Monday, August 23, 2010

The Exit Strategy Is Endorsed By DC's Congresswoman, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton

The Exit Strategy

The saga that began with a homeless man photographing Michelle Obama with his camera phone and led to homeless advocates at STREATS working with the U.S. Dept. of Labor and DC Government's Dept. of Human Services to create a job-training program for DC's homeless community continues. In May STREATS and DHS filed paperwork with DOL in order to get funding for the "Exit Strategy". a program that would train the higher-functioning homeless people to do jobs that pay a living wage so that they wouldn't need to depend on the government for anything -- not food stamps, rental assistance or any other government assistance. However, the paperwork was filed too close to the end of DOL's budgetary funding cycle, which means that now we must wait until the next fiscal year to be funded by DOL.

STREATS recently met with Clarence Carter, the director of DC's Dept.an Services, to discuss the development of this program and other funding options including the distinct possibility of funding from DHS. However, one of the basic rules of funding is that a program must be designed according to the preferences of those providing the funding. On the one hand, if the Exit Strategy were funded by the federal government, STREATS would have to do what is known in the homeless advocacy community as "creaming" -- helping those who are easiest to help, who have the least issues and who are most likely to succeed. This would mean that the program wouldn't help anyone with mental illness, physical impairments or chemical dependency. On the other hand, if the Exit Strategy were funded by DHS, we would have to do some "silting" -- helping those who are hardest to help i.e. those who have the aforementioned problems of mental illness, physical impairments and chemical dependency.

Under the leadership of Director Carter DHS has done much silting. They've had a policy of focusing on the "most vulnerable" homeless so as to get them in housing and connect them to much-needed services -- not jobs. This ambitious goal is admirable and serves an important purpose. Nonetheless, DC's homeless shelters are chock full of able-bodied, able-minded people who just need a little help getting back on their feet. These people complain to me often about being ignored by the system. When asked about the prospects of DHS shifting its focus from the most vulnerable to the least vulnerable homeless, Mr. Carter was adamant about continuing to deliver the same level of service to those who are most vulnerable.

Mr. Carter said that he would definitely not fund a program that only accepted homeless people who had no other issues but might fund a program that accepts any homeless person who wants to work. That said, we are now making plans to incorporate the Exit Strategy at DC's Emery "Work" Shelter where the primary requirement for entry is that a person is working a steady job. As it turns out, many residents have been at Emery for a considerable amount of time; because, their jobs don't pay a living wage and often pay minimum wage, thus making it impossible for them to exit homelessness. If (and when) all goes well, the Exit Strategy will retrain some residents to do higher-paying jobs and help others to find higher-paying jobs in their present field of work.

On August 19th, some members of STREATS met with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, DC's congresswoman, to gain her support for the program. It was a sure sell insomuch as Ms. Norton heads the Commission On Black Men And Boys -- a program which deals with the challenges faced by this particular group. On August 10th, she hosted a panel discussion at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library which addressed the challenges being faced by Black men as they seek employment in today's job market.During our 15-minute meeting, she agreed that there is much overlap in what her commission and STREATS are doing in that a disproportionate number of homeless people are Black men. She expressed her support for our effort and has offered to send a letter of support to people in DC Government and the U.S. Dept. of Labor.

So, the Exit Strategy has gained the support of the U.S. Dept. of Labor, DC Dept. of Human Services, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and, most importantly, the homeless community. However, that won't prevent it from falling prey to the ravages of the present economy. With so many people being laid off, we're left to wonder who, if anyone, is hiring these days. That's not to speak of the fact that an employer promising to hire someone who is in job-training is almost unheard of in Washington, DC. As it stands, the Exit Strategy -- a program being developed for the most part by homeless and formerly homeless people -- is a few months and one funding cycle away from becoming a reality.

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Friday, August 6, 2010

The Ups And Downs Of Being A Homeless Homeless Advocate (A Status Update)

It's not often that I do a blog post about my personal situation. However, many people have said or insinuated that they wanted to know how I am doing. Therefore, I've decided to oblige. But not before addressing issues pertaining to homeless advocacy as a whole first.

