At a little after 7 on an August morning, Contessa Allen-Starks puts on her beige scrubs, pours coffee into a plastic foam cup, locks the door to her apartment and hurries to the A4 bus stop on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SW for an hour-long commute to her job in Dupont Circle.
She sits near the front of the bus, puts her earbuds in and closes her eyes. It has been three weeks since she’s had a day off. She works part time as a pharmacy tech at Giant on the weekends and has been trekking downtown to an unpaid internship at a doctor’s office Monday through Friday. She’d text her husband later, once the boys woke up, to ask about their day.
Yellow sticky notes scribbled with numbers litter the bottom of her black-and-pink shoulder bag. One number is how much money she could make if she could work full time at the grocery store pharmacy. Another represents how much she might make if the doctor’s office offers her a job. And then there’s what she makes now: a little more than $500 a week before taxes if she can get 32 hours of work.
Sometimes, she retrieves the sticky notes and stares at them until her head hurts.
It’s been exactly one year and one week since Allen-Starks agreed to take part in the District’s new Rapid Re-Housing Program, which is aimed at getting people like her out of the overcrowded D.C. General family homeless shelter and on a path toward self-sufficiency.
Right now, she pays just one-third of her income — the federal government’s definition of affordable housing — toward the monthly rent of $979 for her two-bedroom apartment in Anacostia. But her contribution is only about $300. Rapid Re-Housing pays the rest through a subsidy that’s only supposed to last four months to a year. Once the city stops helping, Allen-Starks will be responsible for all of it.
Every three months, she meets with her caseworker, who has pushed her to move her budget from sticky notes to a spreadsheet, pushed her to get more education, a better job, a second job, anything to make more money so she can pay the rent.
Tonight, the caseworker will be back to tell her whether her subsidy has run out.
She reaches into her bag and fingers the notes as the bus lumbers toward downtown. No matter how she shuffles them, it always takes three weeks of pay to cover the rent.
Officials in Washington and across the country are pushing rapid rehousing as the most promising way to help homeless families move out of shelters and motels and become self-sufficient.
First introduced on a wide scale by the Obama administration in 2009 as part of the economic stimulus package, it is generally credited with keeping homeless rates from skyrocketing across the country during the recession.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported that 83 percent of formerly homeless or about-to-be-homeless people who were put into rapid rehousing were still stably housed two years after their subsidies ended. Other agencies report similarly high rates.
Now the program has become part of the District’s effort to lose its “Handout Capital” reputation, as some caseworkers put it. Along with the city’s welfare reform — the District was the last place in the country to cut benefits to those who have received aid for more than five years — rapid rehousing is intended to break what city officials say is a generational culture of dependence.
Homelessness in the city is beyond crisis level. In the past five years, the number of homeless families has more than doubled. By Nov. 1, 2012, 3,000 families had applied for the fewer than 300 spots at D.C. General.
Because the District is one of a handful of U.S. cities that give residents the legal right to shelter on a freezing night, if D.C. General and the overflow area in the basement are full, the city still must find shelter for families with no safe place to stay.
For each of the past two years, that has meant paying to put about 400 additional families into motel rooms. That expense, plus nearly quadrupling the size of D.C. General since 2007 and handling the basic needs of homeless families, cost the city an unanticipated $12 million over budget for each of the last two years. And with winter coming, the shelter is already at capacity with nowhere for newly homeless families to go.
Once at D.C. General, families get three meals a day and a caseworker dedicated to helping them find a way out. But with few places to go, some families have been staying for as long as a year, sometimes more.
As part of its get-tough drive, the administration of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) this spring successfully sought amendments to a city law that would give city officials the power to kick anyone out of the shelter who had turned down two offers of rapid rehousing.