Friday, July 24, 2009

The Fate Of the CCNV and C.U.M. Shelters

Homeless people in Washington, DC and their advocates have been trying for quite some time to find out about the plans that the city and homeless service providers have for closing various shelters. It's been like pulling teeth. That's just DC politics for you. Nonetheless, people have a right to know about decisions that will directly affect them and to be involved in the decision making. After all, making the homeless feel like they matter and are part of society might help them to grow beyond homelessness. Furthermore, it makes no sense to close shelters or to decrease other human services in these tough economic times.

The CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter has been threatened with closure for years and those threats have yet to materialize. But we have reason to believe that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty might have a trick or 2 up his sleeve for closing CCNV. His predecessor couldn't close Franklin School Shelter either; but, Adrian Fenty pulled it off. The future of Central Union Mission (C.U.M.) is looking rather ominous as well after 125 years in existence. The facts are forthcoming, slowly but surely, no thanks to the Fenty administration.

The story with Central Union Mission is as such. C.U.M. is presently located at 14th and R streets in northwest DC. The mission owned property on N. Georgia Ave. in the part of town known as Petworth. They planned to move into the Petworth property and sell their present location to a developer. They were supposed to vacate the premises by October 1st of this year, with the contract having already been signed.

But, as chance would have it, the mission got NIMBY'ed (Not In My Back Yard) out of their own property by residents of the Petworth community. Central Union Mission then did a land swap with the city in which they would receive the vacant and historic Gales School worth $9 million along with $7 million for renovations from the city in exchange for their $4 million Petworth property. With the mission being religiously-based, various community activists spoke out against them making this $12 million net gain off of the government, saying that it violated separation of church and state. So, that deal fell through.

This, of course left folk to wonder about the fate of Central Union Mission. They wouldn't be moving to Petworth or Gales School. The contract had already been signed with a building contractor for their present location. And October 1st, 2009 is fast approaching. So, I e-mailed David Treadwell, the director of C.U.M. He sent a very short reply stating that they "would not be moving by November". I was left to wonder how they pulled it off. No sooner had I begun to spread the news when a resident of that shelter told me that the shelter would be closing by October of 2010. Now we need to look into that. That is the extent of my knowledge on C.U.M. at this point, though others and myself continue to dig for the truth.

CCNV is a slightly different story. Mayor Fenty (who is quite unsympathetic toward the poor and homeless but caters and kowtows to wealthy developers) has tried to close CCNV, but found that it will be harder than previously thought. The CCNV administration has told me that the mayor discussed closing the shelter with them. However, CCNV's lawyers dug up the restrictive covenant that was signed between Mitch Snyder and the Reagan Administration in 1988. This restrictive covenant states that the Federal City Shelter (which houses CCNV, 2 more shelters, DC Central Kitchen and Unity Health Care -- 5 homeless service providers) will remain a shelter until 2018. During the July 17th hearing (in which I can be seen testifying at on the right side of your screen), Clarence Carter, the director of DC Government's Dept. of Human Services (DHS), was asked about the prospect of DC Government taking over CCNV, a non-profit. Carter stated that the city is limited in what it can do to CCNV, due to this restrictive covenant. It stands to reason that the mayor and Mr. Carter were slightly chagrinned when they tried and failed to close another shelter (in addition to Franklin and the DC Village Family shelter). It serves them right.

The mere fact that the mayor even tried to close CCNV speaks to multiple issues. First of all, with him being a DC naive.....err native, he should've known about the fight that Mitch Snyder and dozens of homeless people had with the Reagan Admin. during the 80's. They squatted in the vacant Federal City College building, protested and went to jail. Mitch eventually went on a 51-day hunger strike. The doctor announced on T.V. that he might not make it through the night if he didn't resume eating. At that point, President Reagan signed the building over to the city and had it renovated and turned into a shelter. The Mitch Snyder saga has been chronicled in the film "Promises To Keep" , which Martin Sheen also participated in.

Besides that, more and more people are becoming homeless due to the economic downturn. We need a safety net. What's more is that Mayor Fenty has lost the confidence of the poor and homeless community due to his mis-handling of other shelter closures. People are worried that he will continue to close shelters more quickly than he creates supportive or affordable housing in the District.

