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!!!!!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

DC's CCNV Shelter is Threatened With Closure AGAIN (2011 & 2012)

On Friday, August 31st, 2012 all 300 men on the third floor of the CCNV shelter received notices which, among other things, stated that the shelter might close as early as next year. The Federal City Shelter (which actually has three separate shelters within it) holds 1,350 of DC's 7,000+ homeless people. CCNV holds 750 itself. In April 2013 we may lose 1,600 to 2,000 shelter beds. I'll do a new blog post about it ASAP.

Last year's blog post (unchanged):

We all know that rumors are often circulated by well-meaning people who take a grain of truth and unwittingly add a pound of error. This is as true in the world of homeless advocacy as it is in the larger community. That is why on July 14th, while at a COHHO (Coalition Of Housing and Homeless Organizations) meeting, I made it a point to ASK whether or not what I'd heard about the sale of the defunct DC General Hospital which is now home to a women's shelter and a family shelter was true. The mostly empty hospital was slated to be developed as part of the Hill East subdivision project before the economy went south. I found out during this meeting that the development plans have not been resurrected -- YET. So, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Ahhhhh!

Then again, rumors were circulated on a regular basis about the impending closure of the Franklin School Shelter. It eventually was closed in September 2008. So, what started out as a rumor did eventually materialize into the truth. Interestingly enough, I personally heard the men say that they'd heard those rumors before and that the shelter wouldn't be closed. And they said this right up until the time that people from DC Government's Dept. of Human Services (DHS) came to the shelter to explain how the closure would be executed and to field questions.

Rumors are circulated on a yearly basis about there being plans to close the CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter which holds 750 people -- with other shelters in the same large building holding another 600 homeless people. It's being said again. But this time around the staff has explained that this is the real deal. However it is a conditional threat -- one which might be averted.

The CCNV Shelter was opened in 1988 due to the direct action of dozens of homeless people under the leadership of Mitch Snyder. That year Mitch Snyder and Ronald Reagan signed a restrictive covenant which stated that the building would remain a shelter and continue to serve the homeless community until at least 2018. Though they are both dead now, their covenant still holds power. However, the building being perceived as a health hazard -- whether or not it actually is -- always gives government a seemingly legitimate reason for closing a building. After all, former DC mayor Adrian Fenty used such reasoning to close the DC Village Family Shelter as well as Franklin School which held 300 men just prior to its closing.

One of CCNV's volunteer staff explained the situation to me: "DHS and the Dept. of Real Estate Services (DRES) will inspect the building on July 15th. Though the building maintenance is done by DRES, we at CCNV (which is run by volunteer staff) are 20% responsible for the upkeep of the building. The government is inspecting many government buildings across the city that are being poorly maintained and this is one of them. Several departments of the government will inspect the building over the next 2 weeks. If we fail any of the inspections, the building could be closed."

I then said, "I'm trying to imagine what they would do with 1,350 homeless people (one-fifth of DC's homeless population)."

He continued "That's already been discussed. The city would get rid of the CCNV management and bring in their own paid staff who would be charged with shutting down the shelter. They would phase it out in 6 to 8 months by making people leave and find somewhere to go. Within a year the place would be empty. That's why we are going to keep the lights on late tonight so that people can do a thorough cleaning." (Though not the nicest place in the world, the building IS actually cleaned on a regular basis.)

An interesting caveat which I see fit to mention is that, while Mayor Fenty began housing programs in conjunction with the shelter closures that occurred on his watch, that is not likely to happen during the Gray administration due to the worse economic conditions that now exist. The homeless are liable to just be put out with nowhere to go -- possibly through "attrition" as people are penalized and barred by the new shelter staff. So, let's hope that they pass the inspections that will occur over the next 2 weeks. There's a lot at stake.

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