Tuesday, May 24, 2011

DC Homeless People march on City Hall

On April 14th, 2011, the Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations (COHHO) held its monthly meeting. We discussed the devastating impact that Mayor Vincent Gray's proposed budget cuts to Human Services for FY 2012 will have on DC's poor and homeless community. (There were about 30 people in the room of which about 5 were homeless or formerly homeless.) A formerly homeless man asked, "Who's going to tell the many poor and homeless people in DC about the cuts that are going to affect them?" In response to his question, several people said that they would remain after the meeting to plan an outreach strategy.

I secured a meeting room in the basement of the CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter and we scheduled a meeting for April 26th.(There were about 30 people in the room of which about 25 were homeless or formerly homeless.) That Tuesday we decided to meet every Monday thereafter. At the May 2nd meeting we had about 50 people present. Then something awesome happened.

During the May 6th Human Services Budget Hearing a man told me about the plans of a non-profit called Save Our Safetynet (SOS) to have a Human Services Reality Tour inside of the Wilson Building (DC City Hall) on May 18th. The plan was to have dozens of people set up displays in the building and then walk the Councilmembers and/or their staff around to each display and explain the harm that will be inflicted on the city's neediest if the displayed social service is partially or fully defunded in FY 2012. He then floated the idea of having a march from CCNV to the Wilson Building prior to the reality tour. I ran with the idea and advertised it to my 15,000 on-line contacts through Facebook, Twitter and e-mail. Various non-profits posted it on their websites. I was invited to speak about the budget crisis and planned march on WPFW 89.3 FM (Pacifica Radio). The word really got out, so much so that we weren't sure whether to expect 50 or 500 people to show up.

Word was spreading about this group of homeless people who were organizing at CCNV. On May 9th a teacher brought his social justice class to the meeting. On May 16th a free-lance writer for the Washington DC Examiner explained that she had found out about the meetings through a flier on a supermarket bulletin board. Then came the big day.

On May 18th, people began to trickle into CCNV around 9 AM. We discussed some logistics, made some signs and waited until 10:30 to see who would show up. Our small crowd of 70 or so marchers began to make its way toward City Hall only to find another 70 or so advocates there who hadn't marched. Stragglers continued to trickle in and join the demonstration. When all was said and done, there were at least 200 to 250 people by conservative estimates -- and a considerable number of them were homeless people.

The visual displays ended up sitting idle on the ground floor as the crowd moved from office to office to express their concerns to councilmembers who were in favor of cutting the Human Services budget and/or against raising taxes on the rich. We had an awesome showing of power as we pressured the DC Council into meeting our demands for continued Human Services. As if that wasn't enough, we continue to visit our city council and follow their every move. When a couple of council members who said they would vote in favor of our demands had second thoughts and withdrew their support, we were right back in their faces en masse to get them right again.

The movement of the dispossessed is growing by leaps and bounds in Washington, DC-- the belly of the beast. Various non-profits and supporters of the homeless are coming together to save Human Services. The homeless themselves are stepping up to the plate. The media is beginning to cover homelessness like never before. Shelter employees are telling residents about the developing, government-manufactured crisis and allowing myself and other homeless advocates to come in and hold meetings. As for my part, I'm organizing a group of homeless people and supporters at the CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter. We are meeting every Monday. Local radio stations are advertising our meetings and fliers are being posted in supermarkets. (So much is going on that I am having a hard time keeping up with some log-term commitments that I've had.)

What's more is that many of the homeless are becoming more socially conscious and are bringing some analysis to what they are doing. They've begun to talk about how the present mayor is like the previous one and how the Democrats are acting like Republicans. Some have gone so far as to say that the sudden loss of Human Services will spur a sharp rise in crime and might even spark a revolution. I've been advocating for the homeless for 5 years now, but have never seen such a wave of support for the homeless and other dispossessed people. Things are coming together so quickly. i'm glad to be a part of this new motion. It's been said that "There are 20 years that don't make a day; then, there's that day that makes 20 years". It seems that we're coming upon the latter.



Eric Jonathan Sheptock
Cell phone: (240) 305-5255
425 2nd St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-2003

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