Tuesday, September 4, 2012

2,000 DC Homeless Forced Into the Streets in 2013




Washington, DC has to date been kinder and more accommodating to its homeless community than most other U.S. cities. This truth is borne out in the statistics and touted by the homeless themselves. But, as if being labeled "kind and accommodating" is somehow a negative thing, our nation's capital is in a race to catch up with the draconian policies of other cities that forbid the feeding of poor people and make it a crime to be poor. Unless something is done to arrest the process, a year from now 2,000 more of DC's 7,000+ homeless people will lose their shelter and then run the risk of being arrested for vagrancy as several separate but inter-related policies that affect the homeless go into play.

[But before I make the case against these policies, it is important to note that the public is often too quick to ostracize and criticize the homeless community without understanding the issue. Homeless people who are not suffering from mental illness (the majority) do not "choose" to be homeless, regardless of what Ronald Reagan said. (He was just upset that he was FORCED to help the homeless by signing the McKinney-Vento Act into law and creating the CCNV Shelter.) Neither do they just want a hand-out. Their lowered expectations or aspirations are often mistaken as them wanting a hand-out, as they have come to believe that they will never be able to find gainful employment or affordable housing and they feel disenfranchised to the point that many of them will not stand up and fight even when their sustenance is being taken away by the powers that be.

I, as a homeless advocate, have endured more than my fair share of personal attacks. A man whom I met on September 2nd, 2012 told me on September 3rd that he'd heard (before meeting me) that I had turned down government-subsidized housing that was offered to me. As it turns out, a mentally ill, formerly-homeless woman whom I helped get into housing started the rumor after attending an October 31st, 2008 hearing before Councilman Tommy Wells and getting the dialogue between him and myself misconstrued. (It can be googled, though I couldn't link it in. Go to the 3hr. 11 min. mark.) Others failed to qualify her statements or her level of intelligence, contributing to the spread of the rumor. I actually told him that I would accept housing if it were offered to me. That statement still holds true. Many people have asked me why the government hasn't tried to buy me out by offering me housing, thus shutting me up. Maybe they know it wouldn't have the desired effect.]

The demands and desires of DC's homeless community are similar to those of the larger community:

1 -- Affordable housing (The average rent in DC: $1,600 per month. Affordable to those making $32 per hr.)
2 -- Living-wage jobs (DC minimum wage: $8.25 per hr.)
3 -- For the government to fill the gap and provide social services at least until demands 1 and 2 are met

That brings us back to the matter at hand: the loss of 2,000 shelter beds in the spring of 2013. As the FY 2013 budget stands right now, DC's homeless services are under-funded by $7 million which translates into a loss of 1,200 shelter beds during the seven warmest months of the year (April 1st through October 31st) as well as a dramatic decrease in funding for other homeless services such as feeding programs and transitional housing. That's not to speak of the fact that Catholic Charities which is subcontracted to provide shelter for the city has already ended the work programs it had in its shelters due to one participant killing another in the shelter parking lot. Some governments and officials will use anything as a reason to end necessary rehabilitative services for people whom society deems to be expendible.

On a separate track from the city's fiscal problems, the CCNV Shelter is threatened with closure again. It seems to be an annual ritual that runs across mayoral administrations. In June of 2009 a homeless woman died on a wrought-iron bench which construction workers had mistakenly mounted in front of the shelter. Upon receiving word of the death, then-director of DC's Dept. of Human Services (DHS) Clarence Carter (who now works for Governor Jan Brewer in Arizona) reminded CCNV staff of the clause in its contract which states that the homeless will be prevented from "loitering" (being outside and visible) in front of the shelter where they presently reside. He threatened to revoke the contract if the sidewalk weren't kept clear. (People can't even stand outside of a non-smoking building and smoke a cigarette, but must go hundreds of feet away.) The shelter staff began patrolling the sidewalk on June 17th, 2009 (the same day Renee was buried). You can read about last year's threat (which centered around poor maintenance of the facility due to lack of investment by the city) here or in the blog re-post below this post.

