From The DC Line:
Dr. Catherine Crosland, medical director of emergency response sites at Unity Health Care, remembers an older man she used to care for — one of the first people admitted to DC’s Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Individuals, or PEP-V, in the early days of the public health emergency. Prior to being housed in a PEP-V hotel, the man “spent his life” going back and forth between the Adams Place shelter and its day center, lacking the resources to go anywhere else that was safe. He would traverse the alley separating the two buildings in his wheelchair, with a backpack containing his many medications slung across the back, she said.
The man suffered from various debilitating health conditions. A stroke survivor with congestive heart failure, he was consistently short of breath, Crosland says, with chronic swelling in his legs and feet as well as oozing, infected ulcers that refused to heal. Both his age and his health made him an obvious candidate for a city-funded private hotel room with steady access to meals as well as on-site health care and social workers — an urgent attempt to protect unhoused and medically vulnerable people from a virus that would likely kill them.
The PEP-V program, which grew to four hotels at its peak in 2021, was designed to keep individuals like Crosland’s patient out of congregate shelters and off the streets during the pandemic while providing them with wraparound care. It’s now two years old and still going strong, but faces an uncertain future. Though Crosland knows PEP-V is “not forever,” she and other advocates say some of the lessons learned during its tenure are too critical to be abandoned and should inform how the city administers homeless services and housing programs in the future.
PEP-V has helped illuminate the ways in which private, temporary housing programs — collectively known as “bridge housing” — can help people transition from shelters or the streets to permanent supportive housing, according to Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing, a homeless services provider in DC. At the beginning of the pandemic, Pathways to Housing and Unity Health Care, a community health network that operates clinics at several DC shelters, joined with DC’s Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Interagency Council on Homelessness to conceptualize and implement PEP-V.
DC’s PEP-V program has achieved a high success rate in getting people placed in permanent housing fairly quickly. As of May 24, DHS reports that 681 residents have moved into permanent housing, and 254 have been matched to a housing voucher but not yet moved into their own place.
The ARPA-originated EHV program — which has supplied DC with 707 vouchers — incentivized housing organizations, tenants and landlords alike to participate by expediting the process. Changes included loosened ID requirements as well as funding to cover security deposits and application fees, avoiding the need to help applicants find alternative sources.
Respress noted that the DC Housing Authority has worked to apply many of these innovations across voucher programs, whether an individual or family is receiving an EHV, federally funded Housing Choice voucher, or a locally funded voucher — all of which cap recipients’ contribution to their monthly rent at about 30% of their income. This allows low-income residents of cities such as DC, where housing costs are especially high, to remain stably housed.
Read The DC Line's article "DC’s pandemic-era emergency housing program offers lessons for homeless services," featuring the District of Columbia Housing Authority.