Consider the Franklin School Shelter closure. Fenty can be seen in a February 23rd video on the right side of your screen (after my intro) discussing the Franklin School Shelter closure. He was actually at the jail promoting a job-training program. But with all of the heat he is taking for closing Franklin, he saw fit to put in a plug about that closure. He said in the video,"I closed Franklin. I housed the men that were at Franklin." He conveniently forgot a few figures. DHS housed 78 Franklin residents (and several hundred from other shelters). Franklin held over 300 men and about 1,000 different men stayed there during a 3-month period. Altogether the Permanent Supportive Housing program has housed about 450 people since it was begun last year. An official count done in January of this year indicated that DC has 6,228 homeless people, up from 6,044 last January. This result takes into account the fact that about 450 people have been housed through PSH. If it weren't for PSH, there would've been at least 6,678 homeless people in DC this year, an increase of at least 634. That said, there actually has been a 10% increase in the number of people needing shelter or housing in the District (from 6,044 homeless people in January of 2008 to 6,228 this year plus the 450 housed through PSH). While any success in housing people is appreciated and laudible, these numbers show that now is not the time for closing shelters (or decreasing any human services). The fact of the matter is that the Franklin closure was about appeasing the business community and had nothing to do with Fenty "caring" about the homeless.

Add to this the fact that the majority of those who stayed at Franklin are now at other shelters or on the street. This detracts from the mayor's credibility. The homeless who are at these other shelters see the former Franklin residents and are less inclined to believe the mayor when he says that he is going to house people. That's not to speak of the recommendations put forth by Martha Burt of the Urban Institute wherein she suggested that the mayor cut shelter capacity in half. The mayor is following her recommendations religiously, which is all the more reason to fear that many homeless people will be left out in the cold this winter.

One of the things that bothers me about our trusted intellectuals whether they are part of government or the Urban Institute is that they are often very bad at math while doing work that requires advanced math skills. Case in point: The city is often talking about "average shelter usage", when they should be talking about "peak shelter usage". For those who are not so mathematically inclined, I'll keep the numbers simple as I explain. Suppose that on one night 2 people need shelter and the following night 6 people need shelter. The average is 4. If we prepare for the average number of 4, then when 6 people need shelter, there will be a shortage of shelter space.


Finally, neither I nor any homeless advocate thinks that a person should live at a shelter, but that they should go from shelter to housing -- not from shelter to the streets or another shelter. Nonetheless, when it comes to shelter and housing, it is not an either/or type of thing, but rather a both/and type of thing. So, let us be clear as to what we're fighting for -- shelter in the immediate and housing eventually because.....

HOUSING IS A HUMAN RIGHT!!!!!

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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

NO PLACE TO GO

While I haven't yet had time to do the blog post about the planned closure of the CCNV Shelter as I promised, I wrote the following article for the STREET SENSE newspaper and decided to post it on my blog as well. Besides, more info about the closure is still forthcoming. I will write about it soon. In the meantime, I hope you find the following to be both interesting and informative.....

Sometimes it seems that the homeless have no place to go. First of all, they have no home to go to. Then, they are often chased away from storefronts or told not to sleep in certain parks. Even shelters are not immune to being made to move on. The Central Union Mission was NIMBY'ed (Not In My Back Yard) out of its very own Petworth property and won't be relocating to the Gales School as previously planned either. Now the homeless shelter itself might become homeless after 125 years in existence.

The Fenty administration is still reeling from the closure of the Franklin School Shelter and the backlash that it has caused. They are still being dragged through the courts in the case of SHEPTOCK, et al v. FENTY, et al, which is now in federal court. Franklin was one of about 5 shelters that DC Government has shut down in as many years. Rumors have been circulated for years saying that the CCNV Shelter is on the chopping block. With Adrian Fenty in office, those rumors are proving to be true. Let's not forget that, while the Williams administration tried to close Franklin and failed, Mayor Fenty pulled it off. This is all the more reason to believe that Fenty will follow through on his desire to close CCNV (and as many shelters as possible) before leaving office. He is also responsible for the closure of the DC Village Family shelter.

While Congress has lauded the mayor's efforts to move from shelters to Permanent Supportive Housing, they seem to be uninformed pertaining to the present shortage of shelter space, the lack of affordable housing, the shortcomings of the program which they praise or the fact that it has already been scaled back considerably. In the July 14th Examiner article which addressed the money which DC would receive from the Appropriations Committee, the Senate also pointed out that DC Government had redirected some of its social services funds to address "more pressing matters". For this reason, the Senate was unwilling to replenish DC's social services budget.

With the shelter closures and the decreased funding for social services, the remaining shelters are full to capacity and operating under sub-standard conditions. The Homelessness Emergency Response Workgroup, a coalition of homeless service providers, advocates and homeless people, has been formed to address the shortage of shelter space. They succeeded at arranging a hearing in front of Councilman Tommy Wells on July 17th (which hadn't happened yet when this article was written). Shelter capacity must be addressed now, as it is bound to increase during the hypothermia season. Otherwise, the homeless people will have no place to go, come winter.

