Thursday, September 15, 2011

Obama Fails To Address Homeless Crisis While at Kitchen

On Saturday, September 10, President Obama and his daughters paid a visit to DC Central Kitchen located in the basement of the Federal City Shelter which is right on the edge of Capitol Hill. The kitchen feeds 5,000 of the many impoverished, socio-economically disadvantaged people in our nation's capital every day. And it was a grand event indeed. While many were excited about the fact that our commander-in-chief would take time out of his busy schedule to visit those who are overlooked all too often in our society, others were a bit more analytical of the situation and less apt to praise him.

The excitement began on the night of September 9th when the Secret Service came out to survey the building, making sure that it was safe, planning their route and choosing places to post their officers and snipers. The next morning, as the homeless left the building which sleeps up to 1,350 homeless people (one-fifth of DC's homeless population) in 3 separate shelters and also houses the kitchen and a free health clinic, they immediately noticed an increased police presence. Those who hadn't already heard about the president's visit thought that a crime might've been committed. Then the Secret Service showed up, had the shelter security set up an additional baggage checkpoint and posted themselves all around the building. Not long thereafter, we all knew what the deal was -- almost all of us anyway.

I had planned to go to the Library of Congress so as to take care of some of my on-line business like blogging, e-mailing and Facebooking but changed plans immediately upon hearing about Obama's planned arrival. We'd received word that the president would arrive around 9 AM; but, he didn't actually arrive until 1 PM (a Secret Service move by all means, meant to thwart any violent plans that some people might have). But the disappointments didn't end there.

With the White House being just over a mile west of the shelter, people positioned themselves to view his motorcade as it came eastward on E Street and entered the parking lot which is behind the shelter and from which the kitchen can be accessed. However, the motorcade took a different route and approached the shelter from the east. Then, to add insult to injury, the 10 motorcycle cops pulled in front of the crowd that was trying to watch the motorcade enter the parking lot, thus obstructing our view. (I videotaped it all on my iPod.)

As a short YouTube video would soon reveal, the president put on an apron and began preparing food at DC Central Kitchen. In the video he can be heard commending the work they do. As he did his thing inside for 45 minutes, I hung around outside and made it a point to guess which way he would leave. I guessed right and got much better footage of him leaving than I did of him coming. That said, some people felt like he "looked better going than coming". And, while I join the president in praising the kitchen for helping to put a dent in the hunger problem, I am also empathetic toward those who feel that he has failed the homeless.

To his credit, I must say that the Obama Administration saw the pasage of the HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing) which the president signed on May 20th, 2009, a mere 4 months after taking office. The HEARTH Act is designed to decrease homelessness nationwide by comprehensively addressing its various causes. After its passage, it was handed off to HUD (the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development) to be implemented. HUD has been dragging its feet and the HEARTH Act has yet to do anyone any good.

While HUD is struggling to implement a law that was passed 2 and a half years ago, Congress promises to make their struggle a lot more difficult by cutting their funding for Fiscal Year 2012 by $5.7 Billion. The final word on the funding could come as late as mid-November. It has been estimated that such a cut would force HUD to destroy 600,000 of its housing choice vouchers, displacing 1.5 to 2 million people nationwide. DC has over 11,000 housing choice vouchers and might lose 5,000 of them, displacing some 12,000 people and adding to the city's present homeless population which is just shy of 7,000.

As it turns out, Washington, DC is neither a state nor located within one. That said, we get cut 2 ways on the funding. By not having states' rights, there are certain taxes that DC is not allowed to levy. And we aren't allowed to install toll roads. On top of that, we get less federal money than we would if we were a state. Add to this the fact that DC has more homeless people per square foot than any city in the nation and you can begin to see where I'm going with this. (For comparison: DC has 600,000 people and 7,000 are homeless; while, Chicago has 3 million people and 6,000 are homeless.)

So, the impending cuts to HUD promise to hurt this city in a way that is beyond words. When 12,000 individuals lose their housing choice vouchers right before (or during) winter, that will create a humanitarian crisis. But DC Law requires that anyone who presents needing shelter when it is 32 degrees or below (including the windchill factor) must be accommodated. They can not be denied shelter and lack of funding is not an excuse. This increased need will cause the city to spend whatever it needs to in order to keep people warm. Then, in the spring, they'll re-assess the budget, determine how much they have left for the latter half of the fiscal year (April 1st to September 30th) and begin cutting programs and services. The city has operated year-round shelter, even though it is only required to shelter people 5 months out of the year, but threatens to scale back to the bare minimum every time they experience budget woes. They'll make good on their threat one of these budget cycles. I'd venture to guess that it'll be the next one.

This brings us to the issue of the annual budget fight. Every budget season the DC Council tries to make cuts to much-needed social service programs. And every year advocates for the poor and homeless as well as the poor and homeless themselves come out of the woodwork to fight those cuts. During the FY 2012 budget cycle that ended on early-June 2011, the council stated that there was a projected $20.5 million budget shortfall for homeless services in the coming year. They threatened to close all city-run shelters on April 1st (or after the last freezing night, whichever comes last) and to re-open them in November 2012. After we put enough public pressure on them, they found $17 million for shelter (while taking $18.4 million from the fund that creates affordable housing -- an assenine move, to say the least). We thought that the shelters were saved (and lamented the loss of funding for affordable housing). However, if the homeless population increases exponentially during hypothermia season, that will offset our gains in shelter funding and resurrect our fight to save the shelter (and create affordable housing).

And the trouble doesn't end there. Any parent who is homeless with a child will have the child taken away and put up for adoption. One might think that the government would take the money that it spends on adoption and put that toward housing the biological parent and their child(ren). But they'd much rather break-up families. Sad.

All of this brings us back to the issue of the president's visit to DC Central kitchen which is located in the basement of what may very well be the largest homeless shelter in the country. Why didn't he say anything about his plan for ending homelessness? It only took him 2 years and 8 months of being in office to ride the 1 mile or so from the White House to the shelter which sits right on the edge of Capitol Hill and then he totally ignored the elephant in the room -- the national homeless crisis! Still, that's more than I can say for the U.S. Department of Labor. Their building is right across the road from this ginormous shelter and they've yet to walk over and see what they can do to employ its residents. As we say here, "In DC, everything is political". Sadly, that includes helping the needy to obtain the most basic necessities of life.

Eric Jonathan Sheptock
Chairman of SHARC (Shelter, Housing And Respectful Change)
Cell phone: (240) 305-5255
425 2nd St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-2003

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