As indicated in the post that precedes this one, it is still extremely difficult to get local politicians to commit to the production and preservation of public and affordable housing. This means that many people who have lived much of their lives in Washington, DC are being priced out of the District. And while the Dept. of Human Services is quite willing to help the "most vulnerable" homeless people, there is very little political will to help the "higher-functioning" homeless. This can result in those who just need a little help to get back on their feet instead remaining in shelter and just stagnating there. All in all, you need to be wealthy or totally incapacitated to remain in this city. Everyone who is between those two extremes -- those who work for less than a living wage -- is being pushed out.

Howbeit, some of those who are falling prey to these and other government policies are beginning to organize -- locally and nationally. While the activity around the tent city at 7th and R streets has slowed down, people remain concerned and involved. As a matter of fact, I am about to call meeting to discuss recent developments. (The deputy mayor has posted a large banner at the site announcing the fact that there will be a construction project beginning there soon.) As for national efforts that I'm involved in, there will be a local meeting of those who attended the U.S. Social Forum this Saturday (August 7th) at Plymouth United Church of Christ from 11AM to 3 PM. Hopefully, I will be able to reconnect with the national Right To Housing Movement soon, as local issues have usurped all of my time lately/

So, I do have my hands full. There's never a dull moment. The fact of the matter is that I am sometimes overwhelmed with how much there is to do. As J.C. said, "The harvest is plentiful; but, the laborers are few".

As you read about my advocacy efforts, bear in mind that I am a "homeless homeless advocate". When someone is homeless, everything takes longer. When I get up in the morning, I have to walk about 150 ft. to the bathroom. (Most people's houses aren't quite that big.) Then, as I prepare to shower, I might have to wait for someone to exit the gang shower, though not often and never for long. (In the homeless community, the shower line is the shortest line you'll need to stand in.) By the time that I return to my locker, my bunky might be awake and I might need to wait for him to move so that I can get to my locker and put away my towel and dirty clothes. Then, if I don't have enough funds to ride the public transportation, I walk four miles to Thrive DC to eat breakfast. (Most people walk a few feet from the bedroom to the kitchen and don't need to ride the bus or subway to eat breakfast.) I might arrive there anywhere between 8:30 and 9:15 AM. By the time I finish breakfast, it may be 10:30. (The food line is the longest line that the homeless stand in, rivaled only by the check-in line at the shelter.) On Thursdays I wash my clothes at Thrive DC, which means that I might not leave until 11:30. Then, if I don't have money for the subway, I walk five miles southeastward to the Library Congress, passing the shelter where I stay along the way. While there, I can access the internet and charge my cell phone, after which I only have a 15-minute walk back to the shelter to eat dinner at 5 PM (which I don't always eat and which is often not worth the trip when I do). My evening activities from 5 PM to midnight vary. Nonetheless, I've begun to show you how it is that, when you are homeless, everything takes longer.

In addition to the usual rigors of the homeless lifestyle, I have a few problems that are all my own. My most recent problems include having my check and my identity stolen. (Who would've ever figured that a homeless person would have such problems?) A $100 check that I received for some of my writing was intercepted (possibly at the shelter mail room) and cashed at Bank of America. The day after I found that out, my bank (Wachovia) said that they had received a notice from Bank of America which indicated that I might be involved in some fraudulent activity and that they were forcing me to close my account. Upon further investigation, I was able to conclude that someone had stolen my identity and committed fraud in my name. The facts are still forthcoming. I'm just left to wonder why anyone would steal crumbs from a homeless man instead of finding a well-off person to try and victimize. (Of course, it would still be wrong, but a more conceivable wrong.) I guess they are a shelter resident who knew that I had some money coming and got what they could out of me, no matter how small the amount.

