Saturday, February 26, 2011

A New direction for the Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) -- and it might include affordable housing FINALLY

On February 24th, 2011 Washington, DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) had it's first bi-monthly meeting of the year. The ICH was established in 2006 and is mandated by a local law called the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005 (HSRA). It, by law, is chaired by the city administrator and includes heads of various departments of DC Government along with homeless service providers, homeless advocates and the homeless themselves. The HSRA states that there must be at least 4 meetings per year; but, the ICH has been in the habit of meeting 6 times per year. The bi-monthly meetings are open to the public and there are usually about 100 people in attendance.

Thursday's meeting was the first time this body has convened under the administration of newly-elected DC Mayor Vincent Gray. Furthermore, Councilman Tommy Wells no longer has oversight over Human Services, but has been replaced by Councilman Jim Graham in that capacity. Clarence Carter has resigned as the director of Human Services and awaits confirmation by the Arizona Senate as the director of the Department of Economic Services (DES). Deputy Director of DHS Laura Zeilinger has resigned and is now employed at the USICH as its lead regional coordinator. And Neil Albert has been replaced by Allen Y. Lew as the city administrator. That said, the city's Human Services Dept. is in flux.

It is important to note that Allen Lew has overseen large construction projects for the city which include the $850 million Walter E. Washington Convention Center and the Nationals' Stadium which cost upwards of $600 million. I came to DC in 2005, after the convention center was built. However, I was here for the construction of the National's stadium and know that it was a highly contentious issue with cost over-runs in the tens of millions of dollars and its heavy economic impact on the surrounding poor neighborhoods. In Washington, DC there is an "us vs. them" dichotomy between the rich and the poor in general. More specifically, there is a dichotomy between the homeless, rent-burdened and affordable housing advocates on the one hand and the developers and the local government which kowtows to them on the other hand. This puts Allen Lew in the hot seat, with him having been the middle-man between the city government and developers, a fact which became evident during the ICH meeting.

As has been the custom for about 2 years now, there was a homeless persons'/service providers' roundtable prior to the ICH meeting. During the roundtable, people were asked questions pertaining to how the optimum shelter would function. When asked the maximum amount of time a person should spend in shelter if the system is working properly, most people said 6 months or less. A few insisted that homeless people be given as long as they need to get it together. (I think the latter group misunderstood the question, as the facilitators wanted criteria by which to measure the effectiveness of the system, not to put any restraints on the homeless themselves.) The roundtable then descended into chaos (in my opinion), as people began to make ill-informed statements, throw forth a discombobulated hodge-podge of sometimes-irrational ideas and go off of their mentally-ill rants. (One homeless woman in particular took up most of the meeting time and the facilitator of our small group didn't know how to shut her down.)

A woman named Linda who directs a non-profit that specializes in housing the mentally-ill suggested that transitional housing be done away with. I agreed with her insomuch as it is rather ignorant to put someone in a temporary apartment so that they can await a permanent apartment and we exchanged high fives. (People are sometimes placed in transitional housing for 18 months as they await more permanent living arrangements.) However, I understand that transitional housing might be all that anyone is able to offer due to limited funding and/or the source of the funding.

The roundtable session was eventually brought back to order as the main facilitator gave both groups a final assignment. She told us that it was our job to decide how we would divide the homeless budget between 4 categories if it were up to us: affordable housing, permanent supportive housing, transitional housing and shelter. Each group was given 4 full-size sheets of paper, each with one of the 4 categories written on it. Each person was given 10 post-it notes representing $10 each for a total of $100. We were then told to distribute our post-it notes amongst the 4 sheets of paper according to how we think the homeless services budget should be divided.

I made fast work of it and divided it as such:

Affordable Housing -- $40
Permanent Supportive Housing -- $30
Transitional Housing -- $20
Shelter -- $10

If memory serves, the group as a whole felt that the budget should be divided as such:

Affordable Housing -- 22%
Permanent Supportive Housing -- 26%
Transitional Housing -- 42%
Shelter -- 10%

I was appalled to see that people wanted to put less than 40% of the available resources into the creation of affordable housing, especially since the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness in this country. But, on a more positive note, the group seems to understand that, while there is a need for shelter, the goal is to get people in their own residences -- whether said residence is affordable, supportive or transitional. The sad truth is that affordable housing initiatives don't fall within the purview of the ICH. People were reminded of this fact by the main facilitator right before the final exercise.

