Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Downtown Homeless Shelter Struggle Continues: Franklin Shelter Hearing Friday, January 30th at 9:00am in DC Superior Court

For more information:
Pete Tucker 202-365-6118
Jane Zara 202-390-2449

Former inhabitants of Franklin Shelter have sued Mayor Adrian Fenty over the abrupt closing of the only city downtown shelter this past fall. They will have a hearing on Friday, January 30th at 9:00 am in DC Superior Court, Room 517, 500 Indiana Ave., NW. www.franklinshelter.org

Plaintiffs are trying to get the city to provide shelter for those in need in the downtown DC area. Since Franklin Shelter was closed, former inhabitants of Franklin Shelter have been sent to the poorest parts of the city, lacking access to much needed medical and mental health services, with few, if any job opportunities. In addition to the loss of mental health and healthcare services, and loss of access to food and day labor opportunities, some former Franklin Shelter inhabitants also lost their possessions when the shelter was abruptly closed at 7:00am on September 26, 2008.

The closing of Franklin Shelter has forced homeless who remain downtown to sleep in the streets this winter. Mayor Fenty has used the newly implemented Permanent Supportive Housing Program as an excuse to close the shelter, but hundreds of people seeking shelter have applied for this program with little hope of ever being admitted, and the District Council slashed $5.6 million in funding for the program shortly after the shelter was closed.

Prior to the closing of Franklin Shelter, the Urban Institute reported routine over-capacity for the other existing shelters in DC. The Permanent Supportive Housing Program has only housed approximately 300 persons so far. In contrast to this small number, 13,000 single adults and 2,800 adults and children use emergency shelter in DC every year, according to a 2008 study by the Urban Institute on Public Homelessness. And 2,200 single adults were chronically homeless on a single night in January of 2008. Many of the homeless suffer from mental illness and are not being treated.

Many homeless advocates have been working to improve conditions at other shelters in the city since Franklin’s closing. They have described the situation in other shelters as uninhabitable. According to homeless advocates Kim Johnson and Pete Tucker, who have been organizing a series of meetings with the homeless about their current living situations, "The situation in other shelters is becoming worse. The New York Avenue Shelter, for instance, is a human rights violation." The closing of Franklin Shelter has caused overcrowding conditions and long lines for the other remaining shelters in DC, according to shelter inhabitants and their advocates. “Instead of working to improve the shelters, they allow them to be degraded, and then move to close them, as was the case with Franklin. At a time when the economy is tanking and homelessness is on the rise, we need to be improving our shelters, not allowing them to be further degraded, and then closed. Franklin Shelter needs to be reopened, and the other shelters need serious attention so that gross human rights abuses do not continue to be the norm" says Pete Tucker.

The Mayor has not revealed how many people have so far remained in the Supportive Housing Program, nor what, if any, accompanying services have been made accessible to participants. “While the Mayor has revealed a vulnerability index as criteria for placement in the Permanent Supportive Housing Program, there is little evidence that he has been adhered to vulnerability as a criteria for who receives housing. Former inhabitants of Franklin Shelter that appear to have severe mental illnesses remain on the streets of downtown DC without access to mental health or other badly needed facilities” says Eric Sheptock, a former Franklin Shelter inhabitant and homeless advocate.

Most Supportive Housing placements have been in the poorest sections of the city, in drug and crime-ridden neighborhoods. One participant in the fledgling Supportive Housing Program, Tommy Overton, was brutally beaten in front of his apartment this past fall after being placed in a Supportive Housing apartment in Ward 8.

It remains unclear why Franklin Shelter was closed so abruptly just prior to hypothermia season, and without any replacement shelters in the downtown area. Over $2 million dollars were spent to install new heating and cooling systems and new water heating systems just prior to its closing. Franklin Shelter is in Ward 2, where several brutal beatings of homeless persons have occurred after the closing of Franklin Shelter. Yohio Nakada, a homeless man, was found beaten to death on Christmas Eve in Ward 2 also. The Mayor and the Council remain silent about these atrocities. “Their silence sends a signal to many in the city that Mayor Fenty and the DC Council care more about how much money they can get from developers (for their campaign funds), rather than addressing the basic human needs of the people of DC” remarks Eric Sheptock.

Please join the Franklin Shelter Plaintiffs in their efforts this Friday, in front of DC Superior Courthouse. Breakfast will be served at 8:30am , prior to the hearing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Court Case To Improve Homeless Services and Create Housing -- also -- Reversing The budget Cuts

As you know, the mayor has begun a Housing First program called Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). Though it has its flaws, it is a step in the right direction. However, it is important for homeless advocates to continue to prod him to improve his program. Unfortunately, many people have stopped fighting for improvements to homeless services, most likely because they feel that the creation of Permanent Supportive Housing was enough to prove that the mayor has a genuine desire to help the homeless and that the homeless are being helped sufficiently, neither of which is true.

Let me remind you that it was Councilman Fenty who promised to keep Franklin School open as a shelter while he was running for mayor, only to close it shortly after becoming mayor. After becoming mayor, he also promised to create a downtown shelter that was half the size of Franklin Shelter while at a WIN (Washington Inter-faith Network) meeting on April 7th, 2008. In addition to breaking these and other promises, he has a campaign underway to push the homeless to the outskirts of town and to sweep the problem of homelessness under the rug. Add to this the fact that shortly after closing Franklin School Shelter, the DC Council began to cut the budgets for various social programs. The housing First Program had its $19.2 million budget slashed by at least $8 million. Then dozens of homeless advocates descended on City Hall and got DC Government to give some of it back. All things considered, he seems to have created the PSH program only to appease the public, justify the franklin closure and make sure that his campaign against the homeless was not too overt and obvious.

