A number of major U.S. cities, including New Orleans, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, have reported dramatic progress in housing their homeless in the past year. Nationwide homelessness is on the decline, with an estimated 11 percent fewer homeless people in 2014 than in 2007. But that trend doesn’t hold in the nation’s capital, where homelessness was about 45 percent higher than eight years ago. The total number of homeless people in the district grew by almost 13 percent last year and the figures were even worse for family homelessness, which grew by about 25 percent.

Those statistics explain why the city’s new mayor, Muriel Bowser, has made affordable housing and helping the homeless an early priority. She's hired Laura Zeilinger as her new director of human services. Until two weeks ago, Zeilinger had been the executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, an independent federal agency within the executive branch that coordinates across 19 federal cabinet secretaries and agency heads. Zeilinger also understands homelessness in the district, having worked as the deputy director of human services under former Mayor Adrian Fenty.

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Zeilinger spoke with Governing about homelessness in D.C. and what the Bowser administration can do to house more people. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Some cities recently have had great success in terms of reducing homelessness. In D.C., though, it’s gotten worse. Do you have any insight as to why D.C. would be going in a different direction than other major metropolitan areas?

Well, D.C. has a right-to-shelter law in the wintertime. Any time the conditions are forecasted to reach 32 degrees or below, [the city is obligated to provide temporary emergency housing]. Part of it is also just a function of how we count. When we look at how we count homelessness, we use point-in-time data [which is collected during the winter]. Because we have a legal obligation here to meet the shelter needs of children and families, we have a lot of people who are accessing the homeless system [at the time of the count].

When you look at national education data, which uses a broader definition of homelessness than the point-in-time count, you can see growing housing instability due to the fact that across the nation we haven't invested in the affordable housing that we need, nor are wages [rising] anywhere near the cost of housing. We’re seeing more and more families and individuals in unstable situations. In right-to-shelter jurisdictions, we can see more people accessing shelter, whereas in other communities, it can be a somewhat invisible problem.

Are there any projects that you started under the Fenty administration that you wanted to bring back or expand?

We had launched a “housing first” initiative where we were doing a lot of work to support people who were chronically homeless to move them into permanent supportive housing. As a result, we began to see the numbers come down. The emphasis of the [Gray] administration was a little bit different. It's not like it was a program that stopped, but it was something that we put a lot of time and attention on and I think we have an opportunity here to reinvigorate some of the strategies that worked well in the past.

One of the criticisms that I’ve heard about D.C. is that the agencies responsible for creating and preserving affordable housing are too fragmented. Is there going to be any effort to integrate these agencies or improve coordination?

So, the district is working on a strategic plan right now that is going to outline a five-year path to transition our homeless system. We are looking across the board at all the different types of housing interventions that are needed, the programs the homeless system already provides and strategies that we would deploy. That will also identify the roles that each of these different housing agencies play.

In the meantime, I can tell you that Bowser has signed on to the Mayor’s Challenge. We are going to end homelessness among veterans in 2015. That’s something that we want: to be right behind New Orleans and some others that are on the brink of getting to that goal.

Where does the city currently stand with the number of homeless veterans?

It’s around 400.

The February issue of Governing has a story about gentrification and the dwindling supply of affordable housing in D.C. To what extent is the growth in homelessness related to a decline in affordable homes or rental units?

Clearly, we have a severe shortage of affordable housing. When people can’t afford housing, it has a direct impact on homelessness. People often have a stereotype in their minds that people who have untreated mental illness and addiction and a number of different behavioral health diagnoses are the ones who end up becoming homeless because those are the folks who they see on the street. But the majority of people who experience homelessness, experience homelessness for economic reasons. The supply of affordable housing and the degree to which people find themselves without a place to be -- those two things are inextricably tied.

A recent survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors said requests for emergency food assistance in D.C. were up 56 percent in the past year. Other than the rate of homelessness, what other indicators are you going to monitor to see how distressed the poor are in D.C.?

This is still early on to talk about concrete goals, but when I look at our data and people who are both accessing public benefits and staying on public benefits for a very long time, there are such stark differences in the geographies of our city, ward by ward. We need to see the people in the poorest wards in our city beginning to see increased income and less reliance on public benefits. The opportunity to really bridge that gap, that is what brought me here from the Obama administration.

Homeless Students in Local School Districts (2010-2013)

D.C.'s Homeless Point-in-Time Counts (2013-2014)

Residence Type 2010-11 # Students 2010-11 % of Residence 2011-12 # Students 2011-12 % of Residence 2012-13 # Students 2012-13 % of Residence
Shelters 187,675 18 180,541 15 192,391 16
Doubled-up 767,968 72 879,390 75 936,441 75
Unsheltered 51,897 5 41,575 4 41,635 3
Hotels/Motels 55,388 5 64,930 6 70,458 6
Total 1,062,928 100 1,166,436 100 1,240,925 100

SOURCE: National Center for Homeless Education, U.S. Department of Education

Category 2013 2014 % Change
Total Number of Counted 6,865 7,748 +12.9%
Total Number of Singles 3,696 3,953 +7.0%
Total Number of Families 983 1,231 +25.2%
Total of Persons in Families 3,169 3,795 +19.8%
Total Adults in Families 1,301 1,559 +19.8%
Total Children in Families 1,868 2,236 +19.7%

SOURCE: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development