What is work???
It's a simple but profound question. Some might even say it's a stupid question. However, with 2017 marking 30 years since Ronald Reagan was forced by Homeless Advocate Mitch Snyder and others to begin "working" on ending and preventing homelessness, it's a very relevant question. Let's add to our list of considerations the fact that DC Government began "working" on ending homelessness in 2004 and that various advocates -- including but not limited to Yours Truly -- have been "working" on getting the local government officials who are charged with ending homelessness to implement a plan that actually "works".
Before I address the definitions for "work" or the justifications for describing what any of the aforementioned groups do as "work", I'll lay out a few goals for my "work" as a homeless advocate.
GOAL 1: With there being a strong possibly that the May 10th-15th publication of results from Washington, DC's January 2017 Homeless Point-in-Time Enumeration will reveal that we had over 9,000 homeless people, it is my goal to inject this fact and the conceivable possibility of us reaching 10,000 homeless people in 2018 (in a city of 680,000 people) into the public's and the advocacy community's discourse around homelessness, poverty, social services and affordability -- to get folk talking, not only about the small percentage of homeless people who were housed, but also about the ever-increasing number of homeless people who likely won't be housed by the current five-year plan called "Homeward DC". We can then hold this over Mayor Muriel Bowser's head as something she'd better address since she wants to be re-elected in September 2018.
GOAL 2: With large advocacy events and protests being planned between now and the end of May 2017, it is my goal to get the advocacy and activism communities to define or redefine success (past, present and future) -- for ourselves, for elected officials and for the various departments and agencies of government (especially those whose job it is to serve the poor and reduce poverty).
GOAL 3: At the DC ICH's (inter-agency Council on Homelessness') next quarterly meeting in June it is my goal to ensure that, unlike the June 2014 meeting (which followed a May announcement of a 13%, 889-person, one-year increase to 7,748 homeless people), we actually discuss the reasons for the (yet-to-be-determined but highly-likely) increase -- that we force a new culture upon the ICH and that this culture includes having the hard conversations about the decades-long failures of six-figure earners who live off of taxpayer dollars even more so than the poor whom they are appointed to serve.
GOAL 4: With DC Mayor Muriel Bowser having justifiably blamed the 1,052-person increase from January 2015 (when she took office) to January 2016 on her predecessor's draconian shelter policies versus her own policies bringing needy people out of the woodwork; and, with it being highly unlikely that Ms. Bowser will break the pattern of the last three sitting mayors losing their re-election bids (in 2006, 2010 and 2014), it is my goal to get all who advocate locally for the city's poor and dispossessed to develop a narrative that forces results WITHIN and DURING an administration -- as opposed to merely expressing our displeasure at the ballot box in the September 2018 DC primary (our de facto election in this Democratic town) and thereby puts immense pressure of the current administration to perform.
GOAL 5: With me having seen 75-85 homeless people at a time attend advocacy events in late-2006 (right before we counted 5,757 homeless people) and it being hard to get even five homeless people to any such event now (after an adjusted 2016 census of 8,680 homeless people); and, with other homeless advocates sharing my sense that the DC ICH has become very top-down and elitist, it is my goal to create a space and/or set of circumstances that encourage the poor and homeless to come out and speak truth to power -- no matter how much those in power don't want to hear that truth.
You might say that those are lofty goals. I prefer to think of them as "Gansta Goals" that resurrect the aggressive edge that advocacy once had and needs again. After all, we've known for a long time that "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will". This much is clear: I've got my "work" cut out for me. I don't think it's as hard as it might seem. After all, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come; and, the opposition to Trump's policies -- some of which hurt the poor -- is on the upswing. Furthermore, I've made many connections during my advocacy which began in mid-June 2006. In many instances, it's just a matter of building on the relationships I already have and the work we've already done. That said, the aforementioned goals are not out of reach.
It would seem that the Reverend David Bowers agrees with my sense of what's possible, though he might be adverse to the more aggressive goals of mine. He was one of several speakers at the March 18th, 2017 Housing For All Rally which is held annually and where an address is given by the DC mayor. Having "worked" for over 20 years thus far to create and preserve affordable housing even as the city loses it at an alarming rate, Rev. Bowers gave an impassioned mini-sermon in which he railed against the $200M that an advocacy community which is both too polite toward government and too conservative in their ask, in my personal opinion, is requesting of the local administration for Fiscal Year 2018. He insisted that we need $5B to end homelessness. (DC has a $13B annual budget with $3B of that coming from Congress.) He spoke of the DC Council's "rainy day fund" as he poured water on himself and exclaimed that the city's poor are experiencing a lot of rainy days while city officials fail to dip into the rainy day fund. He made it clear that, while the "work" of himself and others has definitely helped many, the problems of homelessness and of being rent-burdened are swallowing more victims at a faster rate than they can be helped. It's safe to assume that he believes that our efforts aren't "working" quickly enough. I agree.
