398225 03: A panhandler begs for money December 5, 2001 in downtown Cincinnati. The city of Cincinnati is trying to come up with ways to combat the problem of panhandling which they say is keeping people from coming downtown to do their Christmas shopping. (Photo by Mike Simons/Getty Images)
This weekend’s storm may have spared D.C., but it’s a reminder that it’s getting cold outside. And a large number of our fellow Washingtonians have nowhere to go.
There may be as many as 3.5 million homeless individuals in the United States. The National Coalition for the Homeless says “in most cases, homelessness is a temporary circumstance -- not a permanent condition” -- making it hard to get a count. But we do know many of them live in and around D.C.
The D.C. Council, facing a swelling budget deficit, reluctantly passed legislation last week that would require families seeking shelter from city-funded agencies to prove legal residence or a record of public assistance from D.C. within the past two years. Officials say the number of families seeking shelter in D.C. who came from outside the city has tripled since 2008, and as winter comes, the city simply cannot accommodate them.
Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells, the sponsor of the legislation, said on introducing it, “We cannot be the housing alternative of last resort for the entire East Coast.” (While several neighboring counties have a similar requirement, the National Coalition for the Homeless says D.C. would be the first big city to implement one.)
But though homelessness often remains hidden, it is not going away. The Washington Post reports today that Fairfax County, “one of only two counties in the nation with median household incomes above $100,000, counts nearly 2,000 homeless students in its school division.”
Local governments, charities, and individuals are doing what they can. Churches in Culpeper are working together to provide “warming shelters.” The Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network hosted a Christmas Eve feast. ZIPS Dry Cleaners of Falls Church is collecting used coats, sweaters, flannel shirts, and sweaters for homeless veterans. And two groups will wade into the Potomac on New Year’s Day to raise funds from sponsors in an event called “Freezin’ for a Reason.”
The Post recently profiled Eric Sheptock, a self-described “homeless homeless advocate.” Sheptock, who discusses his work in the video below, has not had a permanent address in 15 years. On his blog, Sheptock says the coverage has drawn new attention to D.C. homelessness: “The fight to make housing a recognized human right has risen to new heights. It has gained momentum. I’m glad to be part of it. Nonetheless, I can’t do it alone.”
Greater Greater Washington has a list of organizations in the region that need help and donations to assist the homeless and hungry in our city.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC