Number of D.C. Homeless Increased by nearly 12 Percent

Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount.
Tara Ravishankar, an outreach specialist with Pathways to Housing DC, surveys unhoused people in McPherson Square on Jan. 25, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

The number of people experiencing homelessness in Washington has increased by 11.6 percent over the last year, including a significant uptick in individuals living on the streets for the first time.

The 2023 increase, determined by the annual point-in-time (PIT) count held in January and released publicly this week, saw rises in both the numbers of individuals and families struggling without permanent housing, according to the D.C. Department of Human Services. This year’s homeless census tallied 4,922 homeless individuals in the District, up from 2022’s 4,410.

The new figures also represent a stark turnaround from recent years, which saw consecutive drops in the District’s homeless population. DHS maintains that the recent figures reflect national economic pressures such as inflation and the end of pandemic-era programs and protections. The 2023 homeless census is still lower than the last pre-pandemic PIT count, in 2020 – 6,380.

But the new increase still represent a “clear call to action” for the city and providers, DHS Director Laura Green Zeilinger said in a news release.

“We have an opportunity to improve our response when single adults first touch the homeless services system,” Zeilinger said. “We are making investments in outreach, prevention and diversion services, shelter renovations and supportive services, while maintaining investments in the housing assistance people need to exit homelessness.”

Required by law by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the annual PIT numbers create a snapshot of a region’s homeless population on a single night each January.

The figures – a combination of surveys conducted on the streets by volunteers and a head count of emergency shelter residents – help policymakers determine the resources needed to address the issue properly.

In recent years, however, questions have arisen as to the PIT figures’ accuracy, and cities such Seattle have begun experimenting with new ways to determine their homeless population.

DHS noted a large increase in the number of homeless individuals living on the street and not in emergency shelters or transitional housing: 821 individuals were unsheltered in the 2023 count, while the census found 690 in 2022.

Homelessness has been a flash-point issue in the District in recent years. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) took office in 2015, a time when the city tallied nearly 8,000 individuals living on the street or in emergency shelters.

Vowing to end homelessness, the mayor introduced initiatives to house the District’s homeless population. Under Bowser, the city built new shelters for families across the city and closed the problem-ridden D.C. General family shelter in the wake of the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd.

The District has also funded thousands of permanent supportive housing vouchers that subsidize rent payments for some of the city’s neediest. But many who have received them have still struggled to find apartments, and hundreds of vouchers remain unused. City officials say a shortage of case workers who could help connect the District’s homeless with housing and services has also stymied the voucher program.

The U.S. Park Police cleared an encampment of more than 70 people at McPherson Square in February. But the city has so far only housed a fraction of them.

According DHS, another trend that the 2023 PIT data also highlighted was the number of people in the District experiencing homelessness for the first time. Typically, between 20 and 30 percent of the individuals tallied in the homeless census are experiencing homelessness for the first time. In 2023, nearly 50 percent of the individuals counted were new to homelessness, the agency said.

The new numbers quantify the increased workload that District homeless advocates and service providers say they have noticed.

That demand – as well as staff burnout – have only increased since pandemic protections such as rent and utility relief have diminished or disappeared.

“It’s disappointing to see this increase in homelessness in D.C., especially while so many housing vouchers remain unused,” said Jesse Rabinowitz, the senior manager for policy and advocacy at Miriam’s Kitchen. “We call on our entire community to focus on the root causes of homelessness, including the dire lack of low-income housing.”