From Homeless to Homeless Advocate in Washington, D.C.

I arrived in Washington, D.C. on the night of July 31st, 2005. Having received many gifts while hitchhiking from Gainesville, Florida, I was able to board a Greyhound bus in Charlottesville, Virginia and ride the rest of the way to D.C. I'd actually come to the capital to get involved in the anti-war movement, but would soon find myself advocating for the city's homeless community.

In June of 2006, it was announced that then-mayor Anthony Williams planned to close the Franklin School Shelter, which held 240 men at the time, and to open another one which would only accommodate 120 men. He planned to allow developers to turn the historic Franklin School (built in 1869) into a "boutique hotel." About a dozen homeless men formed the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter in an effort to reverse this decision. We met with city officials, held rallies and led marches through town holding signs and banners with slogans such as "People Over Profit" and "Housing is a Human Right." (While we fought to keep the shelter open, its capacity was actually upped to 300 beds, due to an increase in demand.)

Mayor Williams' decision was reversed in January of 2007, just days after he left office, having been replaced by Adrian Fenty. While running for mayor in 2006, Councilman Fenty shook my hand and those of my fellow advocates as he promised to keep Franklin School open as a shelter. He would eventually break that promise by closing Franklin on September 26th, 2008, causing Washington, D.C.'s homeless community of more than 6,000 people to lose 300 much-needed shelter beds. (There is presently a lawsuit against the city in federal court which claims negligence on the part of city officials as well as violations of the rights of the homeless.)

To his credit, Mayor Fenty created a Permanent Supportive Housing program administered by the Department of Human Services. Like any program, PSH has its strengths and its weaknesses. Since September 2008, it has housed at least 650 people — a positive development by all standards. However, of the 240 people who were housed quickly that September in an effort to close the shelter before the onset of hypothermia season, many of them did not get sufficient wrap-around services. For all of its faults, the Permanent Supportive Housing program has actually proven to be quite helpful in getting people off of the streets that might otherwise die there.

DHS remains committed to ending homelessness in the District through PSH and other initiatives. They are not alone in this effort. While I am the only remaining member of the original Committee to Save Franklin Shelter, dozens of other homeless people have begun to advocate for our community. We have developed relationships with those in our local government and work closely with them to address the problems faced by D.C.'s homeless community. We have held panel discussions on public access television with government officials and council members in which we have discussed the most recent initiatives aimed at decreasing homelessness in the District. The D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness continues to meet with service providers and the homeless community on a bi-monthly basis to discuss our progress and to design new strategies.

D.C. still has one of the nation's highest homeless populations per capita and it remains a work in progress. Nonetheless, it is on track to become a model for other cities when it comes to comprehensively addressing the issue of homelessness. Key to the city's success is the involvement of the affected community, as the local government decides "nothing about us without us."

When I came to this city, I didn't have the faintest idea as to what it had in store for me. I began by speaking out against the wars, but ended up speaking out for the homeless. I've since become one of the best-known homeless advocates in the city — with appearances on CNN, NPR and Russian Television, just to name a few. What's more is that I now find myself part of an ever-growing and increasingly innovative effort to end homelessness in our nation's capital.

Comments

Eric Sheptock said…
This blog post was copied and pasted from Change.org, which I recently began to write for. I now have 3 blogs.

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