

“Without livable wages, folks are going to continue to cycle through the system and be living on the ropes,” says Kelly of Bridges to Independence.

While the District of Columbia recently raised its minimum wage to $12.50 per hour, Virginia’s minimum wage remains at the federal standard of $7.25. Arlington’s cost of living “will always be our headwind,” says county board vice chair Cristol.

And yet progress has been made. This past January saw 33 people sleeping on the streets of Arlington, compared with 207 in 2009, according to the Point-in-Time survey. Safe dating is now taught in high schools to inoculate against domestic abuse. A 2015 plan approved by the county board has set targets and strategies for preserving affordable housing, including incentives for landlords who commit to keeping rents affordable.

Cristol says the board is looking at ways to keep other market-rate apartments affordable, such as tax breaks on property improvements. “We are rowing as hard as we can,” she says.

Jones, the executive director of Doorways, who helped write Arlington’s 10-year plan, is now on the committee working on the next chapter—a three-year plan that will come before the county board by next summer. There’s still work to do. While the Housing First initiative reduced homelessness overall, the rate of families with kids returning to homelessness actually ticked up under the “rapid rehousing” push.

“Housing first can’t be housing only,” Jones stresses. “We have to pair it with services that address why they are homeless in the first place.”

One key riddle is figuring out how to move families not just out of homelessness, but up a rung of the economic ladder so their lives are not so precarious.

Categories: Community