As if all of this isn't enough, the homeless are now being told not to hang out in front of the CCNV shelter, even after they might've just gotten off from work. Following the death of a homeless woman on a bench in front of CCNV, the Dept. of Human Services reminded the shelter administration that the service contract stated that people would not be allowed to loiter in front of the building. They threatened to end the contract if this term were not adhered to. This is a prime example of backwards logic. In order to make sure that no more homeless people die on a bench outside of a shelter, the benches have been removed and the homeless forbidden to congregate in front of the shelter, rather than providing sufficient shelter or housing. Some of the homeless feel that the space in front of the shelter is essentially their front porch while they're staying in the shelter and that they should be allowed to congregate there. (Not many pedestrians use that particular stretch of sidewalk anyway, since the SW corner of the block faces a non-pedestrian tunnel.)

Three benches were installed in front of CCNV in early April. The contractor who had done some work inside of the building thought that he would put them there for the CCNV employees to take their breaks on. However, it was not the employees but the clients who actually used them. The contractor had also planned to plant bushes near the benches. The shelter administration was concerned that the benches would be used to drink or use drugs and that the bushes (which were never actually planted) would have served as a place to hide drugs and paraphanilia. The benches were removed on July 9th, 2 days after I photoed them with the CAUTION tape across them to prevent people from sitting on them.

There are now volunteer security personnel keeping the sidewalk in front of the shelter clear. The homeless then began congregating on the wall in front of the U.S. Dept. of Labor, which is in the next block. One would think they might be given jobs by DOL. On the contrary, they have been chased away by DOL security.

While I was allowed to use the bathroom at CCNV even prior to staying there, a couple of homeless non-residents recently told me that they were not allowed to use the bathroom. Once again, the homeless have no place to go -- in this case, to use the bathroom. That explains the messes in many of the alleys.

It is believed by many that most or all of the homeless are substance abusers. (The truth is that about one fourth of the homeless use crack.) An additional 15% drink, which is legal. People often use this substance abuse as a reason not to want a homeless shelter near them. Fact of the matter is that moving the homeless from one location to another doesn't address their substance abuse. If anything, it will just worsen the problem by giving them something else to despair over. That's not to speak of the fact that many who are not homeless use drugs but don't get caught; because, they do it in the privacy of their own homes. It stands to reason that the "open container" charge for drinking alcohol in public (while not driving) is targeted at the homeless, due to them having no place to go and drink both legally and economically. (Drinks cost 5 times as much at bars.)

Some of the homeless who have no place to go might be solving their problem by squatting in the now vacant Franklin School Shelter building. The fire alarm has gone off at least twice since the shelter was closed abruptly by Mayor Fenty on September 26th of last year, in an effort to appease the business community. A homeless man told me that he has witnessed others entering and exiting the building in recent days. This would explain why the fire alarm keeps going off. The fire dept. actually had to break into the building on July 5th in order to shut off the alarm, badly damaging one of the doors on this 140 year-old historic landmark.

I guess Franklin is the gift that just keeps on giving and the school that just keeps on teaching insomuch as It is still giving shelter to the homeless and teaching us that desperate situations call for desperate measures. The homeless are possibly squatting in the building because they have no place to go.Let's hope that the police understand and don't house the homeless in jail. Fat chance.

All of this speaks volumes to the fact that the public is terribly uninformed or misinformed as to how best to deal with the homeless issue. It is high time that they learned that shutting down a shelter doesn't remove the homeless from sight. It makes them more visible. Those who were inside of the building will now be outside and in plain view. Furthermore, doing the homeless shuffle -- moving the homeless from one part of town to another -- doesn't change their behavior or make them feel like they belong. It surely doesn't help to make them into productive citizens. Besides that, those who choose to NIMBY the homeless should bear in mind that the homeless who they are tying to get out of the neighborhood might have gotten there in the first place because they were NIMBY'ed out of yet another neighborhood. Why push your undesirables off on another neighborhood?

If that logic still doesn't work for you, then maybe the GOLDEN RULE will. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you". Few, if any, people would want to be pushed around because they are underprivileged. Even those who have no sympathy for the homeless shouldn't push off on another neighborhood those whom they wouldn't want near their own home. In any case, shuffling the homeless around town doesn't move them forward. It only serves to set them back.

As it turns out, wisdom sometimes comes in the guise of simplicity. That said, the first thing that a homeless person needs in order to rise above homelessness is a stable residence, be it a shelter or housing.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Why People Become Homeless

Lately, many people are beginning to take interest in the homeless issue. Maybe it's due to the economic downturn. Maybe it's because they realize that they're just a paycheck away from being homeless themselves. Maybe it's because they are seeing more and more homeless people on the streets of America. Then again, it might be all of the above. Regardless of the reason for their interest in the issue, It's good to see that they care. However, most people don't sufficiently understand the root causes of homelessness.

Many believe that people are homeless by choice. this is only true in few, if any, cases. Those who "choose" to be homeless are usually mentally ill. Making an irrational choice as a mentally ill person doesn't constitute true choice as far as I'm concerned.