This year, perceived behavioral problems within the homeless community and neglect of the building by DC Government (the same people who are threatening to shut it down) are the reasons that the Community for Creative Non-Violence might close in 2013. It might be converted from a year-round shelter to a seasonal (winter) shelter. At this point in time, there is much speculation and the facts are still forthcoming. However, all 348 men who sleep on the third floor of the shelter (where they've had as few as two working sinks) were given notices on Friday, August 31st announcing a mandatory meeting which will take place at 8 PM on Thursday, September 6th. It spelled out the aforementioned behavioral issues and referenced the closings of other shelters in 2013, stating that 200 CCNV residents could lose their beds to those who come from other shelters -- thus pitting the homeless against the homeless (divide and conquer). It didn't mention the maintenance issues; but, we know from the 2007 closing of the DC Village Family Shelter and the 2008 closing of the Franklin School Shelter that the city would rather close a shelter than maintain the building. Then, after the hundreds of residents are moved from the communal shelter into government-subsidized housing, the housing program loses its funding and the scattered tenants aren't likely (or able, in some cases) to come together, organize and fight to maintain the program. This amounts to a bait-and-switch as well as a divide-and-conquer strategy.

Now for some numbers. CCNV is one of several shelters in a building known collectively as the Federal City Shelter. The entire building (which has 2 city-run women's shelters) holds 1,350 homeless people in the winter and 1,100 during the warmer months. Those two women's shelters might be included in the 1,200 shelter beds that the city shuts down in April. CCNV is not a city-run shelter and does not receive city funding, though they are subject to regulation by the city. Therefore, closing CCNV would not save the city any money in operating expenses. (The city is supposed to maintain the entire building though.) Catholic Charities operates three mens shelters in other parts of the city which have a combined winter capacity of 976 and a warm-month capacity of 890. These three shelters will account for the lion's share of the bed loss. Being that everything is merely speculative right now, we can let our imaginations run wild and assume that the worst-case scenario were to unfold. If the entire Federal City Shelter and the three men's shelters that are run by Catholic Charities were to close next year, we'd lose a whopping 2,326 shelter beds for DC's 7,000 (and counting) homeless people, many of whom already sleep outdoors. So, in an effort to avoid using hyperbole or sensationalism, I'm guessing it's safe to say that somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 beds may be lost next year. At any rate, it's cause for concern.

And many housed people in the District are already concerned about the presence and behavior of homeless people, though their energies are misdirected. Businesses in and around DC's Chinatown have complained to DC Government about the presence of homeless people in Chinatown. They have suggested that the stop for the shuttle bus which picks homeless men up from the MLK, Jr. Library in the evening to take them to shelter and drops them off at the library in the morning be moved. However, there is nothing preventing these same men from walking a mile or two into Chinatown. Besides, it is the people who sleep outdoors in Chinatown who are most likely to urinate near the Verizon Center (where the Wizards and the Capitals play) and exhibit other unacceptable behaviors, not those who sleep in a building that has bathrooms. If thousands of shelter beds are lost, the behaviors which businesses seek to eliminate will occur all the more as people commit crimes of survival. Each time that I tell a homeless person about the impending shelter closures, they ask where the homeless are going to go. When I tell them "the streets", their response, without fail, is "and crime will go up" [as people struggle to survive].

As it turns out, institutional memory is very short. That is why, during the Great Recession of 2008, U.S. governments made the same "mistakes" that were made during the Great Depression of 1929 -- lowering taxes on the rich and cutting social services. It led to tent cities ("Hoovervilles") in 1929 and in 2008-present (with us having not fully recovered). Locally, people have forgotten about the faulty logic that led to the closure of the Franklin School Shelter. under pressure from the business community, then-mayor Adrian Fenty closed the shelter in order to get the homeless out of sight and out of mind. A year later in September 2009, a DC Examiner article entitled "Bummed Out on K Street" highlighted the greater presence of homeless people along the K Street corridor and mentioned the shelter closure as a contributing factor. The business community had used its left hand to smite its right.

Add to all of this the fact that the DC Council is considering a new vagrancy law, with the Supreme Court having shot down a 1966 vagrancy law created by the District (7 years before "Home Rule") That said, the homeless of DC will soon lose much of their shelter, be forced to sleep on the street and then be thrown into an over-crowded jail for sleeping on the street. This will undoubtedly cause some of the homeless to join the tens of thousands of Afro-American Washingtonians who've partaken in a mass exodus of poor people from the city. And it's safe to assume that this is all part of the grand scheme of the DC Government and its cohorts in the business world. It is for this reason that many people will converge on the Wilson Building (City Hall), 1350 Pennsylvania Ave NW, at 9 AM on Tuesday, September 18th to welcome the DC Council back from its two-month recess and inundate them with our aforementioned demands. LOCALS, BE THERE!!!!!

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