The facilitators emphasized that they were not asking people to discuss what needs to be improved within the existing system, but were trying to get people to think outside of the box and consider possibly revamping the entire system, in effect changing how the District delivers homeless services. I observed people having considerable difficulty following that particular instruction, as they delved right back into the usual litany of complaints about homeless services. Getting people to understand that the city is willing to try something new and what that means for how homeless services are delivered could take some time.

Immediately after the roundtable discussion, officials from DC Government and others who didn't choose to attend the roundtable entered for the actual ICH meeting. With City Administrator Allen Lew being new on the job, Fred Swan of the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) assumed control of the meeting. Various members gave committee reports as Police Chief Cathy Lanier, Dept. of Mental Health (DMH) Director Steve Baron and many others just listened. (When a complaint was raised pertaining to how the National Park police treat the homeless, Chief Lanier said she would extend another invitation to NPP in an effort to get them to send someone to future ICH meetings.) Most of the 90-minute meeting was a working meeting during which ICH-members spoke amongst themselves with others just looking on. But there were 5-10 minute public comment sessions at the beginning and end of the meeting during which the homeless and others could speak. (not counting the hour-long roundtable).

During the public comment session that followed the meeting, a homeless homeless advocate named Donald called Mr. Lew out on the fact that he had overseen some very expensive developments that were built with tax dollars and challenged him to get into the business of building affordable housing for the poor rather than only building things that benefit the well-to-do. (This idea would align perfectly with Mayor Gray's campaign promise to make DC "one city" that works for all citizens of all strata.) It was as if Donald had read my mind, as I'd decided during the meeting that I would stand up at the end and mention the need for affordable housing.

I spoke immediately after Donald and stated my agreement with him. I also pointed out that we must consider the objective realities of our economy and those whom we're trying to help. I explained that there are some people who will never make enough money to pay their own rent. I explained that there are men who've lived at the Emery Work-bed Shelter for 2 or 3 years while working, as you have to have a job to get in there, and that they didn't make enough money to pay for their own places. I then reiterated the need for affordable housing.

Then another homeless homeless advocate named Angie stood up and accused the city of maintaining homelessness rather than ending it. She said that, if they were serious about ending homelessness, they should invest in affordable housing. (Let's remember that affordable housing doesn't presently fall into the purview of the ICH.)

After the meeting was adjourned, I stated my agreement with Angie that the city does too much to maintain homelessness and not enough to end it. Linda reminded me that DC has done more than any other city in the country to end homelessness, having housed 1,300 formerly homeless people in Permanent Supportive Housing. I then explained that, while there is a city agency that deals with homelessness, I don't know of any city agency that is charged with creating affordable housing. While I commend the city for housing many of the homeless, I challenge them to create an agency that is charged with creating affordable housing and has a cabinet-level director. This is how governments show that they are serious about solving a particular problem.

As the new administration takes shape, the Inter-agency Council on Homelessness seems to be taking on a new sense of direction. The new administrators have yet to prove themselves. many questions remain to be answered. But it seems that some of the homeless homeless advocates and homeless service providers know what is needed -- affordable housing. Let's hope that their pleas don't fall on deaf ears.

NOTE: I was also able to speak with the director of the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) after the meeting. Since DCHA receives federal funding through HUD, we discussed her feelings pertaining to the federal budget cuts that are being considered by Congress. She stated that HUD landlords would receive their March payments, but that April payments were in question. Nonetheless, she is holding out hope that Congress will resolve the budget crisis by mid-March,which would leave her ample time to distribute April payments to landlords.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Don't Just Watch The Government Dispossess Us! Fight!

On Valentine's Day in Washington, D.C more than 60 people came out to the Russell Senate Building to defend affordable housing with the message "Have a heart; save our homes." With Congress and the Obama administration looking to cut the deficit on the backs of poor and working people (in effect dispossessing them), this protest brought a human face to the cuts. Demonstrators formed a picket line outside the building carrying signs that said, "Don't balance the budget on the backs of poor people" and "We the people need housing, No cuts to Section 8." The demonstration was organized by local non-profits Empower D.C. and One D.C., who joined with hundreds of tenants from about two-dozen cities for this coordinated day of action.

