Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Spurned By HUD

On Tuesday, May 18th 2010, I was walking through Capitol Hill on my way to the Library of Congress when a woman who recognized me called me over. Being a fellow-activist, she invited me to attend a hearing at the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) which was to take place the very next day. I told her that I would be going to a rally with "Save Our Safety Net!" which would take place outside of the Wilson Building (City Hall) at about the same time and therefore couldn't attend the HUD hearing. She insisted and prevailed. However, I would eventually find my very first visit to the offices of HUD to be quite unwelcoming.

I arrived a few minutes before the 9:30 start time. I was directed to the security desk so that the guard could see if my name was on the roster. With it being my first time attending a hearing in a federal agency, I didn't realize that I couldn't even attend, let alone speak, if I hadn't RSVP'ed. (One may attend a DC Council hearing without signing up to attend. They are asked to sign up if they want to testify, but may speak even if they haven't signed up, though they have to wait until the end.)

I was told to have a seat and that someone would be with me. A couple of minutes later, a woman spoke to me about my situation. She said that she couldn't let me in, but would give me a copy of the legislation being discussed. While I was waiting, people continued to enter and register with security. Then, lo and behold, in came an old acquaintance named Michael Kelly. Mr. Kelly is the former director of DCHA (the District of Columbia Housing Authority) and is presently serving as general manager of New York City's Housing Authority. He was able to pull some strings and get me into the hearing.

I was given a name tag and directed toward the auditorium. After finding it, I saw that the hearing hadn't started yet and so I stepped back into the hall so as to have a look around. No sooner had I stepped into the hall when a man in a suit, whom I presumed to be a security guard, asked me where my group was, thus implying that I was supposed to remain with them and didn't have the right to venture off on my own. It began to look as though I was unwelcome and being watched closely. I was slightly baffled, with it being my first time in the building and all of my previous advocacy and activism having involved the local government. I couldn't understand what anyone here could have against me already.

Secretary Shaun Donovan made a speech and then the floor was opened for questions and comments from the audience. I waited until almost 30 minutes into the public comment period before I decided to speak. (Having only heard of the hearing the day before and having only viewed the legislation during the hearing, I wasn't prepared to ask questions at the beginning of the comment period. So, I waited and listened so as to get a feel for what was being discussed.)

I got in the line that had formed at the microphone at 11:02 AM. There were a half dozen people in front of me. Unlike the DC Council, HUD doesn't limit the time that a person has to speak. Therefore, some people were speaking for close to 10 minutes. At about 11:30, the moderator said that time was running out and that he could only take 2 more questions. At that time, I was the 3rd person in line. There was a woman standing in front of the mic as the moderator spoke, then another man and then myself. As the woman spoke, the man in front of me asked me, "Do you work with tenants?", to which I said, "Yes". He offered me his spot. Now I was the 2nd person in line and thought that I'd get my turn to speak. However, when the woman finished speaking, the moderator said, "Sorry, we're out of time." So much for 2 more questions. This also made me wonder, once again, what in the world HUD had against me.

When I was the 3rd person in line, they only had time for 2 more questions. When the 2nd person in line gave me his spot, they only had time for one more question. What's really happening????? I think that I've been spurned by HUD. But the question remains as to why. I've narrowed it down to 3 possibilities:

1 -- I was the worst-dressed person in the room with my navy blue uniform work pants and black hoody. (I'd removed my usual backwards cap.) Everyone else in the room was dressed formally.

2 -- My good.....err gangster name precedes me. (I'm known to ask challenging questions and to make tough demands on the powers that be. When it comes to me, they're the "powers that flee".)

3 -- I have a powerful but fierce aura that scares people, even those who don't know me -- especially those who don't know me.

Several people offered me their sympathy after seeing how long I stood in line, only to be denied the opportunity to speak (from 11:02 to 11:35). The moderator told me to go to the stage and speak to Assistant Secretary Sandra Brooks Henriquez (off the record, of course). I spoke to her very briefly, with that short time having been interrupted by a woman who needed a signature from her.

As I made my way to the men's room, a couple more people offered me their sympathy. As soon as i stepped back into the hall, the woman who'd originally told me that she would send me off with a copy of the legislation showed me the way out. While it may seem to be a kind gesture, it added to my perception that I was unwanted there. Once again, what does HUD have against me????? Maybe I should try to find out from Secretary Donovan.

At any rate, here are the concerns that I hurriedly mentioned to Ass't Secretary Henriquez:

1 -- In DC there is a 7-year wait,on average, for HUD housing.
2 -- The waiting list was purged last year and reduced from 60,000 to 26,000.
3 -- Even after the purge, the priority list has 10,000 people on it. So you still end up waiting years for housing after you become a priority.
4 -- Landlords are choosing one-year contracts as opposed to the 20- or 30-year contracts that they used to get with HUD.
5 -- Many landlords opt out of a HUD contract by failing to maintain the building and even by removing the sink or otherwise devaluing the property. They don't get penalized for this.
6 -- DC's AMI (area median income) is $102,000. People who make $60,000 are seeking assistance from the government and that's taking away from some of those with very low incomes.