When I was honored by the DC Council on November 18th, 2014 and they declared December 31st, 2014 (which is the date by which the failed 10-year plan should have ended homelessness in the city) to be Eric Jonathan Sheptock Day in the District of Columbia, I thought about the accomplishments of myself and my colleagues. With us having gotten city officials to convene a nine-month task force from October 2013 to July 2014 during which we discussed the future of the CCNV Homeless Shelter and then to pass a law that all but guarantees that its residents will receive adequate service in the foreseeable future and in the event of a closure, I had a sense of accomplishment. Then there was the passive-aggressiveness of the ICH when I began to inquire in late 2015 about the mayor's plans for the shelter. After much pestering by me, four staffers from DC Government's Department of Human Services (DHS) came out to CCNV on April 27th, 2016 and spoke to some residents about current needs and the absence of a plan to close the shelter. (Residents firmly believe that, when a nearby 2.2M sq. ft., $1.3B construction project is completed as early as 2023, the shelter will be history.) As I now approach my eleventh anniversary as a homeless advocate, I spend much time thinking about what little has been accomplished by us pro bono advocates during the Bowser administration and how the wheels of gentrification are turning with ever-increasing speed. I'm hungry for measurable and collective success and smarting over ways for those of us who are "working" to cure various social ills can change our tactics and force results -- thus the list of goals.
Speaking of goals, it would seem that, while homelessness is said to be going down nationally and DC homelessness is on the rise, that one would conclude that the local government's plan is not "working" while the federal government's is. But both conclusions have been called into question -- the feds' because their policies often discourage the needy from seeking assistance, thereby creating a false sense of accomplishment, and DC's because they are likely doing exactly what they intend to do by gentrifying the poor out at a faster rate than they create supports for them. While the local administration as a whole is geared toward attracting the well-to-do, the fact remains that they are living a farce by maintaining a contingent of personnel who purport to be "working" on ending homelessness. I've listened to ICH member agencies across multiple mayoral administrations say that they lacked the authority to create the affordable housing that is needed in order to solve the problem that they are hired to solve -- most recently ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt during the March 15th, 2017 DHS hearing before Councilwoman Brianne Nadeau. None has earned my respect like Leslie Steen who was given the impossible mandate by former mayor Adrian Fenty to direct an affordable housing task force without having any subpoena power whereby to bring all pertinent agencies together. She resigned a year later. She knew that the circumstances under which she was expected to function wouldn't "work".
Still, there's much to be said for those who remain and stick it out, even though they know that the odds are stacked against them. If we didn't have people like DHS Director Laura Zeilinger to stay the course, then we might have considerably more than the 9,000 homeless people than we presumably have at this juncture. In like manner, if we didn't have the many paid advocates and especially the few pro bono advocates, then we might have fewer rights or services for the city's poor and homeless community than we currently have. So, while it sometimes seems like we're just spinning our wheels and go nowhere fast, I don't want to even imagine where we'd be without those of us who refuse to quit. Even so, there's a big difference between persevering and succeeding. We actually want our efforts to "work" and to render results.
I often think about the words of former Councilman Jim Graham when I asked him to look into whether or not a then-two-year old day shelter for women was rendering any results (by assisting the women at exiting homelessness). He said to me, "Eric, if you make any investment, you're going to get SOME results. The question is how much". It is with that thought in mind that I've concluded that the slowly-increasing successes of those working to end homelessness are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the total group of needy people which is growing at lightning speed. If those in government who are part of the farce that supposedly aims to decrease homelessness or any of the advocates who are trying to do the same realize that we are getting further and further behind the ball, it is incumbent upon us to step back, regroup and change our tactics. If we fail to do that and continue with our failing tactics, there is a point at which we can no longer be said to be "working". After all, "work" is defined as:
- 1: activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something:a : sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or resultb : the labor, task, or duty that is one's accustomed means of livelihoodc : a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity
- 2a : energy expended by natural phenomenab : the result of such energy sand dunes are the work of sea and windc : the transference of energy that is produced by the motion of the point of application of a force and is measured by multiplying the force and the displacement of its point of application in the line of action
- 3a : something that results from a particular manner or method of working, operating, or devising careful police work clever camera workb : something that results from the use or fashioning of a particular material porcelain work