By: Haleigh Francis
With the number of homeless individuals in Washington, D.C. now totaling over 7,500, shelters and advocacy organizations are more important than ever. The D.C. Coalition For the Homeless is one of these organizations. Run by a team headed by Executive Director Michael Ferrell, it is one of many advocacy groups that work to rectify the issue of homelessness in the District.
Michael Ferrell has spent a significant portion of his life dedicated to the cause of homelessness. He has worked in the field, helping to provide services to poverty-stricken individuals and those debilitated by living without a place to call home, for the past 35 years.
It was 1980 when he first got involved. He was introduced to the issue by a non-profit organization called the Council of Churches of Greater Washington, where he began working with the problems of poverty and homelessness.
In 1989, Ferrell got involved with the D.C. Coalition For the Homeless. He’s been the CEO and Executive Director since 1996.
The organization’s goal is to help those in need, and those who have few other options. It targets both homeless and at-risk individuals, helping them to become more self-sufficient, and ultimately to secure a permanent housing situation. The DCCFH serves more than 500 individuals and families in D.C.
“We do that by providing an array of supportive services, which include employment placement assistance, housing placement assistance, substance abuse counseling, and general case management services that are all targeted towards helping people to stabilize themselves in their particular situations,” said Ferrell.
Substance abuse counselling is a crucial element to the organization. Substance abuse problems can be huge roadblocks for those already disadvantaged by homelessness. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration estimated in 2010 that on any given night, up to 34.7% of sheltered homeless individuals nationwide had a substance abuse problem.
“Persons with substance abuse problems, often times they need stability with respect to their abusing substances, whether they’re drugs or alcohol, and so they need some time – some clean time, if you will – before they can move on to become more independent and self-sufficient, and live independently again,” Ferrell said.
There are important differences between homeless individuals – those living on their own – and homeless families. Ferrell and the Coalition target both groups with the services provided. Homeless individuals have an average age in the mid-40’s. The heads of households of homeless families are typically under the age of 30, Ferrell explained.
“To be a little bit more specific, within the District during the last year, approximately 48% of the homeless families were headed by a single female who was between the age of 18-24,” said Ferrell.
In the past three decades, Ferrell has seen homelessness caused by many of the same recurring issues: substance abuse (which especially impacts single men), mental illness and general economic difficulties, including unemployment. What changes on a regular basis of every five or so years, however, is the age group that is mainly being impacted.
“At this particular time, as I noted earlier, the age range for homeless families has gone down. And so that 18-24-year-old group is really important, because in many cases, these are young women who have not had a lease in their names,” Ferrell explained.
“They have always lived with someone else, whether that’s a parent, or a friend or a guardian, and so they’ve never been a lease holder.”
What’s also changed in recent years is affordable housing. Finding homes for homeless people and families has always been a struggle for the District. However today, versus ten years ago, Ferrell explained, there is simply a smaller supply of affordable housing units for low-income individuals and families.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (who set out a plan to end homelessness in D.C. by 2025) has approached the problem with the solution of giving full funding to Rapid-Rehousing and the Local Rent Supplement. These programs help bridge the gap in price between what low-income families can afford, and the costs of rent or homeownership.
Young people living in poverty and homelessness is another huge problem in D.C. As Ferrell explained, many young women are the heads of families. The challenges that they face, in addition to oftentimes not ever having had a lease in their name, are immense.
“When you start looking at the cause-and-effect relationships, more likely than not you’re going to find that the young woman became pregnant while she was in high school, or junior high school, and never completed high school. And so that certainly is a major contributory factor, the fact that having children prior to completing high school certainly makes life more challenging,” said Ferrell.
Many of these families are on public assistance, which indicates in general that they have an average income of less than $6,000 per year.
The D.C. Coalition For the Homeless and the 11 programs it encompasses seek to target the main sources of homelessness and reach as many disadvantaged people and families as possible. The organization’s vision encompasses what Ferrell and his colleagues seek to accomplish in the field: “Rebuilding lives through the elimination of homelessness.”