The surge of homelessness in our community is deeply concerning. The recent results of the Point in Time count found a significant increase in the number of people experiencing homelessness in the Washington, D.C., region – a 53% increase in Montgomery County alone. The study also highlighted that a significant cohort of those experiencing homelessness are over the age of 55.

This increase in homelessness coincides with the end of several pandemic assistance programs and inflation-driven economic pressures, which are pushing vulnerable people to the edge of homelessness.

The Point in Time results align with what we are seeing in Montgomery County. At Interfaith Works, a nonprofit serving more than 35,000 people each year, we have experienced a dramatic rise in demand for our programs, particularly among those seeking housing.

At the Interfaith Works Shelter at Progress Place in downtown Silver Spring, in just the first three quarters of our current fiscal year, we have already seen a 140% increase in people needing a place to stay compared to all of last year.

The demands go beyond our shelter programs. We also are seeing escalating numbers of people seeking out our programs offering emergency rental assistance, access to free clothing and food, and vocational services to help them achieve economic stability through better employment. It is a complex and sobering picture.

Among the influential factors is a lack of access to affordable housing, which continues to drive people to the precipice of homelessness. Rising rents and the end of pandemic-era eviction moratoria are pushing stable housing situations out of reach for many.

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In a region with many resources, we need to provide a collaborative, systemic response. First, we must commit to establishing prevention as a priority and move beyond a crisis-based approach. We should be helping individuals and families before their circumstances become an emergency and they are on the doorstep of eviction. We should strengthen lines of communication with the education, health care and criminal justice systems, which often are the first to encounter individuals and families struggling under the weight of poverty.

Additional strategies:

  • Adopting a regional approach to homelessness is more necessary than ever. Montgomery County’s Point in Time data indicated that 29% of those counted were from outside of Montgomery County. We are seeing this trend play out in our winter shelter, where up to 60% of people served are from other jurisdictions. Our teams routinely have difficulty quickly coordinating with other shelters in neighboring jurisdictions. This is a major barrier that could be overcome through collaboration, coordination and old-fashioned information-sharing like providing the right phone numbers.
  • Commit to a greater investment in diversion solutions that help people avoid homelessness. Montgomery County has invested in creative alternatives to placing people in shelter settings including rapid re-housing. These programs need to be expanded aggressively.
  • Recognize the significant needs of seniors experiencing homelessness. Interfaith Works operates two small programs in residential neighborhoods to meet the specific needs of vulnerable senior women, and we are about to open a third to serve senior men.
  • Commit to addressing medical and behavioral health needs in a low-barrier, comprehensive fashion, with early intervention and prevention in mind. People experiencing homelessness often are dealing with past traumas that manifest as behavioral health issues and anti-social behaviors that eventually can land them in the shelter environment. We also encounter people who have been overwhelmed by the financial burden of medical debt. Better access to care could prevent some instances of homelessness.
  • Acknowledge what we are facing as a community — make greater investments in nonprofit providers on the front lines operating shelters and supportive housing. Montgomery County does provide significant financial support. But the rising number of people that we and our partner providers are serving indicates a much larger investment will be required to meet the needs of this community.

Homelessness and poverty are taking a toll on our neighbors. The Point in Time count provides a specific look at the challenges of homelessness, which are part of a larger, more complex fabric of distress and struggle.

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We cannot afford to sit back and see what next year’s count brings. The time to act is now.

Courtney Hall, MSW, is the CEO of Interfaith Works, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, supportive housing, essential needs, and employment programs to over 35,000 Montgomery County residents each year. He also is a member of the Montgomery County Interagency Commission on Homelessness.

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Courtney Hall, MSW, is the CEO of Interfaith Works, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that provides emergency shelter, supportive housing, essential needs, and employment programs to over 35,000 Montgomery County residents each year. He also is a member of the Montgomery County Interagency Commission on Homelessness.