Improving Homeless and Housing Advocacy

We have a crafty, if not altogether dishonest, mayor who (like his predecessor) preys on the public's ignorance of the homeless issue and other issues. He and much of his administration are using the “mooching homeless family” narrative time and time again. That is to say that they are claiming that the heads of homeless families are accessing homeless services during hypothermia season so that they can receive free hotel rooms, food, transportation etc.Even though the advocates often have and use opportunities for rebuttal, much of the general public is liable to buy into the government's narrative and the mayor has the bully mic. Let's not forget that, at the end of the day, it is the administration that determines how DC's funds are spent.

During the February 11, 2012 One City Summit, Vince Gray talked about DC being one of the most literate cities in the U.S. Just a couple of weeks prior and a few days apart there had been two articles about DC literacy. One said that DC was among the most literate U.S. Cities insomuch as it has many libraries, bookstores, places that offer free internet access and other literary resources. The other said that 36% of adults in DC are functionally illiterate. Vince Gray forgot to mention the latter. He told a lie of omission to the public.

A couple of years ago, Vince Gray said that he wouldn't vie for higher taxes on the wealthy because the wealthy don't want to pay higher taxes in order to fund social services for the poor and needy among us. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute conducted a survey among those who earn at least $100,000 per year. 85% of respondents said that DC Government should go ahead and raise their taxes. This flies in the face of the mayor's uninformed assumption and proves that he's willing to fabricate lies and/or unproven statements about his constituents whom he obviously doesn't know well.

Former Mayor Adrian Fenty used the “unfit for human habitation” narrative to close two shelters and begin two housing programs which he didn't guarantee would have indefinite funding streams. He also broke a lot of promises and preyed on the public's ignorance of the homeless issue. Nonetheless, his director of DHS, Clarence Carter, was given more latitude to think for himself than the present director, David Berns, is given by Vince Gray. In hind sight, I believe Fenty was the better mayor.

One of the biggest fights that the advocates had with Fenty prior to the economic downturn which was felt most severely in the fall of 2008 was the fight to get him to offer sufficient wrap-around services to the vulnerable homeless who were housed during the closing of the Franklin School Shelter. I'll take that over what the Gray administration is presently doing to families.

When the aforementioned issues are juxtaposed, a pattern emerges. We've gone from having a mayor who preys on the public's ignorance of an issue by using a semi-accurate narrative and provides housing with insufficient services and funding to having a mayor who preys on the public's ignorance of an issue by presenting an altogether dishonest narrative, tries to diminish the public's sympathy for the needy, makes an errant claim that the wealthy lack enough sympathy to assist the need through higher taxes, scares the needy out of applying for services, vilifies the needy, makes the services that he offers very uncomfortable and unattractive and then houses whoever endures all of his draconian antics.

That said, the last two administrations have refused to make a good-faith effort to house homeless singles who are ready, willing and able to work. All of this leaves me to wonder what the next mayor will do. I can't help but notice that Gray is much more dictatorial and capable of getting all of his administration singing the same song – the song of the lazy, shiftless homeless person. This is all the more cause for concern.

Now that I've begun to build the case for my assertion that the government whom the advocates approach for redress of grievances is doing all that it can to avoid making DC affordable or attractive to the poor, I'll address some of the shortcomings of the advocacy community as seen from my bird's-eye view. The preceding paragraphs comprise a mere sample of the type of analysis that is necessary if we are going to effectively make demands on the government and have those demands met. Unfortunately, most of the homeless or formerly-homeless advocates that I've met don't want to engage in this level of critical thinking, leaving me to publish such analyses on my own. This lends itself to me being seen as a dictator of sorts; because, I'm the only one trying to bring greater analysis to what the advocates do – or so it seems.

I've accused DC Government and its ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) of failing to devise an over-arching and comprehensive plan for ending all homelessness in the District. They tend to work in separate silos and, when it comes to ending homelessness for able-bodied, single adults who just need a little help, they avoid that like the plague. But many of the advocates also fail to formulate an over-arching approach for addressing government – one that takes into consideration what the motives of government officials and elected officials are and proceeds to come up with a comprehensive plan for putting their backs against the wall. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand; It never has and it never will”. I would add that such demands must be logical, viable and set forth with a concerted effort.

Some fellow advocates want an explanation for certain recent behaviors of mine. I'm glad to offer that explanation. Unfortunately, there are those who have proceeded to make assumptions about my thought process without asking me my thoughts first. What's worse is that a few of them have TOLD me what they assume I'm thinking while giving me little or no opportunity to explain myself. Neither makes any sense.

I'll offer this explanation:

I, Eric Jonathan Sheptock, began advocating for the homeless in June 2006. I became the chairman of the group that eventually named itself “SHARC” in April 2011. As chairman, I filed a FOIA request with the federal government in January 2013 in order to gather information on the property rights pertaining to the Federal City Shelter. Other SHARC members came on-board and put a lot of hours into bringing the future of the 1,350-person facility to the forefront.

Even so, many advocates are more concerned with organizing actions that amount to shouting down city officials than they are with construing and presenting strong logic that backs government officials against the wall and calls their bluff. My personal contributions to the campaign around the Federal City Shelter have focused on presenting strong logic and getting other homeless people to come to the table to present their reasoning as well.

I've become keenly aware of the fact that I got off on the wrong foot in 2006 by joining forces with the “shouting advocates” rather than the “reasoning advocates” It was an easy mistake and I'm sure that I'm not the only one to make it. I've learned a lot over the past eight years and am now trying whole-heartedly to incorporate that knowledge into what I do as an advocate.

In recent months I've attempted to get other advocates to make the switch from emotional advocacy to logical advocacy. In some instances I've unabashedly disparaged the emotional “shouting advocates”. In any instance, I'm doing my best to distance myself from any irrational approach to advocacy and connect myself to a more logical, analytical lot of advocates. I'm sure that when I am the lone voice crying for a more logical approach it comes off as being a bit dictatorial. I'll wear that. But I refuse to just plan action after action without any analysis of the capitalist system and am reluctant to involve myself in actions that are organized by groups that fail to articulate a social theory, preferably an anti-capitalist one.

I am struggling to strike a balance between the idea of not involving myself in actions that aren't part of an organized, long-term campaign which is the result of proper analysis and the idea of continuing to communicate with my long-time fellow advocates who don't seem to want to make the switch. There is a tension between wanting to use logic (as opposed to emotion) on the one hand and wanting to continue associating with certain fellow advocates on the other hand. I've decided that, for the moment, I'll maintain my connections and avoid dismissing anyone. Nonetheless, there will come a time when I'll dismiss anyone who can't or won't make the switch.

That said, there is very little room to find any middle ground, as the government's ability to reason (how ever evil its direction might be) gives government the upper hand on the emotional camp. Circumstances beyond our control dictate that we must rise to the challenges of homeless and housing advocacy in ways that many may dislike. If we fail in this capacity, we'll find ourselves running into that proverbial brick wall for decades to come. I refuse to be a part of any such colossal failure.


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