Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Politicizing Homelessness: SHARC is Attacking Mayor Gray on Homelessness (Inaccessibility and Lack of Transparency)

Well, as has been the case for the past few months, I've been so busy going to meetings and pounding the pavement that I've not blogged regularly -- and when I do, I have a lot to say. And SHARC as a whole has been doing a lot. We've asserted ourselves in such a way that neither DC Government nor the council can ignore us and we've begun to "politicize homelessness" for this generation -- with the hope of finding lasting solutions.

November 26th, 2012 was a good day for SHARC (Shelter, Housing And Respectful Change). We had a friendly visit with Councilman Jim Graham who has oversight of the Human Services Committee, asserted ourselves in the mayor's executive office and got word that a homeless service for which we'd sought a pardon has received a reprieve and will be kept open through hypothermia season (until 3/31/13) as opposed to closing on November 30th, 2012. Even the sharp e-mail exchange which I had with DC Mayor Vincent Gray's chief of staff Christopher Murphy on the same day doesn't change my opinion that it was a good day overall.

Beginning at noon, we held a meal and rally in the basement of the CCNV Shelter. Also in attendance were our partners from a certain labor union subsidiary. At 1 PM we began to march toward the Wilson Building (DC's City Hall) where we were met by a group of homeless parents and their children. We then proceeded into City Hall to meet with city officials -- about 50 of us.

When security saw that a large group of homeless people was entering the building, they went on high alert -- as they always and only do for the homeless and others who are fighting for the poor. The lieutenant called me by name (having become quite familiar with me) to tell me that we couldn't have a large number of people on the 6th floor where the mayor's executive office is.

We went to Councilman Jim Graham's office where people began to tell their horror stories about the poor services and lack of sufficient services at the family shelter or in the human services framework as a whole. A very pregnant homeless woman explained that she could not receive services specific to her condition prior to the third trimester. An elderly person and a single father explained that there were little and no services for them, respectively. Before it was all over, the councilman had committed to a town hall meeting at the shelter to discuss the lack of sufficient services.

What happened after we left the councilman's office is questionable in some respects. I directed people to go to the third floor so that we could pay a visit to the mayor's community affairs office (Room 327-332). When I got up there myself, the portion of the crowd that arrived before me had been instructed (I'm assuming by council staff) to go to his scheduling office (Room 317). Though they were gathered outside of Room 317, they were being spoken to by the assistant to the Deputy Mayor of Planning and Economic Development (DMPED). Though she was a kind person, she was the wrong person. (I don't know how the mix-up happened.) So, we gave her an earful and left. At that point many in the group had to leave for a direct action on Capitol Hill -- a mile away -- to protest cuts to jobs, social programs and other things that rich Republicans tend not to need or to want to offer to anyone else who DOES need them.

We then went to the mayor's executive office on the sixth floor to drop off a packet containing a printed blog post that explains how the mayor's policies hurt the poor, a copy of the form requesting a meeting with the mayor and a list of demands being put forth by SHARC. We expressed our desire to meet with the mayor and were again directed to Room 317. We explained what had just happened at that location and the security officer insisted that it was the right location. Then we went back to the third floor and to the room that I'd initially planned to go to -- 332. While there, we spoke with some professional BS'ers about our hereto now failed attempt at getting a meeting with the mayor and left having no more of an answer than we'd arrived with.

At this point it was about 3:40 and the few of us that were left were ready to go home -- but not before paying a visit to the office of "Mayor for Life" Marion Barry. While there, I received a call from DC Government's Department of Mental Health which funds the Hermano Pedro Homeless day Program and received word that its closure has been postponed by four months, allowing the clients (many of whom are mental health patients) to make a smoother transition upon the program's closure. And that's how the advocacy day ended.

But, as I recollected the events of the day, it was clear that 1 -- we'd made a big impression at City Hall and that 2 -- there is plenty of room for improvement in terms of how we organize the poor and homeless to self-advocate. During our visit, I reminded Jim Graham that he had, on numerous occasions, asked why he sees the same five advocates all the time if we have over 7,000 homeless people in DC. I then told him, "We've come in greater numbers this time", to which he agreed rather emphatically. I told some and reminded others that we only had about a dozen people at our November 1st direct action (one of several small events SHARC has held as a result of having our 1,000-person event rained out by Hurricane Sandy) but have come back with 4 or 5 times as many people just weeks later and could come with 200-300 people in December. (Some of us are wondering if we'd have gotten anything close to 1,000 people had it not been for Sandy. We DID actually have more time to prepare and more resources on hand as we worked toward the October 29th event than we had for November.)

