Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Homeless and shelterless -- Where Will DC's Homeless Sleep?????

Some time ago, I blogged about the news that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty might be planning to close all DC homeless shelters by 2011. (He leaves office in January of that year.) At the time, many people didn't believe that any mayor -- even Mayor Fenty -- would try something like that. Nonetheless, while I can't pin this one on him entirely, Washington, DC stands to lose over 1,300 shelter beds within a month if the budget crisis is not dealt with immediately. Homeless service providers are scrambling to save the shelters so as to avoid a repeat scenario of the 80's and 90's when many of the homeless were freezing to death in the capital of the wealthiest nation on Earth.

The deaths of homeless people in Franklin Park while a vacant government building sat across the road was the impetus for turning Franklin School into a shelter in 2002. It was abruptly closed by Mayor Fenty on September 26th, 2008. The Franklin School Shelter closure was predicated on the success of the Permanent Supportive Housing (Housing First) program which has not received any new funds for fiscal year 2010 (which actually began on October 1st). This amounts to a bait and switch.

As if that's not enough, the news came out during a human Services hearing in front of Ward 6 councilman Tommy Wells on October 5th that 6 of DC's homeless shelters -- 3 male and 3 female -- might need to shut down if they can't find sufficient funding by November 1st, right at the onset of hypothermia. These shelters provide a warm place to sleep for at least 900 men, 400 women and an unknown number of children as young as 6 months old.

The problem began when the federal government cut $11 million from its homeless services budget for DC and the city cut $900,000 in local funds. In an effort to absorb these cuts and anticipate further cuts, the Dept. of Human Services slashed 30% from the $54 million budget of The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), the organization that is contracted to provide homeless services for the District. TCP has, in turn, slashed 30% from the budgets of the several shelters which it oversees.

The shelter administration claims that so much has been cut from their budget that they can't provide the necessary amount of staff, security and wrap-around services for their clients. They want to be able to engage their homeless clients in activities that will enable them to exit homelessness, as opposed to just providing shelter. Councilman Wells was correct in asserting that, with the winter weather approaching, bare-bones shelter is more important than wrap-around services like drug rehab, job training and placement, mental health services and life skills classes. When it's cold, keeping people warm and out of the elements is top priority. However, some shelter providers are taking an all-or-nothing stance, at the expense of the homeless. They might just be playing their political cards so as to force the city to return the money that was depleted from the Human Services budget.

At the end of the day, people in need don't want to hear about political games. Neither do they want to hear anyone passing blame. It doesn't matter to them whether the problems that they are experiencing were brought on by Congress, the DC Council or the mayor. When it comes down to where the rubber meets the road, they know whether or not they have what they need. That's it. That's all.

That said, an official count by TCP revealed that DC had 6,228 homeless people in January of this year, up from 6,044 in January of 2008. With some living in their cars, on the streets or couch-surfing in the houses of different family members, about 3,000 of them will seek shelter in a city-run facility this winter. By law, the District must shelter anyone and everyone who seeks shelter when the temperature is 32 or below, including the wind-chill factor. They must also provide respite from the heat when the temperature is 95 and above, including the heat index. DC has no right to shelter if the temperature is between 33 and 94. The requirement for hypothermia shelter can be met by simply allowing the homeless to sleep in the halls of a government building that has heat.

The way things are going, it is safe to assume that the city will try to move away from providing actual shelter. I wouldn't put it past this administration to have the homeless sleep in the halls of City Hall and other government buildings throughout this winter, only to put them outside in the spring with the hopes that they'll just leave town before the winter of 2010-2011.

This speaks to the fact that the nation's capital is becoming less and less friendly to the homeless population. It is cause for action. Some will choose to seek employment, which is becoming more and more like a wild goose chase. Others will choose to stand up and fight for their rights, to be recognized and regarded as people by the powers that be and to demand comprehensive solutions to their problems.

It is to this latter group that I suggest we vie for a mayoral recall. People should commit to getting 28,000 signatures from those who want Mayor Fenty removed from office. This would force the city to have a recall vote. Then, if the majority of Washingtonians vote him out, he won't be allowed to finish his term. Even though I can't rightly blame the mayor for federal budget cuts, he's done his fair share of damage to the homeless community. Quite recently, he removed $19.2 million from the permanent Supportive Housing fund so as to put it toward what he thought were "more pressing matters". he then went to Congress to request that they replenish the fund with federal dollars. They refused. He has also closed 2 shelters -- Franklin School Men's Shelter and the DC Village Family Shelter. He is quite unpopular with the poor in general and the homeless in particular. And we outnumber the rich.

I also have a suggestion for the homeless men and women of conscience who live anywhere outside of Washington, DC. As many as are able should make their way to Washington, DC so as to make their voices heard and to overload the system. Since the local government must provide shelter during hypothermia, anyone who is aware of their rights is not in any danger. While I'd be amused to see how it would all play out, it would also help to put the homeless issue in the national spotlight. Come to DC all that will and let's demand solutions!!!!!

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