Monday, November 28, 2011

THE FACADE OF CARING: Franklin School (Shelter) Takeover

Occupy DC: Franklin School (Shelter) Takeover

Well Washington, DC's Franklin School Shelter is in the headlines again. It's the issue that won't go away -- with good reason -- and may very well be the most read-about building in the nation. It is on the fast track toward becoming the centerpiece of the Occupy DC Movement.

On Saturday, November 19th, 2011 13 people re-entered the former homeless shelter which has sat vacant for over 3 years now -- closed by former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty after he claimed to care too much for the homeless to allow them to be warehoused in the "old building" (built in 1869) which was "unfit for human habitation". Ironically, several homeless people have frozen to death outside since the closure on September 26th, 2008. "Caring" was used as a pretext for closing the Franklin School Shelter and is now being used as a pretext for raiding the Occupy Movement's camps. That's not to speak of the fact that many occupiers are being beaten by the "caring" cops who are sent in with the blessing of the Department of Homeland Security to remove them.

Truth be told, Mayor Fenty and DC's Downtown BID (Business Improvement District) felt that the homeless were an eyesore and didn't want them downtown. (In September of 2009 a DC Examiner article entitled "Bummed Out On K Street" explained how the closure had actually made the homeless MORE visible.) As for the police raids across the country, they are actually for the purpose of silencing dissenters who are calling politicians and the wealthy out on their apparent corruption and corporate greed while calling for an end to high unemployment, healthcare costs that are enough to make you sick and student loans that take a lifetime to pay off -- just to name a few.

Much remains to be said about how much the DC Government actually "cares" about its homeless constituents. To his credit, Fenty and his administration conceived the Permanent Supportive Housing Program in April 2008 and had it up and running 5 months later. The program has housed at least 1,500 homeless people at this point -- 5 times shelter's capacity at closing. (The shelter held 240 men from the fall of 2002 until the fall of 2005 and 300 men until it's closing -- with there having been much unused space still.)

But, since the fall of 2008, the need for shelter in DC has INCREASED, with PSH and other housing programs like HUD (Housing and Urban Development) being unable to keep pace with the increased need. In January 2008 Washington, DC had 6,044 homeless people according to official records. In January 2011 the city had 6,546 homeless people. The number of homeless people in DC has increased by more than 25% since the building was first used as a shelter and by more than 8% since it's closure. Franklin Park which is frequented by the homeless community is right across the road. Taken together, these facts don't justify the closure or the refusal to reopen Franklin School as a shelter. And Fenty's broken campaign promises -- like the promise to keep Franklin School open as a shelter -- figure largely into why he became the "one-term mayor" that many of us told him he would be.

The Franklin (named after Ben Franklin) was built in 1869 and first served as an elementary school, thus the name. It is situated across the road from a park that once served as a training ground for 19th-century troops (and has now become the battleground). Since then, it has served as an office building and housed the local Board of Education.

In the fall of 2002 it was sitting vacant as homeless people literally froze to death in the park across the street. A group named Mayday DC broke into the building and demanded that the city turn it into a homeless shelter. The city obliged but said they would close it in the spring of 2003, which they did. Mayday DC came back, re-entered the building and demanded that it be kept open as a shelter. The city conceded and gave into their demands once again and the building served the homeless community for another 5 and a half years.

However, there was a failed effort by the city to close it beginning in June 2006. (It was during this failed attempt that I first began to advocate for the homeless people of our nation's capital.) Then-mayor Anthony Williams had threatened to close the shelter which held 240 men at the time and said he would renovate and reopen another defunct school-turned-shelter at the historic Gales School. It would hold 120 men.

However, the Gales School remains a useless shell to this day -- having been gutted -- with the renovation still in limbo. The Central Union Mission (which is not a city-run shelter) is set to acquire the Gales School from the city and to relocate there.

Two women -- Mary Ann Luby and Becky Sambol -- came to Franklin School Shelter to tell its 240 residents about the impending closure and ask what actions we were willing to take to prevent it. Only about a dozen men came forth and we formed the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter. Mary Ann (who passed away on 11/29/10) guided us through the maze called DC Government and introduced us to the various power brokers and decision makers. We won that fight as outgoing mayor Anthony Williams reversed his decision to sell Franklin School to developer Herb Miller and paid him $500,000 (ostensibly for architectural design work and other labor that had been done by his firm already).

Then, there was the 2008 closure. Mayor Fenty had succeeded at what his predecessor was unable to do. The reason? Well, they had very different approaches. Williams was honest. He said, in no uncertain terms, that he planned to close the shelter, open another with half the capacity and turn Franklin School into a boutique hotel. He had no qualms about letting the public know that he was essentially giving this city property to a developer who could then use it to make a profit. He didn't say word one about caring for the homeless.

