Bed bugs, infections and fear for safety.
These are some of the most frequent complaints about homeless shelters across the country. For this reason, many people experiencing homelessness opt to spend the night in encampments rather than travel to a shelter, where conditions are often similar or worse.
Unfortunately, encampments may not be a reliable long-term solution, as evidenced by the recent clearing of the McPherson square encampment in Washington, D.C. While originally scheduled for mid-April of this year, the National Park Service closed down the encampment in February with cited concerns of public health and safety, displacing over 70 residents.
Rather than having individuals experiencing homelessness tolerate the unpredictability of encampment, activism by Georgetown University students can play a significant part in reforming homeless shelters and other sustainable housing options into clean and safe environments that provide basic necessities.
Reforming is key. Although housing options do exist, shelters do not guarantee safe homes for individuals that are experiencing homelessness. Improving the living conditions of these facilities is crucial to solving the crisis.
Many experiencing homelessness opt to live in the streets as opposed to shelters. Some common complaints about these facilities are sanitation issues, bug infestations, crowding, lack of privacy and safety, abuse, stealing among the residents and restrictive check-in policies.
The Department of Human Services (DHS) launched the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Residents (PEP-V) in April 2020 to house individuals who are chronically homeless or recently became homeless, to provide transportation resources and to assist with their employment. The program quickly became popular, with nearly four hotels already filled to accommodate the growing waitlist.
By September of last year, the federal funds for the program had run out. DHS had to announce in January 2023 that the program would close, leaving its nearly 600 residents without shelter.
It is critical that new housing options become available for the growing population of individuals experiencing homelessness due to the closures of encampments and emergency shelters. Although there are alternative housing options available for residents who have received D.C. government-funded vouchers, the number of spaces and staff available to provide resources are scarce compared to the demand.
Ensuring these options provide a high quality of life, especially compared to encampments, is also a priority.
There have been several policies that cities have enacted to clear encampments, but they have had high costs and mixed results. A 2019 study conducted by Abt Associates determined that cities such as San Jose spent $8.6 million to respond to these encampments, turning to removal and closure “with support,” in which encampments are cleared only when transitional or permanent housing options are available, to improve living conditions. Elk Grove, a small city in California, tried paying individuals experiencing homelessness to clean their encampments themselves, which has saved the city thousands of dollars and improved police-homeless relationships.
Despite these various efforts, a lack of affordable housing options and political will to solve the problem has led to increases in encampments since the COVID-19 pandemic.
This recent trend demonstrates the need for adequate funding that is appropriately targeted towards providing sustainable housing for individuals experiencing homelessness. President Obama successfully reduced veteran homelessness by 50% during his tenure in office — and Georgetown students should advocate for President Biden to replicate this success.
Using government funds to create conditions in which people can have access to adequate basic needs and safety is an important step in reducing homelessness.
Although Georgetown is one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., that does not mean our community is unable to make meaningful change. Many of us can actively lobby and write to legislators to increase funding for sustainable housing programs.
For those looking to get more deeply involved, volunteering at homeless shelters is a practicable approach. Many of these shelters are understaffed and could use individuals like us to help improve the quality of life for residents. Georgetown Homeless Outreach Programs and Education (HOPE) works with many of these shelters throughout the year and can connect these opportunities to interested students.
With our unique position as D.C. residents and students of Georgetown, our activism in the nation’s political center is one step out of many in providing solutions to the homelessness crisis.
Gautham Pillai is a senior in the School of Health. Gavin Nee is a senior in the School of Health. Jamie Lee is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences.
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