When it comes to which one qualifies as the worst of my woes, it's a toss-up between not being romantically involved and not having access to a good computer. I mentioned earlier how that, when you're homeless, everything takes longer. Well, that is especially true when it comes to computer access. I actually have to run all over town in order to do everything that I need to do on a computer:

At the Library of Congress, the computers haven't been replaced since 2000. I can use them as long as I need to (4, 5 even 6 hours on end). However, they have very high security settings so that I can't make attachments on them and can't open most types of attachments. They are always malfunctioning. Sometimes I have to try 4 or 5 computers before I can find one that will print. But, when I do, I can print for free. Oftentimes it's nearly impossible to find one that will access the internet and perform other basic functions of a computer. However, I can walk into the Library of Congress at any given moment and find an available computer.

At the DC Public Libraries, I have to sign up and get in the queue in order to get a 70-minute session on the computer. If I'm not there at opening time, I might need to wait an hour or 2 to log on. Or I can wait about 10-15 minutes for a 15-minute computer, get very little accomplished and then get back in line for another 15 minutes. At DC Public Libraries I must pay 15 cents per page to print. But, their computers can make and open any and all types of attachments.

I can't access Youtube at the Library of Congress or DC Public Libraries due to their failure to upgrade their browsers. This means that I miss out on any important news that is sent to me in video form.

You can only imagine the frustration that I experience with computers. I spend many-a-day just fussing and cussing at the computer(s). That's not to speak of the fact that, when the computers at L of C are working, they are oftentimes very slow. There are days that it takes me 5 hours or more to do what I should be able to do in 2 hours.

So, there you have it. I'm busy fighting the good fight with no end in sight. I'm dealing with more than my fair share of frustrations and personal problems. But I'm committed to the cause nonetheless. Some time ago, I was explaining to Steve Thomas (Better Believe Steve) that I remain committed to the cause, in part, due to many homeless people looking up to me to come through for them. He corrected me by saying, "No, Eric, they 'depend' on you." Regardless of which explanation works for you, I can't bring myself to just walk away from the job that I've taken on -- in spite of the low pay. I'm in it to win it.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

How The City Might Shut Down The Tent City @ 7th And R Streets NW (Unless We Stop Them)

The tent city at the intersection of 7th, R and Rhode Island in northwest DC is over 3 weeks old now. Many people are surprised to see that it hasn't been shut down by the city yet. It is firmly believed that Mayor Fenty doesn't want the images of protesters being arrested for defending their human right to housing plastered all over people's T.V. screens and that that may be the reason for the longevity of the camp. Let's bear in mind that he is fighting for his political life and that such images could be his political death knell. Some of us were actually anticipating getting arrested and that may still be a prospect.

On the evening of July 30th, a DC Government employee named Pat Handy stopped by the tent city. She works for DC Government's Dept. of Human Services as the Homeless Outreach Manager. She is the troubleshooter for various homeless services. She managed the process on September 10th, 2008, as Franklin School Shelter residents were made to sign papers stating that they knew about the impending closure of Franklin. (Some people stood in the check-in line for 5 hours that night.) She managed the process the next morning as 50 or so Franklin residents were placed quickly (and in some cases haphazardly) in Permanent Supportive Housing. She was the one who was called to tell the homeless people at 14th and NY Ave. that they couldn't sleep on the 14th street side of the building anymore (right after a homeless person was seen on T.V. testifying against Fenty and his administration). And now she might be the one to close the tent city. However that is not a clearly cut-and-dry determination.

Pat stopped by the tent city on her motor scooter around 9:30 PM. She explained that she had seen the tent city while on her way to U Street and decided to stop in on her return trip. She asked me why we were there and I explained that it was in protest to Mayor Fenty's broken promise to build affordable housing there. She called someone on her cell phone, though I don't know who. She then said,"I hope they don't send me to close this down".

Pat explained the process that would occur if she were to shut down the tent city: If someone in the neighborhood complains about the tent city, then Pat will be contacted. She would then post a 14-day notice at the tent city. On the 14th day, she would return with the Dept. of Public Works and have them to tear down and dispose of everything.