Because D.C. doesn't have senators, groups of people who live in Section 8 buildings in the city visited Senate offices, including that of Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. While meeting with Hill staffers, protesters demanded that the Senate commit to fully funding HUD by preventing budget cuts, expanding funding for 1 million new Section 8 housing assistance vouchers and reducing subsidies to wealthy property owners in order to pay for housing for the most vulnerable. Sen. Cardin's housing and budget legislative assistant expressed sympathy to the messages and personal stories from people who would be directly affected by budget cuts, but warned that a government shutdown and deep cuts were still a probable reality that communities across the U.S. might face.

In D.C., 5,000-10,000 low-income families who are dependent on HUD housing or public housing are facing the risk of losing their housing assistance if the 21 percent cut to the non-security discretionary spending budget is adopted by Congress. One woman said, "I'm out here to today because it took me 10 years to get a Section 8 housing voucher and I'm not just going to let them snatch it away." "I live in a senior citizens residential community and these cuts would affect my community," said an elderly protester.

Nationally, we might lose as many as 750,000 HUD units. The proposed continuing resolution would cut $5.7 billion from HUD's affordable housing program, which has a total budget of $43.5 billion. It would cut $551 million from a program that subsidizes rent checks for low-income seniors, $210 million from a similar program for poor Americans with disabilities, and eliminate housing counseling services for families battling foreclosure, making it harder for them to fight the loss of their homes.

The House Republican proposal would go so far as to cut the so-called "preservation" fund for public housing, which pays to keep buildings open while they're being repaired. Without that fund, public housing in need of repair would be shuttered, forcing residents to find somewhere else to stay in the interim. The budget proposal rolled out by the Obama administration on Tuesday would also slash certain key programs at HUD as part of a broad $1 billion in departmental cuts, including $172 million for low-income seniors and Americans with disabilities. If some of the programs targeted in the Republican proposal are eliminated, it could take years to re-implement them.

During the protest, multiple speakers (myself included), referenced the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt as an example of what protest can accomplish. As Medea Benjamin of Code Pink put it, "People's uprisings are in the air. We need to use the money for what people need, not on these wars." So, as the Obama administration and Congress begin to institute austerity measures, we need to build a strong movement that challenges politicians to cut corporate welfare and defense spending, rather than attacking low-income communities and families.

I often tell people that, no matter what the outcome is, we win. If the government saves these and other social programs, then those who receive such services won't go without. If these needed programs are cut, people are bound to become more socially conscious and might even fight for their right to survive. My guess is the latter scenario is the one that will eventually be played out. So, prepare to fight!

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Homeless Women Being Mistreated At Open Door Women's Shelter

During the media blitz that I was the subject of this past December, it was said that I stopped police harassment at a certain women's shelter. While that assertion is substantially correct, the facts are a little off. Women who stay at the Open Door Shelter were leaving at 7 AM (when the shelter closes) and buying breakfast at the food court on the first floor of the Judiciary Square government building (441 4th Street NW, Washington, DC)

Even though the food court seats 200 people easily and hardly ever has 50 or more people in it, the women were being told to leave by security -- sometimes right after they'd purchased their food. One particular cop was especially notorious for his crass manner in dealing with these women. due to my intervention, he has been re-assigned and the homeless women are able to eat in peace and stay warm in this de facto shelter -- to get the homeless 2-for-1: buy food and/or drink and also benefit from the warmth.

Well, now the mistreatment is coming from the shelter staff. Mistreatment of the homeless by the shelter staff that is entrusted with their care is nothing new in DC shelters -- not even at the Open Door Shelter which is operated by New Hope Ministries. But, the staff seems to have sunken to a new low. They are throwing out the women's bare necessities -- even their shampoo, soap and important papers.

Several weeks ago, a certain homeless woman told me that she had been ordered to downsize -- to get rid of some of her belongings. If she didn't, she risked losing her bed. She told me that open containers of shampoo, lotion and liquid soap were being confiscated from the women and thrown out.

