Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Testimony to the UNITED NATIONS Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing

Below is my testimony to UNITED NATIONS Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, which I delivered to her along with the testimonies of several of my colleagues.

Ms. Rolnik visited Washington, DC from November 5 to November 8th and heard many testimonies concerning the need for safe and affordable housing in DC.

She visited 6 other jurisdictions in the country. DC was her seventh and final stop in the country.

I'll write about the experience and what came out of it soon.

Enjoy.....

From: Mr. Eric Jonathan sheptock,
Homeless homeless advocate
Washington, DC

To: Ms. Raquel Rolnik,
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing

Re: The Need for Emergency Shelter and Affordable Housing In Washington, DC.

I, Eric Jonathan Sheptock, would like to impress upon the UNITED NATIONS and the special rapporteur on adequate housing the fact that the capital of the wealthiest nation in the world is in dire need of both emergency shelter and affordable housing. It stands to reason that, while the creation of affordable and adequate housing is the ultimate goal of all homeless and housing advocates, a sufficient amount of emergency shelter is needed during the interim. The unfortunate truth is that, for reasons ranging from mental illness and the inherent bad choices that it brings to fear for one's safety to concern over bed bugs and other pests, there are many who choose not to sleep in shelters. Many are they who would rather take their chances on the streets. But let's not forget that there are many others who seek shelter but are turned away for lack of bed space.

Fortunately, DC Law mandates that no one be denied shelter during hypothermia, even if it means that people are allowed to sleep on a mat on the floor of a shelter. Local homeless advocates have long maintained that, in this well-renowned city, no one should be relegated to sleeping outdoors, even when it is not hypothermia season. There is only a right to shelter, according to local law, when the temperature is at or below 32 degrees (including the wind-chill factor) or it is at or above 95 degrees (including the heat index). The homeless are often put out of shelter into 33-degree weather or even thunderstorms, as the weather alerts are only temperature-based. The reasons that are most commonly cited for such policies include limited funding and the need for additional staff and/or overtime pay.

The present administration of the DC Government is placing much emphasis on the creation of housing (especially supportive housing) and very little on the creation of a sufficient amount of emergency shelter. As noble as the effort to house the homeless is, it requires much time and dedication and fails to address the immediate needs of the city's homeless. We must strike a balance between these two ideas. Those whose need for emergency shelter is not met are likely to relocate to other jurisdictions, in effect becoming the problem of these other jurisdictions and not actually ending their homelessness. this is counter-productive and makes it impossible to accurately gauge the success of our housing programs.

This past summer, Washington, DC's homeless shelters remained at or near capacity, which is highly unusual. The Ward 6 councilman, who is also the chairman on Human Services, admitted that there is insufficient shelter capacity for homeless women and families (having at least one minor child). In a strange twist of fate, a homeless woman who was living with AIDS died on a bench right in front of a homeless shelter that was full to capacity this June. Her story speaks to the ineptitude of outreach workers who should've encouraged her to enter into a program for the terminally ill as well as the shortage of shelter space and of housing for those living with HIV/AIDS. While much could be said of shelter conditions, I won't belabor this topic anymore, but will instead address the need for housing.

In January of 2009, an official count indicated that Washington, DC had 6,228 homeless people, up from 6,044 in January of 2008. This number actually includes those who've been housed by city programs, being that they are still in the system. Within that same year, there was a 25% increase in family homelessness. There is no official record of how many more people have become homeless since January of this year. It is generally understood that, while homeless singles are sometimes the cause of their homelessness, homeless families are usually victims of the bad economy.

That said, the average rent in Washington, DC is about $1,400/month. The high cost of living in our nation's capital has spawned the creation of numerous groups that are fighting for affordable housing, with very little measurable success. This on-going fight has also raised questions about how to define the word "affordable". The most widely accepted formula for affordabilty is the one which states that a person's rent or mortgage shouldn't exceed 30% of their gross income. According to this formula, a person would need to make over $4,500 per month or almost $30.00/hour to live in this city. The minimum wage is $8.25/hour, less than one third of what it would take to live here. A recent Washington times article indicated that about one-fourth of the homeless work but can't afford a place to stay. Bearing in mind that an average is a median between a high and a low figure, I'll acknowledge that there are places that rent for less than $1,000/month. However, these places are usually in poorly maintained, unsafe, crime-ridden neighborhoods where one must forgo safety in order to obtain affordable housing.

