DC's Homeless Not Welcome In Downtown

The Unwelcome Homeless

In November of 2008 a Washington City Paper article indicated that the homeless are not welcome in the libraries of our nation's capital. An August 2009 New York times article addressed the criminalization of poverty nationally. Then, a September 2009 Washington Examiner article mentioned that the homeless are not welcome in the parks of Downtown Washington, DC. It's no military secret -- the homeless are America's most unwanted. What's most disturbing about this news is that our public officials are often the ones leading the charge against the homeless.

Most homeless advocates wouldn't take offense to any reasonable request, such as wanting a homeless person to be presentable and well-mannered; but the mentally ill are one of the most underserved populations in the city, often leading to some very public psychotic episodes. And many of the homeless wouldn't loiter around businesses and other public places if they had somewhere to go. But, as this most recent article pointed out, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty closed the Franklin School Shelter on September 26th, 2008 and is now shutting down the Permanent Supportive Housing Program (Housing First). Insomuch as the Franklin closure was predicated on the creation of Housing First, this amounts to a bait and switch and to dirty politics at their worst -- leaving the homeless with nowhere to go. As a matter of fact, the two parks that were pictured in the article were Franklin Park (which is right across the road from the now defunct shelter) and McPherson Park (which is one block from Franklin Park). Both business owners and tourists alike are bothered by the existence of homeless people in these locations -- the former because it "interferes" with business and the latter because they expect the poor to be treated better in the capital of the wealthiest nation in the world.

It is not just the business community around Franklin Square that wants the homeless gone. Several homeless people were put out of the food court at the One Judiciary Square government office building on September 9th, 2009 -- some having just made purchases. I just happened to be exiting the subway system nearby as they spoke to security and the cops. The homeless told me stories of abuse and of their rights having been violated. Upon further investigation, I found out that, just days earlier, the mayor had met with entrepreneurs from around Chinatown and Union Station. They asked him to do for them what he had done for the businesses of Franklin Square, by getting rid of the homeless. The mayor then gave police the order to clear the homeless out from Gallery Place/Chinatown to Union Station and the surrounding vicinity, which accounts for the incident at the food court. Oddly enough, one week later the Examiner article pointed out that the homeless are still present in Franklin Square. The mayor hadn't done what they gave him credit for doing after all.

It is not just the homeless who have fallen victim to the anti-poverty policies of the mayor. In July of this year, Mayor Fenty threatened to cut off the benefits of women receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance For Needy Families) if the mothers receiving $428/month through this program fail to seek employment. He is also slashing programs that enable those women to receive daycare for their children. Without daycare, the mothers of young children can't go to work and are left to wonder when those in government will make the connection.

Taken together, these accounts show that there is a disconnect between related government policies -- wanting mothers to work, but failing to offer them daycare for their young children, shutting down shelters and housing programs alike, having the police to enforce no-loitering policies without connecting the homeless to services that effectively address their problem. I'm left to wonder how much of this is intentional and how much is due to sheer ignorance, though neither is excusable.

Tensions continue to build between the business owners who have the mayor as their champion and the poor of DC. It is only a matter of time before things boil over into a major incident. The poor from across the city are spewing words of anger and hatred at the mayor. Protests against the Fenty administration's policies are being organized. The homeless are seriously discussing the possibility of open conflict with the police. As economic conditions continue to worsen (in spite of Bernanke's optimism), we're left to wonder just when people will reach their threshhold and unleash their wrath. As for my part, I've instructed the homeless to come out in mass whenever the police bother any one of us or violate our rights. For the moment, all we plan to do is to stand together in large numbers and hope that's enough to send a strong message that we are tired of being pushed around. Time will tell.





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