Then there are those who believe that people become homeless due to their own missteps such as drug use, failing to pay the rent and going to jail. While this might account for some people's homelessness, there are also many legitimate reasons for becoming homeless.

(Copy and paste this informative link: http://www.nationalhomeless.org/factsheets/why.html)

The fact of the matter is that many people become homeless due to a lack of affordable housing and/or living wage. Women often become homeless while running from a violent husband. Teens often become homeless after revealing that they are gay and consequently being put out by their parents. Then there are the people who have prolonged hospital stays during which they lose their job and their house. The lack of affordable health care causes some people to have to choose between paying the doctor and paying the rent. They end up paying the doctor and defaulting on the rent.

Oftentimes those who haven't experienced homelessness yet have an erroneous vision of what a homeless person looks like. When they think of a homeless person, they think of someone who is filthy, mentally ill and digging through a sidewalk trashcan looking for food. Such people are the exception and not the rule. The fact of the matter is that most homeless people dress neatly and carry themselves rather well. I often advise people to visit a homeless shelter or soup kitchen and take a look at the people there. I tell them how that most of those whom they'll encounter are so neat and well-mannered that no one would've guessed they were homeless had they not been seen at a shelter or soup kitchen. People have stood with me in the soup kitchen as I gave my spiel and agreed with me. Some of those who you'd least expect to be homeless are. This speaks volumes to the fact that we are all "just a paycheck away from becoming homeless".

While the reasons for someone becoming homeless are easy enough to understand, understanding the reasons for prolonged homelessness might require that you use a few more brain cells. You must first understand the mental and emotional changes that a person goes through after becoming homeless. the first stage is the "why me?" stage during which the person feels sorry for him or herself. then, at phase 2, they are bound to become gung-ho about getting out of homelessness. they believe that they are going to find another job and another place within a short time frame. If a person remains homeless for longer than a month, they are likely to enter into phase 3 where they lose hope and begin to resign themselves to the notion that homelessness is just their lot in life.

That's not to speak of the fact that making friends is pretty much the only way to get by as a homeless person. It is nearly impossible to find needed homeless services without speaking to a homeless person. Some newly homeless people are unaware of shelters and soup kitchens in a city where they lived for years while housed. All of a sudden, they find themselves speaking to the homeless people that they used to ignore or even look down on. They come to find that "homeless networking" is a means of survival. They make friends in the homeless community. it stands to reason that they will never see homeless people in the same light even after they exit homelessness.

I'd be remiss if I were to fail to mention the current crisis. With the economic downturn, all of the housing foreclosures, unemployment being above 10% and there being no end in sight, even the former middle class is becoming homeless. Oddly enough, some of them have been known to say things like,"I shouldn't be homeless; I'm middle-class." They're actually in denial. They used to be middle-class. Now they're homeless. The fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is homeless families. In the Metro DC area, which includes Washington DC and the 8 surrounding counties (the Metro Washington Council of Governments -- MWCOG) there has been a 25% increase in family homelessness in the past year.

While many homeless individuals are seen as being responsible for their plight due to their own delinquent behavior, family homelessness is usually indicative of a plummeting economy. As a result of homeless families being victims of objective economic circumstances as opposed to their own behavior, they don't get the same bad rap as homeless individuals. People often tell a homeless individual to get a job. (See my previous posts about the difficulties of getting a job when homeless.) On the other hand, the general public tends to become highly emotional when they see women with children living outdoors or in a car. This can translate into political pressure as the public demands that local governments find quick fixes and get those women and children out of the elements. Ironically, governments (like the DC Government)that, in some cases, couldn't find money for shelters or housing for homeless singles can all of a sudden find the money when their political capital is at stake. After all, who would re-elect a mayor who couldn't house an innocent 5 year old?

Let's not forget that many people the world over become homeless due to natural disasters. Consider Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans or the tsunami of December 2004 which left thousands of Asians homeless. Then there are wars which displace thousands of refugees. "All roads lead to Rome". "All socio-economic problems lead to homelessness."

In conclusion, the reasons for homelessness are many. Anyone can become homeless. In spite of appearances any of the neatly-dressed people that you encounter from day to day can be homeless. With the economy being what it is at the moment, the number of homeless people is steadily growing. It, therefore, behooves the housed to befriend the homeless who they might end up sleeping next to in the very near future, while at a shelter or on the street.

Copy and paste the following video link of homeless people in DC asking for shelter. The final woman (at the 8 minute and 23 second mark) died outdoors 3 days after making the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EWbPsuT58HI

My next blog post will spell out the evidence that I have to prove that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty has plans to close the Federal City Shelter (where CCNV is located). That building (at 2nd and D streets, NW in washington, DC) has housed as many as 1,500 homeless people at one time. The building was commandeered from the Reagan administration by a group of homeless people under the leadership of Mitch Snyder in the 80's. Stay tuned.....

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