DC Homeless Get A Reprieve From The Mayor And Realize Their Power

Reposted for Facebook viewers

I've made the rare move of doing 2 blog posts in 1 day. Please see the REVISED post below this one if you haven't already.

In a previous post I described the tenuous situation created by recent cuts to DC Government's Homeless Services budget. The loss of $12 million almost resulted in the closure of 6 homeless shelters which serve 900 men, 400 women and 600 children.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) is contracted under DC Government to provide homeless services to the District. Catholic Charities is subcontracted under TCP to provide the majority of the homeless services. This enabled Catholic Charities to do a power play on DC Government. So, when they heard that the budgets for all DC homeless shelters would be cut by 30%, Catholic Charities said "All or nothing. If we can't provide a robust array of services that include substance abuse counseling, employment services and life skills training, then we'll shut down our operations altogether."

Within 3 days, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty found $11 million to replenish the Homeless Services budget. As much as Fenty and I don't get along, I must say this much in his defense -- that it was actually the federal government that cut $11 million from its Homeless Services budget for DC and the District had only cut $900,000 in local funding. thus, Fenty was replacing depleted federal funding with local dollars. He is actually not the culprit this time around, though that is not true in a number of other situations.

-- During an October 14th Human Services hearing, DC Councilman Tommy Wells dug into DHS Director Clarence Carter about $13 million that is unaccounted for. I'm left to wonder how much the mayor has to do with that. That's not to speak of the fact that he has closed 2 shelters since taking office and that the Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) program (which the Franklin School Shelter closure was predicated on) has now been defunded. This amounts to a bait and switch. --

In spite of the afforementioned missteps by the Fenty administration, the oness for this latest situation belongs primarily to the feds. I commend Fenty for finding the funding to keep the shelters open, especially since the cold weather has begun to set in. Many of the homeless who I tell this story to respond with,"He had the money all of the time. He just didn't want to help anyone." No matter how you slice it and irrespective of his motives, he came through.

That said, I agree with other homeless people who believe that DC Government was actually scared of what would've happened if the budget cuts hadn't been restored. There was the distinct possibility of people (including small children) freezing to death. In addition to the immediate concern that people might lose their lives, there is the damage that this would have done to the mayor's political career. It's bad enough for adults to die unnecessarily. But people aren't likely to re-elect a mayor who allows hundreds of small children to be put out into the cold -- and, God forbid, die out there.

As if that's not enough, the homeless have discussed the prospect of breaking the law as they would've gone into "Survival Mode". They would've done anything to stay alive. there would've been people breaking into vacant apartments and condos. Then, since there is no power, they'd've been setting fires indoors to stay warm. This would inevitably lead to a spike in arson cases. There would've been riots and people stealing arms full of merchandise and unabashedly walking out of the stores with it, while daring the management to try to stop them. The unrest of scores of people who don't know how they're going to survive for lack of shelter would've been too much for the mayor to contain. We the homeless think that he knew this full well and therefore made the right choice. Congrats, Fenty.

In my conversations with the homeless, we've also discussed how that we shouldn't be assuaged by the fact that the shelters, and thus, people's lives were saved for the winter. After all, DC Government is liable to splurge more than 5-month's worth of Homeless Services funding on the 5 months of hypothermia season. Then they will speak of budget shortfalls and use this as a pretext for closing shelters in the spring, in hopes that the homeless will leave town before the winter of 2010-2011 sets in. We've already begun to prepare mentally for the spring fight. besides, we don't just want indefinite shelter, but rather solutions to homelessness. The successful fight for shelter has only emboldened people to fight for real solutions to homelessness now.

Our victories include much more than the mere retention of shelter for the winter. We've taught DC Government a valuable lesson as well. Councilman Wells who is also the chairman for the Committee on Human Services stated during the October 14th hearing that he now realizes that the baseline (minimum) budget for Homeless Services is $50 million and that we should never try to go below that again. this speaks volumes to what the homeless and their advocates have been saying repeatedly for quite some time now -- that, during hard economic times, we must preserve the social safety net. Let's hope that DC Government remembers this for the ages to come, as institutional memory is known to be quite bad.

In summary, the federal budget cuts led to a proposed cut in homeless services. This led to a power play by catholic charities as they threatened to close much-needed shelters. The mayor and the DC Council were actually afraid of the negative prospects that this presented, including hypothermia deaths and a major backlash from the community as well as a spike in crime. The homeless have learned that they can indeed put the mayor's back against the wall with the threat of unrest -- what's more is that we never even stated a threat; he just had to think about it. Now the funding has been restored, the Councilman has stated a lesson learned and the homeless have been enboldened to fight on. It's a win, win, win situation.


Anonymous said…
I just read a great suggestion for helping the homeless as the winter months approach.

You can cheaply and easily buy hand warmers at ski shops and then hand them out to the homeless during the cold nights.

Eric Sheptock said…
Thanks, Diane. Actually, many people already do that. It's definitely a good idea.

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