Pat Handy also explained to me that, so long as the tent city seems to be nothing more than a "homeless encampment", it is her duty to shut it down. However, if the tent city is categorized as a "political action", it is no longer her job to deal with it. (My guess is that responsibility for dealing with the "protesters" goes to the Special Operations division of the Metropolitan Police Dept.) This just goes to show how classist our government is -- how it is that they divide people into different classes and then bestow different levels of privilege and punishment upon them, in effect using a double (...or triple...or quadruple...) standard. That said, it behooves us to remain "political" insomuch as that seems to be buying us time. (Even those who are there merely due to being homeless and needing a place to sleep can gain -- in more ways than one -- by posing as political protesters.)

One of the things that stands out to me is the fact that someone in the neighborhood has to complain. On the one hand, the city could lie and say that someone complained. This would give them the pretext that they need to move in and shut it down. On the other hand, we could make friends with the neighborhood, gain their support and have them alongside us to protest the closure on the 14th day.

Then there is the 14-day notice. That gives us plenty of time to contact the media and to have people who want to retrieve their belongings come and do so. It also gives us time to mobilize people to protest and to call Fenty on the carpet about his broken promises, his failure to meet with his poorer constituents and his failure to provide a sufficient amount of affordable housing as well as other needs of the not-so-well-off community.

Those of us who have been involved over the past 3 weeks and during the planning phase have discussed our demands on the Fenty administration which include an interim use for the land while we wait for construction to begin on the promised 94 units of affordable housing. The ideas include an eco-village and a community garden. Some of us plan to reach out to the Shaw community to get their input on what the interim use for Parcel 42 should be. This process should be expedited due to this most recent development.

I'd like to remind you of the fact that the tent city is run by donations. There are a few homeless people staying there. But those of us who are confronting the mayor about his broken promises remain involved (with me fitting into both groups). Donations have gone toward the purchase of water, ice, food and hardware. Feel free to call or e-mail me for info on how to donate. Cell: (240) 305-5255. E-mail: ericsheptock@yahoo.com .

My Meeting With The Mayor:

On the morning of Monday, August 2nd at 10:45 AM there was a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Watha T. Daniels Public Library which is across the street diagonally from the Tent City. There were over 100 people in attendance -- among them: Mayor Fenty, Council Chairman Vincent Gray and Councilmen Harry "Tommy" Thomas, Jr.(Ward 5); Jim Graham (Ward 1) and Jack Evans (Ward 2 -- where the library and tent city are). Coincidentally, the podium from which they each spoke was positioned so that it was facing the tent city -- which was a victory in and of itself. It was impossible for them not to notice their poorer constituents now -- if only for a short time.

After the ceremony I was able to waylay the mayor as several of my fellow-tent city/affordable housing supporters and others who wanted to speak to the mayor stood nearby. I told him that ONE DC (the organization that began the tent city) still wanted him to keep his 2007 promise to put 94 units of affordable housing on Parcel 42 and that the affordability rate should be tiered so that people who make 25 to 50% of the AMI (Area Median Income) can live there. I told him that the original plan called for 110 units of affordable housing and then was lowered to 94 units and then to 54 units. I also told him that, most recently, I'd been told that he nixed the plans for affordable housing and planned to build condos there. I asked him if that was true, to which he said, "No." I asked Fenty if he was still committed to putting affordable housing there, to which he said,"Yes". I pointed northward across R Street to the Lincoln Westmoreland II Apts. which are presently HUD housing and told him that they are about to go co-op, thus leaving the public housing stock. Then I pointed northeastward at the tent city and told him that he broke his promise to put affordable housing there -- that the Shaw neighborhood would lose a large number of public housing units as well as the promised affordable housing, to which he said, "No promises were broken".

Aside from his aforementioned pat answers, Mr. Fenty just looked at me with a grim look as I spoke. He then said, "I've answered all of your questions and now I need to speak to others." I refuted,"No you didn't" and asked,"When are they going to begin construction on the affordable housing?" Fenty told me to speak to the project manager for further details. I told him that ONE DC and others still wanted to meet with him and that our one-on-one conversation doesn't count as the meeting that we've been asking for. With that, he moved on and began to speak to the others who were gathered around him.

