How Better Data is Informing Washington DC’s Response to Homelessness

Matt White

On a single night in January 2016, 8,350 people were homeless in the District of Columbia and staying in the city’s shelters. [1]  

As a “right to shelter” jurisdiction, Washington, D.C. must legally provide “safe, sanitary, and accessible shelter” to those who need it. To meet the demand in this high-cost area, the city has relied on hotels and other overflow shelters—a costly and temporary solution that creates new challenges for all stakeholders involved,  as reported in multiple articles by the Washington Post and by other local media. This short-term fix also crowds out spending on other interventions that would help to permanently end homelessness.

In 2014, a team at Abt Associates, led by Brooke Spellman and Joyce Probst MacAlpine, began working with the District of Columbia Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) to improve the city’s response to a growing housing affordability and homelessness crisis.

Abt used a system modeling framework that accounts for an array of variables—including the types of households needing assistance, the programs and services these different household types are likely to access, and the length of time they are likely to stay enrolled in different programs—to help ICH identify the most critical types of housing and services programs and the inventory needed to serve all individuals and families experiencing homelessness each year in Washington, DC. These recommendations form the basis of Homeward DC, a five-year strategic plan to end homelessness that was prepared by ICH and adopted by the Mayor and City Council in 2015. The Mayor committed $23 million from the FY2016 budget to begin to implement the recommendations in the plan, and $100 million to create more affordable and supportive housing in the District.

Abt also used a business process analysis to map the ways that families experiencing homelessness currently move through the system, from intake to housing placement, and developed recommendations for how that flow could be adjusted to improve coordination and efficiency. A five-session rapid re-housing learning collaborative for approximately 100 case managers and program supervisors helped to build skills, strengthen program delivery, and ensure consistency across providers.

Recent data suggest that some of these efforts may be paying off, helping to improve outcomes for people experiencing homelessness in the District of Columbia. Ongoing data analysis will be critical to understanding and evaluating the impacts of this systems transformation.

[1] The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress: Part 1.