A new strategic plan for addressing homelessness in Montgomery County reflects changing demographics and a growing affordable housing crisis that makes it increasingly difficult for low-income residents to make ends meet.
Overall, the number of people experiencing homelessness in the county has decreased 40% over the last 10 years. That includes a 23% decrease from 2018 to 2019, said Amanda Harris, the chief of services to end and prevent homelessness for the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
The county, in its annual one-day homelessness survey, recorded 647 people last year, down from 840 the year before.
Many people experiencing homelessness are particularly vulnerable, including senior citizens, who Council Member Gabe Albornoz called “one of the fastest-growing demographics” in the county’s homeless population. A growing number of people also report physical disabilities, Harris said, which often require more intensive services.
The new plan, which HHS unveiled on Tuesday, calls for a dramatic increase in resources to end homelessness by the end of 2023. Priorities include a “housing for all strategy” that aims to add 450 permanent or short-term units for people experiencing homelessness.
The updated plan reflects new best practices, Harris said, including a nationally acknowledged need to find stable housing for residents as soon as they become homeless.
“We know that the longer people stay in shelters, the harder it is to leave the system,” she said Tuesday after a presentation on the plan. Expanding the number of affordable units is especially important in Montgomery County and the wider metropolitan region, where housing is already a major concern even for mid-range earners.
“The affordable housing crisis is just getting worse,” Harris said. “It’s hard to make minimum wage and afford an apartment, let alone make no income at all.”
Increasing the number of available units through construction and rent subsidies is one of the best solutions, she added, based off the straightforward premise that “housing ends homelessness.” But it’s also an expensive proposition, even in Montgomery County, where Harris said there’s both money and political will to address the problem.
The county spends $54 million on homeless services every year, 70% of which comes through local funding. There are 1,400 units of housing available for people experiencing homelessness, generally offered through voucher programs that assess applicants based on individual need.
Some residents require “permanent supportive housing,” Harris said — a steep long-term subsidy accompanied by additional services. For a senior resident, the county might find a permanent apartment and hire a home aide to help manage chronic medical conditions.
Other residents might need rapid rehousing, a smaller subsidy that lasts up to 24 months. The county also offers shorter-term solutions, Harris said, including rental assistance, child-care subsidies, and connections to food stamps or Medicaid.
“Some people might need a long-term subsidy, others might need a security deposit and six months’ rent,” she said. “It’s whatever we determine is the most appropriate solution.”
It’s unusual for a county to dedicate so much local funding to homelessness resources, Harris said. But even with the high investment, there are usually 300 to 400 people on the county’s registry for services.
Albornoz said he became more aware of the problem last summer, when his office intervened to help a constituent and her three children escape domestic violence. HHS helped the family find secure housing. He said it was the first time he realized how many people were waiting for assistance.
The strategic plan calls on the county to find new funding streams for affordable housing and other resources. Albornoz said it’s become harder to secure federal funding for housing vouchers and other services, so the county is looking for other ways to boost services.
Collaborating with local philanthropic groups is one idea. Another is leveraging local hospitals and health care systems to contribute money, Harris said.
“People are really starting to understand and embrace social determinants of health,” she said — the idea that lifestyle, geography, education and wealth all affect well-being. The county is trying to convince more care providers that investing in housing could lead to health savings.
“Housing is a proven way to reduce health care costs,” Harris said. “And that’s something we’re really trying to leverage.”
The report touted the county’s successes in reducing or nearly eliminating homelessness among certain groups. At any point in time, there are no more than six veterans experiencing homelessness in Montgomery County, which the federal government considers a functional elimination of veteran homelessness, Harris said. Only 11 people identify as chronically homeless at any given time, which is also seen as near elimination.