Fenty, on the other hand, didn't have any developers lined up. He had no planned usage for the building. He wasn't honest about the fact that the Downtown BID and entrepreneurs located near Franklin School were pressuring him to close the shelter and get the homeless out of sight. He used caring for the homeless as a pretext for closing the shelter -- stating that the building was old and unfit for human habitation (even though the city had just spent $2 million doing a partial renovation of the building just months before the closure). He said he didn't want to "warehouse the homeless in large shelters", but said nothing of closing larger shelters that hold 360 to 1,350 people. Thus, his story didn't hold water. (But not many people knew that and he used it to his political advantage.)

Lesson learned: Honest politicians don't get far.

Some might argue that the city seems to care about it homeless community to some degree and that DC has some of the most robust homeless services of any city in the nation. I would agree on the latter count. However, there are more facts than I can reasonably put into a single blog post which prove that the city does only what it HAS TO to for the homeless community. Non-profits and social services are in place to "keep the lid on the pressure cooker" in a manner of speaking.

All of this brings us back to the issue of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. It would seem that many mayors have taken lessons from Adrian Fenty. (Hopefully they'll meet the same fate.) But the fact of the matter is that Homeland Security is coordinating the efforts of mayors across the country and the "FACADE OF CARING" may very well be one of the oldest ploys in the book. Don't get sucked in by it.

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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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Homeless Advocates' Investigation And Recommendations Concerning Frozen Veteran

NOTE: Please read the blog entry below this one, as this is a follow-up to the previous blog post.

The investigation into the death of a homeless veteran right outside of Washington, DC's New York Avenue Shelter continues. As if his wrongful death isn't sad enough, those who work for DC Government's Department of Human Services (DHS) and for the shelter have gone into "self-defense mode" and seem to be more intent on covering their tracks than they are on finding out the truth. Should we expect more? also of note is the fact that the homeless and homeless advocates are gathering facts about this case more quickly than the government. DHS is doing its own internal investigation. And we all know how those things go -- self-defense all the way.

On a more positive note, I was able to get the name of the deceased. The man's name was Luther "Sarge" Hill and he was ex-military. It's always good to be able to refer to a person by name, as the system has a way of often dehumanizing people -- especially homeless people and others whom they choose to ignore, mistreat or deny ever existed. It is good to be able to call Mr. Hill by name and acknowledge the fact that he had family and friends that will miss him and mourn his loss (even if they weren't there for him in his last days). I'm not sure how old he was or what war he fought in, though I'll venture to guess that he served in Vietnam. knowing that he died such a horrific and unjust death after serving his country tends to pull the heart strings of many -- even those who disagreed with the U.S. mission in Vietnam. It serves to highlight the fact that the U.S. government fails to take adequate care of its own and is all the more reason for people to refuse to enlist. If seeing the fate of those who have served and been dropped like a bad habit by the U.S. Government doesn't discourage one from joining the military, I don't know what will.

The death of Sarge was the last of many things discussed this morning at the COHHO (Coalition Of Housing and Homeless Organizations) meeting. But it became the highlight of the meeting. after all, if advocates for the homeless and/or government agencies that serve the homeless can't prevent hypothermia deaths, they are rendered useless and irrelevant. That said, no one can rightly be "blamed" for Mr. Hill's death. It is not merely because he chose to keep his beer and remain outdoors during a freeze, but rather because there was no established protocol for dealing with people who refuse to dispose of their alcohol and/or drugs but are in dire need of shelter. The thrust of our efforts is toward preventing this type of tragedy from recurring.

As it turns out, Washington, DC used to have "wet shelters" where a person could enter with their alcohol. There has been discussion of possibly bringing them back. It would seem that those who formulate regulations for shelters would be more intent on saving lives than they are on forcing their concept of "morality" on shelter seekers. If this ever proves to be the case, it may cause them to recreate the wet shelter.

But, irrespective of what systemic changes are created in hindsight, there is still the fact that shelter employees didn't use all of the resources at their disposal to save Luther Hill's life. A mustard seed of compassion should've caused an employee to refuse to leave Mr. Hill until it was certain that he would spend the night indoors somewhere -- whether at a friend's house, another shelter, the hospital or jail. Anything beats what happened. An employee could have called the police to initiate an "FD-12" (forced detention), as any person who is deemed to be a danger to themselves or others can be forced to receive help.

Police are hesitant to perform an FD-12 because of the possibility of a lawsuit. If a court determines that the person was not a danger to themselves or others, the police department will end up paying the "victim" whose life they were trying to save. This encourages the police to ignore the person who is making irrational choices and creates job security for the morgue. It's high time that we eliminated the liability for saving a person's life and penalized neglect. We need to reverse policies that are designed to "thin the herd" and deny much-needed services to the poor along with their unintended consequences (and I'm giving the government the benefit of the doubt on this one).

