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Editorial: Region needs a new plan to address homelessness

New data suggests that despite best efforts, the problem appears intractable

Those were pretty ugly figures that emanated last month from the Metropolitan Washingon Council of Governments (COG) on homelessness across the region.

With the exception of Fairfax County, the number of homeless counted during the annual “point-in-time” survey held in January was up in every jurisdiction across the region.

(Time will tell if Fairfax’s decline was a stand-the-test-of-time achievement or a one-year blip on the radar. We suspect it falls somewhere in the middle.)

To be fair – “fair” is our middle name here on the editorial page – some of the efforts to address homelessness across the region have been effective. And to be equally fair, many of the root causes of homelessness (mental illness, drug/alcohol abuse) are beyond the ability of local governments to control.

But the fact remains that the numbers were higher. In Arlington, for instance, where government officials have adopted the perhaps noble but unaccomplishable goal of cutting homelessness to zero by 2026 (best of luck with that), the 2024 total was the highest in a decade, with the slight silver lining that the number of those living on the streets (as opposed to in shelters), and therefore most at risk, appears to be falling.

Cynics might contend that bureaucracies (whether in the government ranks or private social-safety-net agencies) have a vested, if perhaps sometimes unconscious, bias toward NOT solving a problem, for it eliminates their raison d’être. We’re not that jaded, but this year’s regional figures represent an important reminder that the region’s broader homeless issue remains unsolved.

Whether it is, in fact, unsolvable, time alone will tell.