This also speaks to the issue of Permanent Supportive Housing. Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), a program for housing the city's most vulnerable and chronic homeless, was begun in this city in 2008. The program is in grave danger of being defunded, though I will say to the credit of this administration that at least 500 homeless singles and 75 families have been housed through this program.

The story is told of a certain man who remained homeless for over ten years on the streets of DC -- safely. He was housed last year by the PSH program. Within 4 days of being housed, he was beaten within an inch of his life. In September of 2009, a year after the beating, he was finally able to say, "Mommy", according to a good friend of his. I can't possibly overstate the need to connect people to safe housing and to ensure that we don't recreate the circumstances that thrust them into poverty and homelessness in the first place.

There has been a fruitless struggle for "sweat equity" in this city. Sweat equity is a policy that allows people to work on vacant buildings and to rehabilitate them and then have somewhere to live. The council of this city has not been receptive to this idea in previous council periods, with the fight having lost momentum at this point in time. as a result, many properties sit vacant and in need of repair. that's not to speak of the newer apartments and condominiums that are not being rented or bought due to lack of affordability. There are many more empty units in this city than there are homeless people.

I'd be remiss if I failed to mention an elderly woman whom I know who became homeless at the age of 87. She was evicted from the place she had rented for over 30 years, due to a condo conversion. The price of her unit more than tripled from $750.00/month to $2,400.00/month. She was evicted because she couldn't afford the new mortgage on her fixed income. Though, DC actually has laws forbidding such treatment of seniors, people often don't know their rights until it's too late.

This woman ended up going to a homeless shelter. The adjacent building caught fire and the flames damaged the roof of the church in which the shelter was located. She went to the hospital for several days due to smoke inhalation. Upon leaving the hospital, she went to a different shelter where she was pushed down and broke her hip. This mishap also took place in September of 2008 and the woman, who until last year walked without a walker, just began to walk again in september of 2009 with the aid of a walker.

As a final point of interest in my laundry list of concerns, I'd like to mention the fact that there are many irresponsible landlords in Washington, DC. Too often people pay their rent to a landlord who defaults on property payments, resulting in the property being forclosed on and the responsible tenants losing their places. This problem has long since been brought to the attention of local officials, though I'm not certain what, if anything, is being done about it.

In summary, our concerns are as follows:

1 -- The creation of affordable housing does not completely eliminate the need for emergency shelter. Furthermore, emergency shelter should protect people from ALL inclement weather, including rain.

2 -- There is a need for additional supportive housing which has sufficient wrap-around services and which is set aside for various target populations and those with special needs. (To their credit, DC Government provides this to some degree.)

3 -- There should be a concrete definition for "affordable housing" and a sufficient amount of affordable housing, such that those who work in the city can also afford to live in the city. (what they save on rent by moving to the suburbs, they pay in addition public transportation fees.)

4 -- Affordable housing should be safe. Poor neighborhoods should be patrolled as frequently and as well as affluent neighborhoods. They should also be well-lit.

5 -- Landlords should be required to properly maintain properties and should be penalized for failing to do so. Renters should be allowed to purchase a cashier's check and to withhold rent payment while properties are in disrepair.

6 -- Long-time tenants should be adequately protected during condo conversions, especially the elderly.

7 -- Landlords should be required to make people aware of their rights as tenants and should be have to make reparations when they violate a tenant's rights. The elderly and others on fixed incomes should be given special protections, which they are apprised of by the landlord.

8 -- When a supportive housing unit or complex is intended to house former substance abusers, the area should be cleaned up of all drug activity prior to opening the facility. reasonable efforts should be made not to put former addicts in neighborhoods that are plagued with illicit activity.

9 -- tenants who faithfully pay their rent should not be evicted due to delinquent payments by the landlord.

10 -- The city should be required to rehabilitate dilapidated properties that have sat vacant for at least 2 years. When they fail to do so, homeless and impoverished citizens should be given the opportunity to acquire such properties through sweat equity. Distressed rental properties and those owned by bailed-out banks should be acquired by municipalities and made available to low- and no-income people.

I hope that this testimony has proven to be insightful and useful. please feel free to contact me with further questions or concerns.

Yours ever so truly,

Eric Jonathan Sheptock
www.ericsheptock.com (blog)
425 2nd St., NW
Washington, DC 20001-2003
(240) 305-5255

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