Over the next few weeks, this issue will be raised at council hearings and other meetings that pertain to the homeless, culminating at the December 13th meeting of the DC ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) where representatives from various agencies of the local government come together with homeless advocates and service providers on a bi-monthly basis to discuss what is being done to address homelessness. Let's hope that no one else freezes to death before (or after) that day.

That brings me to my final point (for now) which is that homeless advocates and service providers need to develop a rapid-response system for dealing with those who might otherwise remain in the elements during a freeze. We need to be able to respond to situations like the one that claimed the life of Luther "Sarge" Hill and to disseminate information about the rights of homeless people as well as available services to the homeless. While reaching out to the homeless at the shelters and in the streets, we also need to better train shelter employees in how to deal with extreme situations. The grants which were recently awarded to SHARC may very well enable us to begin this process. let's hope -- and take decisive action.



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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Click the following hyperlinks:
ALERT DC (Text/E-mail 4 Bad Weather/Disaster)
BRIDGE: A Compilation of Social Services
Help me get people..... OFF THE STREATS
My Blog @ S.T.R.E.A.T.S.
CAUSES of HOMELESSNESS/BBC interview

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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Man Freezes To Death In Homeless Shelter's Parking lot

Saturday, October 29th was a wet, cold miserable day in Washington, DC. There was a light rain throughout the day. It felt like the temperature was somewhere between 35 and 40 throughout the daylight hours, though I missed the forecast. We even got some snow that evening and had an even colder night.

DC Law defines "hypothermia season" in two ways -- by date and by temperature. DC Government's Department of Human Services (DHS) is required by law to provide enough shelter for all people who present as homeless between November 1st and march 31st. However, if it freezes before or after that time frame(including the windchill factor), they must be prepared to provide shelter to all who are in need of it and are within the city limits at that time (regardless of whether or not that person claims to be a resident of the city).

But on that fateful day in October, a homeless man in a wheelchair was denied shelter and died in the parking lot behind the shelter. I've yet to learn his name and I'm relatively sure he wasn't someone I knew, with Washington, DC having close to 7,000 homeless people and a population of 600,000. When I first got wind of his death, I suspected that the shelter was full and that he was turned away for lack of bed space.

When there is a freeze and all beds are full, shelters may put people on cots or in chairs. They are not allowed to put someone out of a shelter during freezing weather (day or night) unless the person is taken to the hospital or to jail.

A fellow homeless advocate who uses the New York Avenue Shelter (where the incident took place) gave me his account:

"A homeless man in a wheelchair tried to enter the shelter with a beer. He was told by staff that he couldn't come in with the beer. So, he stayed outside. Another homeless man who is also an advocate came out to try to talk the man in the wheelchair into coming in. After that, everyone went in. When we came out the next morning, he was frozen."

I asked if staff had made a good-faith effort to get the man to enter the shelter or if they called the police or ambulance. He said, "No, when the man didn't want to dispose of the beer, they just left him there and went in".

In Washington, DC emergency responders are allowed to "FD-12" someone who is deemed to be an immediate danger to themselves or others. (In Florida it's called "Baker Acting" them.) That person can be forced to receive help.

That said, the victim had a drinking problem. But, if shelter staff had acted in good faith, he would still be living. Of note is the fact that it was another homeless person, not staff, who tried to coax the man into entering the shelter. The shelter staff seems to have a much different (and I dare say a much worse) problem insomuch as they lack compassion or a true concern for the people with whose safety they are charged.

This situation also highlights an area which I seriously doubt ever gets covered during training for shelter employees. I'm inclined to believe that they are not told what to do if someone with a drinking problem refuses to dispose of their beer while needing shelter on a hypothermic night.

The city of Washington, DC recognizes at least five types of shelters, the most common being called "low-barrier" shelter. At a low-barrier shelter a person:

1 -- may give a false name
2 -- does not need identification
3 -- will not have the police called on them if they are on the lam (unless they commit a new crime while in the shelter)
4 -- will not have Immigration called on them
5 -- may be high or drunk upon entry, so long as they don't have any alcohol or drugs on their person at the time.

Having illicit drugs in one's possession is a crime in any location and entering the shelter with them warrants calling the police. But while drinking outdoors is a crime, going into the shelter with the alcoholic beverage actually reverses the criminal status. However, possessing alcohol while in the shelter is against regulations (which don't rise to the same level as a law). The police can't technically charge a person with a crime because they possess alcohol in a homeless shelter, though they can remove the person at the behest of shelter staff.

So, with 25% of the homeless being drug users and another 15% being heavy drinkers, it is time to reconsider policies pertaining to the sheltering of substance abusers. after all, the designation of "low-barrier" shelter was created so that people who would otherwise forgo shelter in order to avoid being arrested or who might fall into oncoming traffic while in a drunken stupor would instead come out of the elements and live to see another day. With this man's beer having cost him his life as he sat in the parking lot of a homeless shelter and froze to death, this low-barrier shelter defeated its own purpose.

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