She also explained that the rules previously stated that she could store her belongings in her locker and leave up to 2 bags on her bed when she left in the morning, but that the bags that she takes with her are now counted as the 2 bags that are allowed to be outside of her locker. Though I know this woman to be a bit of a pack rat, there is substance to her claim that the rules are being changed without staff going through the proper procedures to do so.

Any time that a shelter rule is changed, the Dept. of Human services is supposed to be notified and to O.K. the rule change. The rule is not supposed to take effect for 90 days and the shelter residents are supposed to sign a paper stating that they have been made aware of the new rule and understand it.

This morning another woman stopped me to give a more in-depth explanation of the mistreatment that is occurring in this shelter. she said, as the first one did, that open bottles of hygiene products were not being allowed, making it difficult for women to keep themselves clean. This reminds me of airport security checks for which the TSA has become infamous. But she added that she is no longer allowed to sell her discount sodas for 50 cents to residents at the shelter which has no soda machines.

Many of the women at the shelter sell Street Sense, DC's street paper about poverty and homelessness, at various intersections throughout the DC Metro area. (They buy it for 35 cents and sell it for a dollar.) However, they are being told that they may not bring papers into the shelter. This, of course, means that they must dispose of papers that they may have spent their last bit of money on if they want a bed. And so, even those who are making an effort to get it together are being held down by the shelter staff, of all people.

The woman who stopped me this morning implored me to write this blog post and inform people about how the women at Open Door are being treated. She was quite passionate as she explained that she really wanted to see this issue publicized and addressed. that said, this blog post is a promise kept, though it wasn't up by 5 PM like I had said it would be.

She also stressed the need for sensitivity training for the staff. Many of the homeless and their advocates have asked for this many times over the years. The training sessions have occurred from time to time, but to no avail. After making broad statements about the need for sensitivity among the staff, she gave an example of a particularly insensitive occurrence that took place this morning.

A certain staffer named Ms. Blackwell was seen pacing back and forth this morning telling the women repeatedly that they needed to be gone by 7 AM. She came across like a drill sergeant and seemed quite thrilled by the prospect of putting the women out into the weather, with the temperature at that time being in the 30's. Granted the hypothermia alert was called of by Ms. Blackwell's higher-ups, it would have satisfied the residents to simply hear her express remorse for having to put them out, rather than excitement.

The shelter recently got a new director named Ms. Johnson who apparently has a property at 1610 7th Street NW which is worth $750,000. It is when homeless service providers can afford such extravagant items as this that they are seen as "poverty pimps". Though the informant didn't say much about Ms. Johnson, she made it clear that Ms. Johnson doesn't seem to be the nicest person in the world.

Then there is Ann Kirby, the former director of Open Door. I've heard many complaints about her from many women over the past 2 years. She needs her own blog post in order for me to adequately explain all that she has done to hurt the women. I personally have had someone from the Dept. of Human Services go down and talk to residents about how she was treating them. At one time, the women were strongly considering circulating a petition to call for her ouster. For some strange reason, Ann Kirby's name is showing up on the write-ups that the women are receiving (for things as miniscule as having too many possessions). But Ms. Kirby hasn't set foot in the building in over a year.

Even the security was complained about. The story was told of a certain resident who, though being petite, was quite obnoxious. She was known to antagonize many people. One day she was confronted by a much larger woman who threatened her with a broom. The security guard approached as if to break up the altercation, but upon seeing who was about to be attacked, turned around and went back to her desk.

On yet another occasion, one woman picked up another and threw her into the wall. The indentation is still there, as the wall has yet to be repaired. The attacker was not jailed or prosecuted. instead, she was allowed to transfer to the John L. Young Women's shelter which is on the other end of the same building and was recently taken over by New Hope ministries, the same people that run Open Door.

And so, you can see that the homeless women at the Open Door Shelter have a long litany of complaints about the way in which the shelter is managed by the church. One would hope that those bearing the name of Christ would do better. (I guess the pedophile priests should've taught us otherwise.) Nonetheless, I will post this on facebook and Twitter. I will also send it to people in the media and in DC Government. I hope that something is done soon. Due to the relationship that I have with the women at this shelter, I'm certain that I will be told of any changes, good or bad, that occur. Let's see what happens under the new mayor, Vincent Gray.

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