Not to worry. The fight continues. This Friday, January 30th, 2009, there will be a courtcase to reopen Franklin Shelter or create a replacement downtown shelter as well as to improve other homeless services. It will take place in DC Superior Court at 500 Indiana Ave. at 9 AM this Friday in Room 517.

I want you to know that the case has been expanded to include an effort to improve ALL homeless services across the city and create a sufficient amount of affordable housing. I hope to see you there.

Many of you know that a Japanese immigrant named Yoshio Nakada was brutally murdered as he slept outside on Christmas Eve. The city has been quiet on this matter, which begs the question: Do they even care? That's not to speak of the cases where several other homeless people who were sleeping outside were attacked and lived. What is the city doing to warrant against such brutal, unprovoked attacks? Come to the court hearing on Friday and confront DC Government on these and other matters.

Anyone with information about the recent death any a homeless person in DC should send that information to Jane Zara (the pro bono lawyer for Franklin School Shelter): jjzara@aol.com or to myself: ericsheptock@yahoo.com. We are especially interested in deaths that might have been caused by the abrupt and untimely Franklin closure.

On a final note, when the DC Council cut the budgets to several much-needed social programs in November, they said that they would review the DC Budget in February and see if it was feasible to return the funds that had been taken back to the respective departments. February is right around the corner. People regularly ask me when the government will resume housing people. I keep telling them that it will happen, at the soonest, in February. Unfortunately, a homeless advocate that I spoke to this morning had rather grim expectations. She believes that when the Council reviews the budget, they will decide against returning the money that they took for a rainy day fund. Even more unfortunately, I believe that she may indeed be right. We'll see what happens. Stay tuned.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

HOMELESSNESS: A Political Issue

We are just days away from inaugurating President Barack Hussein Obama. President Obama claims to be progressive, offers hope and promises to bring change (which I already have plenty of in my pocket). Fortunately for the residents of Washington, DC, he also pays attention to local issues. He has made mention of DC Public Schools in a debate with John McCain. (It stands to reason that he'd be interested in how the educational system functions, being that he has 2 school-age daughters.) While senator, President Obama also voted to give DC full voting rights. (DC is often called "the last colony" due to its representative in Congress not having full voting rights and to the inordinate amount of congressional oversight of local affairs.) Furthermore, he has sent 2 men from his senatorial office to learn about the issue of homelessness, as indicated in the previous blog post. All of this just leaves you to wonder whether he'll retain his interest in the local issues of DC or those concerns will be eclipsed by national and international issues.

Fortunately, the Obama rage rages on. People all over the nation are devising their agendas for the new president. They are developing a social consciousness and getting involved in the running of the nation (like the good people of Thailand).His transition team is, no doubt, being inundated with suggestions from the American people as to what changes he should bring to the nation. Many of those people are right here in DC. I'm one of them.

With so many of those in the periphery throwing their ideas into the center of the circle, which domestic concerns take precedence with the president remains to be seen. It is human nature to be selfish and to think that your problems are the worst problems in the world and that your concerns are the most important concerns in the world. (I know from experience that being the one that so many look up to means that you often get flooded with requests and concern.)

People become homeless for a myriad of reasons. It's been said that "All roads lead to Rome". In this particular application of this metaphor, the roads would be symbolic of the various problems and social ills of our society such as mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, condo conversions and the lack of affordable health care, a living wage or affordable housing. The "Rome" which all of these roads lead to would, of course be representative of homelessness. In lieu of the fact that so many problems can and do lead to homelessness, it behooves President Obama to focus a considerable amount of his attention on solving the problem of homelessness.

I'd venture so far as to say that he could devise a domestic policy by setting up office at a large homeless shelter and proceeding to address the issues of its residents. In so doing, he'd encounter every problem with which our nation is faced. In some cases the person would have had direct involvement and personal experience with a problem. In other instances there will have been a trickle-down effect. But, as the president begins to trace each problem presented to him by a homeless person to its roots and to solve them, he'd eventually solve every major problem with which the nation is plagued.

All of this begs the question: "When, if ever, will homelessness become a relevant political issue?". My honest opinion is that, slowly but surely, it's beginning to happen even now. The headlines are chock full of stories about tent cities popping up all over the nation and municipal governments placing families in motels to the tune of $110/day. Let's not forget the story of a 90 year old woman who shot herself (and lived) because she feared that Fannie Mae would foreclose on her house. (Fannie Mae eventually decided against foreclosing on her house.) Then there are those with skills such as doctors and lawyers who are taking unskilled jobs as waitresses and stock boys. there are former middle-class people who are joining the ranks of the homeless. Capitalism has run its course and is imploding on itself. The established system is unraveling right before our very eyes. It is like a derivative of the Indian Caste System in which you can move to a lower caste but not a higher one. The middle and upper classes are shrinking and the poor, homeless and dispossessed are swelling their ranks. It is just a matter of time before the "have-nots" have to teach the "haves" how to make do and to live without all of their creature comforts. It won't be long before the issue of homelessness takes center stage.

In the meantime, it is up to the homeless as well as the homeless advocates to keep hope alive and to make sure that the fight to end homelessness doesn't lose momentum. We must continue to confront our local, state and federal governments and to press them for solutions to the problem. Let homelessness be the spot we continually take a shot at, like a boxer just pounding away at one part of his opponent's body until it is sore bruised. Let's demand solutions to homelessness from government. After all, housing is a human right. Keep Hope alive. (She's such a pretty gal.)

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