Washington, D.C. Expands Rental Assistance and Hotel Sheltering as COVID-19 Cases Rise

As COVID-19 cases rise throughout the country, Washington D.C.’s Department of Human Services (DHS), under the leadership of Mayor Muriel Bowser, is expanding its Pandemic Emergency Program for Highly Vulnerable Individuals (PEP-V). PEP-V provides hotel accommodations for individuals experiencing homelessness who are at a greater risk for severe health complications from the virus that causes COVID-19, such as those who are elderly or those with prior medical conditions. The recent expansion of the PEP-V program adds 115 hotel rooms bringing the total number to 417. Mayor Bowser also announced a new $10 million investment for Housing Stabilization Grants and an additional $4 million for the Coronavirus Housing Assistance Program.

Hotel Sheltering

DHS opened its first PEP-V site shortly after the public health emergency was declared in March, then more sites in July and October. According to DHS, the goal of the PEP-V program is to protect individuals most at risk of a COVID-related illness by using hotel rooms to reduce exposure to the virus. Every person receives a rapid COVID-19 test to ensure they are negative before moving to a PEP-V site. If the test result is positive, they are moved to a separate hotel reserved for isolation and quarantine. During their temporary stay, PEP-V guests have access to housing case managers, on-site primary health care and behavioral health services.

PEP-V guests are asked to meet with housing case managers weekly to develop a plan for permanent housing. For those needing assistance with bathing, toileting, dressing and other activities of daily living, clinicians provide connections to home health aides and other wrap-around health care for support during and after their PEP-V stay.

Since March, 488 people have stayed in hotels under this program and, as of November 20, 246 people were connected with permanent housing programs and 66 people exited to housing. In May, D.C. adjusted its system for coordinated entry to support connection to housing resources for people in PEP-V.

“In alignment with guidance provided by the CDC and local public health experts, the District has deployed multiple strategies to prevent COVID-19 exposure and care for those that contract the virus,” says Laura Zeilinger, Director of DHS. “Our emergency response actions have been inclusive and proactively taken into account the needs of residents who do not have a safe, stable place to call home. This has been possible through close partnership with our healthcare, shelter, and outreach providers and the leadership of our Continuum of Care. PEP-V has been a critical intervention in our COVID-response for a subset of residents with the highest risk factors.

The need for hotel accommodations is expected to increase as winter approaches. Currently, DHS plans to place 120 individuals a week through November and December. At this time, approximately 300 individuals have been referred to PEP-V by a homeless shelter, homeless outreach provider, or hospital, and approved by a clinician for PEP-V placement. DHS does not limit the amount of time an individual can stay in the PEP-V program, and the average length of stay has been 123 days. To expand the capacity of the program, DHS has adopted practices from other jurisdictions and introduced double occupancy, except in situations where medical considerations would make a roommate situation problematic. Some PEP-V clients have expressed some trepidation at double occupancy and to address the concern, DHS provides 30 days' notice to clients expected to have a roommate so they can discuss with a case manager their preferences and potentially accommodate requests to not have a roommate.

In addition to the PEP-V program, DHS created three Isolation and Quarantine (ISAQ) sites earlier this year. ISAQ sites are for individuals who are exposed to the coronavirus or have tested positive for COVID and cannot isolate safely, such as those who rely on shelters. At its peak, ISAQ sites provided shelter for 360 individuals with 267 coming from shelters or who were unsheltered. As of the time of this article’s publication, one ISAQ site remains open. 89 people are currently residing at this site, with 63 of those individuals experiencing homelessness.  

While the program has had a positive impact in limiting the spread of coronavirus among the District’s homeless neighbors, the operation of ISAQ and PEP-V sites are not without concerns. Early in the pandemic, communications challenges around how to access these sites, the ability to leave and come back to the site and how individuals in ISAQ sites fared were present. Individuals have also reported not being given information on the number of COVID cases in different shelters or if they have been exposed. DHS takes these concerns seriously and has improved communication to clients, homeless shelters and the community at large to clarify the difference between ISAQ and PEP-V, including the admission route to each and what individuals should expect during their stay.

D.C. housing advocates support the program and hope to see a continued response to housing insecurity and homelessness. “We support D.C.'s use of the PEP-V program to lessen COVID-19 transmission among community members experiencing homelessness,” said Miriam’s Kitchen Advocate and Organizer, Jesse Rabinowitz. “Housing is essential for our collective health and this is doubly true for our neighbors living without housing. We strongly encourage DHS to continue to expand PEP-V to ensure all those who qualify are able to access safe, socially distant shelter. Finally, we must remember that shelter, while important in the short-term does not end homelessness. As such, we implore Mayor Bowser and the DC Council to increase funding for housing to end homelessness. Clients in PEP-V have been matched to housing vouchers quickly and efficiently. It is our hope that DC continues at this pace until all our neighbors have the housing they need to thrive.”

The D.C. Department of Health conducts contact tracing for every positive COVID-19 case, notifies individuals (including those residing in shelter) if they were a close contact with a positive case, and then partners with DHS to transfer the exposed individual to an ISAQ site to quarantine and isolate. DHS staff routinely visit homeless shelters to share information about PEP-V, and DHS facilitates a bi-weekly call to keep the community abreast of DHS’s modified operations during the public health emergency, which include status updates on ISAQ and PEP-V.

With winter approaching, and cases rising across the country, housing advocates and government officials continue their work to find safe and creative solutions to ensure individuals experiencing homelessness are protected from being exposed to both coronavirus and the weather. D.C.’s attempt to move away from congregate sheltering is encouraging and hopefully other localities will follow suit.

Rental Assistance

The District has also recently expanded their rental assistance programs. Mayor Bowser announced a new $10 million investment in Housing Stabilization Grants which will utilize CARES Act funds to cover rent arrears which have accrued between April 1, 2020 and November 30, 2020. The Housing Stabilization Grants program will pay up to 80 percent of the rent arrears, or up to $2,000 in assistance, with the requirement that the landlord forgive the remainder of the arrearages as well as any late fees, accrued interest, or penalties. Two groups of housing providers are eligible for assistance: 1) housing providers who fall within the District’s portfolio of income restricted affordable housing projects which are financed by the Housing Production Trust Fund, Low Income Housing Tax Credits, or other local and federal affordable housing subsidies; and 2) small housing providers who own 20 units or fewer. 

The director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, Polly Donaldson, said that this program will help tenants stay in their homes and is a response, in part, to small landlords who petitioned the city for the ability to apply for assistance on behalf of their tenants. However, the application window is short. Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis from December 1 until close of business on December 11.

In addition to the new Housing Stability Grants, Mayor Bowser announced that an additional $4 million in CARES Act Community Development Block Grant Funds (CDBG) will be directed to the District’s Coronavirus Housing Assistance Program (CHAP). This additional allocation will bring the program’s total to $10.2 million and, starting in January, will allow landlords to apply for assistance on behalf of their tenants. CHAP is an income targeted rental assistance program and allows for tenants who earn 80 percent of the Median Family Income.

For more information on the Housing Provider Rental Assistance funds, visit: https://coronavirus.dc.gov/rent