Taking Stock of Homeless Advocacy Efforts

Many groups and organizations are advocating for Washington, DC's homeless community, with some of them consisting mainly of homeless and formerly homeless people. There's Street Sense, DC's newspaper about homelessness and poverty. Homeless people write for and sell the paper. Then there is STREATS (Striving To Reach, Educate And Transform Society)'s views on homelessness. Through STREATS the homeless have educated the public about their issue on DCTV and the internet and have done extensive correspondence with the local and federal governments on behalf of the homeless. A group of homeless people calling themselves the People For Fairness Coalition meets every Tuesday at Miriam's Kitchen to plan how they will assist the weaker among them who often don't use shelters. They take to the streets 3 times per week to deliver supplies. Let's not forget the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter (CSFS) which won its fight against former DC mayor Anthony Williams, only to see Franklin School Shelter closed by present mayor Adrian Fenty. With the help of some pro bono lawyers, we are still fighting the closure in federal court. We are also seeking to increase and improve services for the homeless.

Homeless advocacy organizations that consist mainly or entirely of "housed" people include COHHO (Coalition of Homeless and Housing Organizations), the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP), the Coalition for the Homeless (CFH) and the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH).

When one considers all that is being done to combat homelessness, they can't help but wonder why it is that the problem hasn't been solved yet. While the answer is many-faceted, the fact that DC's 10-year plan for ending homelessness didn't include any type of work program is a large part of it. This speaks volumes to the fact that the Williams administration assumed that homeless people don't want to work and, therefore, didn't write that into the plan. (The present administration should make an effort to fix this problem and to operate under a new paradigm.)

While the afforementioned problem is an operational one that falls within the purview of DC Government, the focus of this article is on a structural problem that falls outside of their purview. All of these non-government organizations are not cohesive. Each one is doing its own thing. People from these different groups and organizations often attend the same meetings. They may exchange e-mails. They might even make attempts at collaboration. But they fail to coordinate their efforts or to speak truth to power with a unified voice, as there is strength in numbers.

Greater DC Cares ( a volunteer organization) recently hosted an event called "Bridging Resources -- A Summit For DC Homeless Service Providers" during which they began efforts toward greater collaboration among providers. It was due to GDC receiving reports of case managers at shelters not being made aware of available transitional housing units and other break-downs in communication among service providers.

All in all, there is poor communication between service providers, the lack of a concerted effort by those fighting to end homelessness and a low level of involvement by the homeless in efforts that directly affect them. While it is necessary to have shelters and true that all service providers play an important role, we should continue to fight for affordable housing and that fight should be done primarily by the affected population -- the homeless. All of the pieces of the puzzle are there, but must be brought together so as to create a complete picture. Those who have worked so diligently and for so long to address issues affecting the homeless should coalesce so that everyone can reap the full benefits of our efforts.

This begs the question: Who will bring these different organizations together in a way that makes us stronger and more effective? While the answer eludes me, there are several possibilities. NLCHP has promise. They helped organize the recent visit of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, which is viewed as the official kick-off of the right-to-housing movement. Even so, some homeless advocates aren't waiting to see what others will do. A remnant of the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter, other homeless people and some concerned citizens have joined forces in an effort to create a group that can force change and connect the homeless to the vacant housing that is in need of occupants. And so, I charge all concerned citizens -- housed and homeless -- to take heart and get involved in the burgeoning movement to preserve the social safety net and to truly make housing a human right. We've only just begun!

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