Mother Of A Baby Born Into Homelessness Testifies Before DC Councilman

On Friday, March 11th, 2011 DC Councilman Jim Graham (Democrat -- Ward 1) held what would turn out to be one of the most heart-wrenching Human Services budget oversight hearings that I've ever attended. Stories were told of homeless mothers and their very young children being turned away from shelter with nowhere to go. One woman sat in the hearing with her month-old baby who has never slept in a crib or had a place to call home. Adding to the sadness that these stories invoke in and of themselves is the fact that this is happening in the capital of the wealthiest country on Earth, even as our government spends billions bailing out Wall Street and beginning unjust wars for which there is no end in sight.

In Washington, DC the city council holds annual budget oversight hearings for each department of the government during which they hear testimony pertaining to the performance of each department over the past 12 months. Most of the 12 counncil members (not counting the council chairman) have departments which they have oversight of. DC Councilman Tommy Wells had oversight of Human Services until January 1st, 2011, after which the new chairman decided to rotate the oversight committees, giving oversight of the Human Services Committee to Councilman Jim Graham.

As it turns out, the Department of Human Services and a complex network of inter-connected agencies are all in flux right, due to a rocky mayoral transition and the departure of several key administrators. But while the wealth of the nation fails to even trickle down to the poor, the lack of organization amongst those charged with caring for the most vulnerable and needy among us flows down to the poor in overwhelming torrents.

Those who testified included homeless and formerly homeless people as well as service providers. People gave testimonies of how certain programs have helped them and implored the councilman to ensure that there would be continued funding for these programs which included Interim Disability Assistance (IDA), the Sasha Bruce House (for homeless youth) and Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). Others exposed problems with the system. A soft-spoken lawyer from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH) suggested that, since DC Government's Dept. of Human Services devises a winter plan each year and the purpose of that plan is to prevent weather-related deaths, they should also keep records of weather-related deaths as a way of gauging their level of success [or failure].

At least one impending problem which the District government failed to foresee was raised. The La Casa Shelter which formerly served DC's Hispanic homeless community in the Columbia Heights neighborhood (Ward 1) was closed on October 15th, 2010, causing the homeless in that part of town to go to the Hermano Pedro Shelter about 4 blocks (.4 miles) away. In addition to Hermano Pedro now being over-crowded, it is only a seasonal shelter which will close at the end of hypothermia season (March 31st of the last freezing night, whichever comes last). La Casa, on the other hand, was a year-round shelter. That said, the year-round shelter is closed; and, the seasonal shelter which people moved to will soon close, leaving them with nowhere to go (in Jim Graham's ward anyway).

As is the case with government all too often, what was once thought to be a solution has now become the problem. In response to complaints about the DC Village Family Shelter, the administration of former DC mayor Adrian Fenty closed the shelter and instituted the System Transformation Initiative (STI) a program which housed about 170 families. (This is similar to how his administration closed the Franklin School Shelter in 2008, right after beginning the PSH program.) Now the government claims that it doesn't have enough money to keep funding STI and is "transforming" the System Transformation Initiative into STEAP (Short-Term Exit Assistance Program).

Whereas STI previously had no time limit, STEAP will pay all of a homeless family's rent for the first month and then incrementally, over the course of a year, decrease the percentage of rent that they pay. the program will cease to pay the family's rent after a year. In lieu of this fact, families are screened for the program and may only receive its services if is highly probable that they will become fully self-sufficient within a year. However, it is not very likely that a family's monthly income will increase by more than $1,000 over the course of a year, which means that most participants are being set up to fail. It was said during the hearing that many families are deciding against participating in the STEAP program because they feel that they will end up back in shelter in a year or less and would much rather stay put for that reason.

But they would prove to be the lucky ones insomuch as they are presently in shelter and the smart ones insomuch as they knew enough to stay there rather than enter a more tenuous situation. Others would prove to be less fortunate -- much less fortunate.

Four young mothers with children ranging from one month to five years old came, under the direction of lawyers from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, to give their heart-felt accounts of how they and their children were turned away by the shelter system with nowhere to go. One mother cried as she explained how that she, with her 3 children -- ages 5, 3 and less than a year-old -- in tow, was told by an employee of the Virginia Williams Family Intake Center that there were no shelter spaces for them and was then given bus tokens so that she could ride the city bus all night with her children in order to stay warm. Other mothers also attested to being given bus tokens so that they could use the bus as a de facto shelter.

More than one of them gave account of how they'd applied for shelter at the Virginia Williams Family Intake Center during the third trimester of pregnancy and were told that there was no space available for them. They continued by explaining that they returned after giving birth, only to be told the same thing. The mother of a baby born on February 10th, 2011 explained that she has slept in the stairwell of an apartment building that had no security while holding her newborn in her arms. When Councilman Graham asked if the baby has ever slept in a bed, she motioned toward the bassinet which she had come upon and explained that that was the closest her newborn had come to a bed [or crib].

The councilman became indignant and broke with usual procedure by calling the interim director of the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) to the witness table to give immediate account of why these young mothers and their children were not being helped. With Deborah Carroll having been on the job for less than a month, all she could do was promise to investigate the matter. She was then directed by the councilman to step into the hall and tend to the situations of these several mothers and their children immediately, which she did. Councilman Graham explained that the city is not so broke that they can't care for the dire situations of these several families. He expressed total frustration with the Virginia Williams Center for not having a more energetic response to the situations of these women or a greater level of compassion, concern and initiative. I so pleased withhis response that I complimented his passion as I began my testimony.

So, at least 4 of the more than 500 homeless families that are on DC's waiting list for emergency shelter got the help that they needed that day. Whether or not this will translate into a more positive and sustainable "system transformation" remains to be seen. We can only hope. At any rate, testifying before Councilman jim Graham has proven to be an effective, if not preferred, form of casework.


Anonymous said…
Bringing policymakers, politicians, the clergy and others who are in positions to make a difference is a great strategy. Many people do not understand the challenges facing homeless people and people living in poverty. In this climate of rising prices, increasing unemployment, homelessness and hopelessness right here in the nation's capitol, and terrible catastrophes around the world; now is the time to make a "full court press" for change. Bringing real people with real needs face to face with people who can make a difference is a marvelous strategy. It is time to stand up and begin to be "our brothers keepers". Thank you for being a voice calling out in the wilderness and being a voice for the voiceless. Your labor is not in vain.

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