I didn't leave that conversation with any more information than I had going into it. Nonetheless, the mayor was confronted about the need for affordable housing one more time. But, most importantly, the impoverished community of our nation's capital is one step closer to realizing that the government (at any level -- federal, state or local) is not going to be there for them and that they must look in another direction for relief from their state of destitution -- revolution.

In closing, I must say that we haven't lost this fight and we won't so long as we stand our ground. In lieu of the mayor's apparent character flaws, immoral decisions and spurning of the poor, we are bound to garner much support for our cause. So let's continue to fight the good fight.

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On a lighter note, DC renters have won a long-fought battle to level the playing field in landlord-tenant court -- where landlords always win. DC now has Housing Conditions Court which is presided over by Judge Melvin R. Wright. Presently, HCC only convenes on Mondays at 9 AM. The court has only been functional since May 28th, 2010. Judge Wright is looking for community input pertaining to the needs of tenants and for help from concerned citizens to get the word out about the HCC. His office can be reached at: (202) 879-8336.


PRESS RELEASE: CIVIL RIGHTS BATTLE FOR DC’S HOMELESS CONTINUES IN FEDERAL COURT

Wednesday August 4th at 9:00 am
US District Court for D.C., 333 Constitution Ave., NW in Courtroom 16

Contacts: George Rickman (202) 723-3955
Jane Zara (202) 390-2449

Plaintiffs from Franklin Shelter will have a hearing on Wednesday, August 4th, concerning pending allegations of Fair Housing Act,
American with Disabilities Act & DC Human Rights Act violations. The need for this case to move forward increases daily. The most recent
point in time study released by Metro Washington Area Council of Governments indicates continued increases in the numbers of homeless
persons in the District of Columbia.

And while these numbers have increased, the availability of shelter space and permanent supportive
housing has remained stagnant and does not to begin to address the rising need. The result can be seen in a commensurate increase in the
number of unsheltered homeless-persons living on the street by 176 persons as detailed in the same MCOG report. Other reports and
anecdotal accounts not only confirm this statistical picture, but also reveal circumstances more injurious to the health and safety of greater
numbers of homeless persons than are indicated in the report.

Recent newspaper accounts report overcrowding at the District’s one family shelter, leaving some families with children either on the
street or living in uninhabitable conditions. The conditions and the numbers at the men’s shelters, while not widely reported, paint a
similar picture. Not only are the men forced to live in overcrowded conditions, for those who choose to stay at one of the city run
shelters, but care-providers report many who are displaced and estranged from the needed services. It is widely known that persons who
cannot provide a fixed address cannot obtain services from a service
provider.

An appeal on behalf of plaintiffs was argued in the DCCA and submitted to a panel of that Court on April 1, 2010. No opinion has been rendered by that Court,
and there is no basis to believe that the DCCA will render any opinion in the near future. There are no rules governing the
promptness with which the DCCA addresses matters before it, and there is nothing to suggest that they view this case with same urgency that
plaintiffs now face.

Homelessness itself is a degrading circumstance that often leaves emotional scars. “Living on the streets,” as some refer to the
unsheltered homeless, exacerbates these circumstances, and in and of itself, causes or worsens already debilitating mental illness. By not
providing ready access to much needed mental health services, physical treatment, and psycho-social counseling, the District not only violates
federal law, but also denies persons the basic human dignity owed to all members of our community.

After months if not years of promises, the District’s homeless remain in a precarious state either going to jail for minor offenses only to
return to the same circumstances that led to their arrest, or to wander the streets. Indeed, as plaintiffs spell out in their complaint by
removing persons from areas where much needed services are available the District defendants violate provisions of the Fair Housing Act, the
Americans with Disabilities Act, the D.C. Human Rights Act, and the United States Constitution.

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