Though the mayor's office didn't give us a definite date for a meeting, I sensed that we made them very uneasy. Long story short, Mayor Gray is much less accessible than his predecessor was. I've been in multiple sit-down meetings with Adrian Fenty, gone nose-to-nose with him and even cursed him out. Some people credit me with his loss after just one term, as I publicly and electronically exposed any and all gripes I had with Fenty. Mayor Gray avoids me like the plague, lest he meet Fenty's fate. Howbeit, I couldn't remove either man from office on my own. (VOTE.)

I also have reason to believe that Mayor Gray has told his chief of staff Christopher Murphy to find any reason not to meet with SHARC. Long story short, Mr. Murphy initially got upset because I BCC'ed people (and made it very clear in the message that there were hidden names). He didn't like me sending our communications to other people -- thus making what a PUBLIC OFFICIAL (Murphy) says into PUBLIC INFORMATION. He expressed reservations about meeting with SHARC and it just went from there until the meeting process just fell apart. I'll try to revive the process upon returning from NYC.

Though I won't bore you with the many details that lend to my conclusion, I'm inclined to believe that DC Mayor Vincent Gray, his chief of staff Christopher Murphy and others in the Executive Office of the Mayor (EOM) are working in tandem with each other to:

1 -- make it seem as though the mayor is willing to meet with myself (and possibly SHARC as a whole)
2 -- find the slightest reason to call off the meeting and
3 -- blame me for the cancellation.

I admit that I fell for it. Nonetheless, I'll call the mayor's bluff and galvanize the public against him concerning his inaccessibility and games. Some people saw him as an older and wiser alternative to Adrian Fenty. In a sense they were right; he's better than Fenty at coming up with "politricks". (But that's a blog post of its own.)

That said, this action revealed ways in which SHARC needs to improve. We could have done better at moving the crowd after our friendly visit with Jim Graham. Unfortunately, very few people in the crowd knew where certain offices were and fewer know who's who in DC Government. That meant that a lot of the instruction giving fell on me -- Eric. If at least two more people could lead a group, we could visit at least three offices at once and the group wouldn't be so heavily dependent on me for instruction. But it must be realized that the aforementioned problem is a good one insomuch as it means that involvement is increasing and thus creating the need for better crowd control and overall organization. All of this is a nice segway into SHARC's mission statement:

"It is the mission of SHARC to engage the poor, homeless, formerly homeless, community activists and concerned citizens in advocacy efforts for the poor and under-privileged community with an emphasis on self-advocacy."

It looks like we've got our work cut out for us.

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Monday, November 5, 2012

SHARC Update and Discussion Points for November 5th Meeting

1 – SHARC has weathered the storm and made the best of a mess. Though Sandy “rained on our parade” by forcing the cancellation of an event which we spent five weeks planning and organizing, it hasn't discouraged us from trying again. We'll come back bigger and better the next time.

There is no need to consider what possible shortcomings SHARC may have exhibited during the storm. Given the fact that we had many food donations, the rain date would have been the next day (Tuesday) during which the government was shut down. Sandy was an unpredictable storm which we only found out on the 26th was going hit us on the 29th of October (the day of our event). That said, the five weeks leading up to October 29th were a true show of our increased organizing ability. So, let's give ourselves a hand, dust ourselves off and chart the path forward.

As a result of Sandy, SHARC members were able to:

begin the conversation around bringing three councilmembers together in a meeting. They are Jim Graham (Human Services Oversight Committee), Michael Brown (Oversight Committee on Economic Development and Housing) and Kenyan McDuffie (oversight Committee on Jobs and Workforce Development).

Speak with several councilmembers on the dais during their legislative meeting and make the case for ending homelessness rather than maintaining it.

Arrange a meeting with the mayor

2 – Weekly and Homeless Town Hall Meetings during the holiday and hypothermia season:

a) What day do we want our next big event to fall on?