HER ANSWERS:

To items 1 thru 3 she simply said, "It's like that nationwide, not just in DC."

To item 4 she said that HUD is initiating 20-year mandatory contracts which landlords can't opt out of.

To item 5 she said that people should take such matters to their local tenants' rights groups and local housing authority.

She also said that, if people were to bring detailed, anecdotal evidence of such practices by landlords that HUD would take action so as to rectify the situation.

To item 6 she said that HUD rules mandate that a certain percentage of funds be allocated for those with very low incomes. Therefore, DC Government assisting those who make $60,000 wouldn't decrease the amount that is spent on those with very low incomes.

While I could challenge her responses, I won't do so in this blog post, which is already quite lengthy. However, I might be able to use the mistreatment that I received at HUD to get an appointment with the secretary. That, in turn, might allow for some continued dialogue on the housing situation in DC. Let's hope.

P.S.: I sent a short message to the secretary and ass't secretary explaining my discontent and directing them to this blog. Let's see what comes of it. (I also know Clarence Carter who used to work at HUD.)

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Friday, May 14, 2010

Homelessness: A Growing Problem

On Tuesday, May 11th, DC Government held its bi-monthly Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) meeting. In attendance were department heads from the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) and the Dept. of Mental Health (DMH) as well as the chief of police and representatives of Emergency Medical Services (EMS). There were also shelter employees and other homeless service providers as well as homeless advocates, some of whom were homeless themselves.

As various committee members gave reports on their respective areas of expertise, one report stood out to me. It was that of Sue Marshall, director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) which is contracted under DHS to manage most of the city's homeless services (www.community-partnership.org). She read the results of the annual point-in-time homeless count which her agency conducts during the last week of January each year, as mandated by HUD. The report indicated that there had actually been a 5% increase in the number of homeless people in DC over the past year. (The figure has risen from 5,757 in 2007 to 6,539 in 2010 -- a 13.6% increase in 3 years.)

While the written report supposes that the 5% increase is a result of the increase in demand among families for shelter during the winter months, Ms. Marshall said that the higher number can also be attributed to improved tracking methods that have enabled TCP to find street homeless that they hadn't found during previous counts. The results were thrown into question by someone who was surprised to see that no unsheltered homeless people were found in Wards 7 and 8, the poorest of DC's 8 wards. This person's remark assumes that the number could be considerably higher.

The report also indicated that there are 4,062 persons residing in Permanent Supportive Housing. This figure can be confusing to an outsider, being that PSH was only begun in September 2008. Furthermore, during the May 11th meeting, DHS said that it predicts that it will place its thousandth person in PSH by October 1st of this year. The discrepancy lies in the fact that housing programs which were created long before Permanent Supportive Housing (proper) are retroactively referred to as PSH if their basic structure fits the mold. That said, DC has over 10,000 beds for homeless or formerly persons. In an effort to move away from a reliance on emergency shelter and toward more permanent housing, DHS and its partners have actually caused the total number of PSH units (4,062) to surpass the number of emergency shelter beds by almost one-third.

This system transformation has been the focus of the last two ICH meetings. In March, the homeless were asked during the community roundtable that precedes each ICH meeting what concerns they would have as the amount of low-barrier emergency shelter (which essentially only provides beds) is decreased and replaced with shelters that require residents to receive case management. During the May meeting, they were asked how the homeless resource centers which DHS is designing could best serve them. While the answers they gave and the emerging plans are a topic unto themselves, these structured discussions have helped to take the way in which DC Government addresses homelessness in a whole new direction.

It is important to note that DC's Dept. of Human Services took lessons from New York City's Dept. of Homeless Services, from which Robert V. Hess recently resigned as director, on how to design and administer the Permanent Supportive Housing program. In 2004, Mayor Bloomberg charged Mr. Hess with the task of reducing homelessness in the city by two-thirds. At the end of 2009, the numbers had actually gone up. This points to a trend that has been created by the poor economy and goes to show that, in spite of our best efforts to end homelessness, the objective realities of today's economy have prevailed. What's more is that New York's failed effort raises questions about the future of the city that learned from them.

And while the social safety net continues to erode with funding for various social programs being slashed, Permanent Supportive Housing and other efforts whose aim is to to end homelessness continue to be funded -- and even expanded. How long this trend will continue remains to be seen. So, let's enjoy it while it lasts and make the best of it.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

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.