Saturday, October 23, 2010

Homelessness: A "Gray" Area

Vincent Gray visited the homeless in Franklin Square Park on August 28th, 2010 in an effort to get their votes and has since gotten mine. I voted early in DC's general election, casting my ballot on Thursday, October 21st (a process that took less than 10 minutes due to their not being a line). VOTE!!!!!

In spite of me having voted for Vince Gray already, I am still quite uncertain as to what he'll do for homeless people here in the nation's capital, which begs the question: "Why, then, did I vote for him?????" Well, the short answer is that he's not Adrian Fenty. While that is definitely a good reason in and of itself, it is not wise to vote for someone only because you dislike their opponent. It is good to know what the person whom you voted for will do if elected.

I must say that I also dislike former Democratic candidate Leo Alexander due to his stance on undocumented workers (illegal immigrants). I believe that everyone should have the right to live and work here in the U.S. (with or without documentation).

After I weeded out the 2 Democratic candidates whom I definitely didn't want to vote for, Mr. Gray became my choice by process of elimination. However, as I often tell people, your responsibility doesn't end after you vote. You must stay involved and continue to make demands on your public officials. That said, Gray may ride into the mayor's seat on a wave of discontentment with the incumbent; but, if he fails to deliver, he'll be out on his ear just like Fenty in another 4 years. I, for one, plan to keep the pressure on. I'll visit his office regularly and hope to have dozens of my best friends in tow. Furthermore, if the homeless advocates and others involved in social justice are unhappy with his performance after he's been in office for a year, I personally will spearhead an effort to recall him.

Oddly enough, I've already been disappointed by Vince Gray. I attended his Ward 2 and Ward 8 town hall meetings on October 14th and 21st respectively. In each instance, I raised my hand for more than an hour during the question and answer session, only to have the person with the microphone pass me repeatedly without affording me the opportunity to speak. In both instances I was sitting near the front of the sanctuary and in plain view of the mayor-to-be. And in both instances others told me that they witnessed me being ignored and felt that I'd been wronged.

Furthermore, another homeless advocate named Robert Warren was able to ask about housing for all DC residents during the Ward 2 town hall meeting. Vince Gray maintained that it would be impossible to do, in spite of being the right thing to do. He told of a housing program in Paris and how that, when those in other parts of France heard of it, they began to flock to Paris, eventually overwhelming the program. He also mentioned the fact that DC used to have a right to shelter (1984) which had to be rescinded (1990) because of the financial burden that it put on the city. His statements came on the tail of a recent Washington Post article which highlighted the city's efforts to stop serving homeless people from outside of the District due to budgetary constraints and the economic downturn.

People at the Ward 8 meeting also mentioned concerns that were directly or indirectly related to homelessness. A man mentioned the failure of Community Connections to deliver adequate case management to those who have been placed in Permanent Supportive Housing. Vince Gray promised to consult with Sue Marshall, the director of The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness which oversees homeless services. When asked to commit to the creation of affordable housing, he mentioned that the city has lost over 100,000 units of affordable housing in recent years and stated his commitment (without any hard numbers). An advocate for childcare for working parents asked him to commit to creating funding for childcare during his first 180 days in office to which he gave a flat-out "No", refusing to make a promise he's not sure that he can keep.

Vince Gray has stated his agreement with the Fenty administration's move away from sheltering the homeless and toward permanent housing. On this matter I disagree with him. When deciding between creating shelter or housing, it is not an "either/or" situation. People need both -- shelter immediately after becoming homeless and housing some time later. Eliminating shelter in exchange for housing does more harm than good and amounts to a ploy to push the homeless out of the city. When a person becomes homeless, if they can't find shelter in Washington, DC, they are likely to go elsewhere looking for shelter, in effect becoming another mayor's problem. There have already been instances of DC residents who couldn't find shelter in the city going to stay with family in surrounding counties and then being denied housing or other homeless services in DC for "lack of residence" in the city.

We can only guess what Vincent Gray will do for DC's homeless. But we need to make sure that we don't give him a chance to fail. We need to stay on his ass and make him serve the most vulnerable citizens of his city. Let's not wonder and worry. Let's take action and make him deliver!!!!!