– November 26th (the last Monday of the month)?
– December 31st (the last Monday of the year)?
December 24th (Christmas Eve)?
December 17th (which would give us six weeks to organize and fall nicely between events highlighting homelessness and hunger in the third week of November and the Homeless Persons' Memorial Day on December 21st)?

b) Do we want to meet on Christmas Eve or new Year's Eve? Both fall on Mondays.

c) Do we want to do anything special around Thanksgiving (November 22nd)? The Fannie Mae Homeless Walkathon would have been on November 17th (the Saturday before Thanksgiving).

3 – What should our next big event (our make up event for “Occupy the DC Council”) be?

An idea is that we plan a march from CCNV to the Wilson Building beginning at 11 AM on November 26th. We make our case to the council and/or the mayor. We then return to CCNV around 1 PM for our regular Homeless Town Hall Meeting. Those who marched are given tickets upon exiting the Wilson Building and eat first.

Another idea is that we plan a large event inside of the Wilson Building on December 17th (possibly without a march) and invite churches and other groups to feed the homeless there.

It doesn't need to be “either/or”. It can be “both/and”.
You are welcome to present additional ideas. These are just conversation starters.

4 – “The Future” of CCNV:

City officials and people from the business community have begun conversation around “The Future” of the CCNV Shelter. During my meeting with one such person, there was some confusion as to when either of us was talking about CCNV as is or the new concept which we envision. We began to refer to the revamped CCNV Shelter as “The Future”.

It is believed by many that the restrictive covenant between Ronald Reagan and Mitch Snyder mandates that the building be used as a homeless shelter until 2018 and the parking lot belongs to the homeless until 2099 with the right to renew the lease for the latter indefinitely. It is also believed that the property on which the building and parking lot sit is worth as much as $120M. What's certain is that, if the building were sold, ALL MONIES GENERATED FROM THE SALE MUST BE USED FOR THE HOMELESS COMMUNITY.

All of this adds up to the city being FORCED to use the CCNV property to assist the homeless community in one way or another. City officials and the business community have been informed that ANY PLANS TO BUILD ON THAT PIECE OF LAND WOULD HAVE TO INCLUDE HOUSING AT LEAST 1,350 HOMELESS PEOPLE. This gives homeless/housing advocates a constant (invariable) which we can use as a starting point for our thoughts on how best to assist the homeless residents of the Federal City Shelter (CCNV, Open Door, John L. Young, DC Central Kitchen and the Unity Health Clinic).

Plans that are being discussed include:

building a 10-story building on the parking lot
taking the present building up to 10 stories (possibly rebuilding it from the ground up)
having a mix of permanent apartments, supportive housing units, transitional housing units and shelter for at least 1,350 people
giving tax credits to contractors
having homeless people help design the program

While several people have expressed understandable skepticism about the city's plans to effectively assist the homeless community, let's bear in mind that a 24-year old restrictive covenant is holding them at bay. Let's also remember that, if we refuse to come to the table with those who are ostensibly there to work with us, we give them occasion to say that they reached out to us and WE refused to work with them. On the other hand, if we come to the table with city officials and members of the business community and they fail to make good on their promises, they give us occasion to pin the blame on THEM. So, let's give them a chance.

A contract employee of the business community might attend our November 19th SHARC meeting.

5 – Forming a charette: It has been suggested that we form a charette that would draw up a plan for ending homelessness in DC and then take that plan to government officials, as opposed to waiting for the governments to end homelessness.

6 – Creating unconventional partnerships: It has been suggested that SHARC develop unconventional partnerships with environmental groups, the LGBT community and others who don't usually advocate with or for the homeless, as there are various reasons for which we are inextricably connected to them. (Most homeless teens were thrown out of their parents' house for being LGBT and the construction of affordable housing lends itself to the creation of green jobs.)

7 – Protesting/opposing unconventional targets: It has been suggested that SHARC demonstrate in front of the Verizon Center and other businesses that have tried to push homeless people and/or homeless services (including housing for the homeless) out of their neighborhood.

8 – Making our enemies work for/with us: It has been suggested that we involve those who don't want the homeless in their neighborhoods (see item #7) in our effort to end homelessness.

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