On any given night as many as 15,000 Washington-area residents are homeless and that number is slowly growing, chiefly because more families are becoming homeless, local government officials and advocacy groups said.
Steve Cleghorn, deputy director of the nonprofit Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, said there are more homeless families because there are more single-parent families.
Nationally, single-parent households climbed from 12.3 million in 1985 to 15.4 million in 1995, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.
“Under-employment and unemployment hit single-parent families harder,” said Terri Bishop, vice president of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the District’s largest shelter for the homeless.
To combat this growth of homeless families, area service providers are slowly changing the way they provide for the homeless. They are relying more on transitional housing and service programs and less on emergency shelters, officials said.
Transitional programs differ from traditional emergency shelters in several important ways.
Generally, emergency shelters force individuals to pack their belongings and move out during the day, even though they may be allowed to spend several nights there.
Homeless who are in transitional housing programs are considered residents. They may use the shelter as a mailing address, no one forces them to pack up their belongings each day, and usually such programs allow residents to stay for a year or two.
Many transitional programs provide other services, such as drug and alcohol counseling and job training or placement assistance.
Hillary Lindeman, deputy director for community services in Prince George’s County, said transitional housing programs are important. “It’s very difficult to solve [family] problems when you’re not in a stable environment, and then you need more time than just a few weeks to fix the big problems,” she said.
Between 1992 and 1995 the number of people in transitional shelters in Montgomery County rose from 481 to more than 1,900, according to the Maryland Department of Human Resources.
One transitional program started in Montgomery County in 1992, called the Tier System, places homeless people in shelters and arranges for them to begin treatment for substance or mental health problems. They can also get job training.
Carol Fuechsel, homeless services coordinator for Montgomery County, said before the Tier System was initiated, most of the county’s homeless were placed in emergency shelters that did not provide long-term assistance.
In Prince George’s County, the number of people in transitional shelters rose from 144 in 1992 to 498 in 1995, according to the state Department of Human Resources.
In addition, Prince George’s County was recently granted $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund 20 new apartments for homeless families or singles, Lindeman said.
Despite the growth in the number of homeless families, officials say the homeless in the nation and the region are still disproportionately male.
Of the roughly 600,000 people who are homeless in the United States on any given night, about 36 percent of them are homeless families with children, according to the nonprofit National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
According to a regional study completed in 1991 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 76 percent of the area’s homeless are black and 76 percent are male. The study also found that a majority of the Washington-area homeless had grown up in the region.
However, most experts say caution should be used when relying on statistics on the homeless.
“Homelessness is impossible to measure with 100 percent accuracy,” said Mary Ann Gleason, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. The chief causes of homelessness listed by government and advocacy groups are unemployment, lack of affordable housing, substance abuse and mental health problems. -30-