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Saturday, October 9, 2010

RIP Tent City. No Affordable Housing In The Foreseeable Future.

On July 10th about 100 community activists began a tent city on a vacant which is owned by DC Government (and the citizens of DC) called "Parcel 42". This action was part of a national effort to bring attention to the need for housing as a human right. Many of the participants are part of the National Right To Housing Movement.

This particular plot of land was chosen for the action so that we could highlight the broken promise of the out-going mayor Adrian Fenty to build affordable housing on this lot that has sat vacant for several years and promises to sit vacant for at least 2 more. Plans were drawn up and development slated to begin in December 2009. No ground has been broken yet and the official word is that it may be at least 2 more years before ground is finally broken on this "planned" project.

Community activists have floated ideas for interim uses such as a community garden, outdoor theatre or a recreational facility. But no one has stepped forth so as to take on the tedious tasks of gaining public support for any of the aforementioned ideas and making it happen.

Nonetheless, on September 22nd, a city official posted a sign warning that the tent city would be demolished in 2 weeks. (This is in compliance with DC law which mandates that a 14-day notice be posted warning that an encampment will be dismantled.) Fifteen days later, the city moved forward with the demolition. (I've pasted the e-mail from an eyewitness/tent city participant below.) During the 15-day grace period I made calls and sent e-mails encouraging people to retrieve their belongings and some did.

Even though the tent city lasted for 3 months, we the participants feel that the city has yet to get the message. The shutdown was generated by the complaints of some well-off residents who complained that the tent city had become a messy eyesore. That said, there was a MESSage in the "MESS" that they saw. But, sadly, people only saw that their neighborhood and property had been devalued by the presence of the tent city. This aligns with how people don't want a homeless shelter, housing for the homeless, a drug rehab center or other agencies or accommodations that help the poor brought into their communities because it will devalue their neighborhoods and property. I guess they don't understand how horrific they make people feel as they say that they don't want those people around because they'd rather that their inanimate belongings retain their value -- a value which is evidently greater than that of a human life (in THEIR eyes of course)

We plan to have other tent cities and to use new tactics as well until the DC Government and DC citizens get the MESSage. We have already begun to make plans for our next action. We will continue to be a thorn in the side of DC Government and a burr in the shoe of DC's unconcerned citizens until housing is a realized human right in this "Human Rights City". It ain't over 'til it's over!!!!!


See the pasted e-mail below:

"Arun Aguiar"
To: undisclosed-recipients

Between 8:20 and 10 this morning, a bulldozer tore down all the structures. A garbage truck carted everything marked as trash to the dump, while a separate truck carried off a whole lot of belongings deemed valuable to a storage site. New gates and locks were installed, and No Trespassing signs were hung on the fences.

A small contingent of coridal police officers, along with a genial "Chris" from the Mayor's Office, and two other unknown suits were present. However, none of the residents happened to be on site while all this was going on. I returned just when the trucks were about to take off, and in the nick of time, after being hoisted onto the truck, I retrieved intact a suitcase, tent, and knapsack that I had set aside.

Craig Keller, Team Leader of the Homeless Outreach Program at DC's Office of Homeless Services, [see contact info below] who had been to the site a couple of days ago and had cautioned Renee that the removal was imminent, supervised the separation of materials as valuable and trash. Some critically important personal belongings of mine got mistakenly sent to the dump, but Mr. Keller kindly drove me there. The garbage truck driver was alerted to await our arrival, and he tipped his load only after we reached, and I was happily able to locate what I was missing.

En route to the dump site, I left a wallet belonging to Stan with Jill, a Receptionist at Bread for the City, for her to hand over.

C'est la vie. All in a day's work. RIP, Tent City: The End of an Experiment in Outdoor Living

~ ~ ~Avatar, I'll be taking part in the anti-IMF actions Oct 7-10, with St Stephen's Church at 16th & Newton as a Convergence site

Team Leader
Homeless Outreach Program
64 New York Ave NE 4th Flr
Office of Homeless Services
Washington DC 20002
202-671-0388 main
202-841-2915 cell

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