Poverty Politics: DC -- A City for the Wealthy and Well-To-Do (Not the Poor)

QUESTION: What does the story of a missing 8-year old homeless girl named RELISHA RUDD (who was failed by several DC Government agencies) have to do with the business community's government-sanctioned plan to rid the city of poor people?

ANSWER: A .lot. It may take a while to get to the answer but we will. Read on.....

My greatest struggle as a homeless advocate is getting the homeless or formerly homeless to take a break from their many direct actions so as to do some political analysis of the conditions that we're up against. The fact of the matter is that, so long as our ability to analyze societal conditions falls short of what is required to overcome these conditions, they'll continue to get the better of us.

So, today is April 1st -- April Fools' Day. Washington, DC's Democratic primary is taking place today, with the mayor being up for re-election. Some may write that off as mere coincidence. I know otherwise. With this being a Democratic city, the Democratic primary is usually the de facto election. But with Councilman David Catania (independent--at large) being a strong mayoral contender in the November election, this year may be an exception to the rule. And just like fools, many Washingtonians seem to be under the impression that who they elect as mayor actually determines the direction of the city. Mayor Vince Gray seems to be one such fool -- assuming he actually believes what he says.

In recent speeches the mayor, who is under federal investigation for campaign finance fraud, has touted the city's current financial health as an accomplishment of his administration. But surveys have indicated that some Washingtonians believe that the direction of the city is not dependent on who the chief executive is. I agree with the results of the surveys.

Much like Chicago, this city is controlled by forces that operate behind the scenes. The mayor is just the front (wo)man for a business community that is about 15 years into a 20-year plan to push poor people out of a city that many of them have called home for a very long time. And as far as I can tell, they're well ahead of schedule. On the other hand, dozens of city officials and homeless service providers adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness in 2004 and scrapped that plan several years later due to their failure to meet benchmarks. That said, we are not on track to end homelessness in the city by year's end.
The city council has passed business-friendly laws that attract high-end businesses to the city. The last three mayors have made it their business to push the poor out of the city through their draconian policies and use of the bully pulpit to sway public sentiment concerning poor people. But it is the business community that pulls the strings.

Mayor Anthony Williams (Jan. 1999 to Jan. 2007) convinced the council that they should eliminate the "rent cap" which created a ceiling for rent levels and replace it with "rent control" which allows rent to be raised at a fixed rate. But the parts of this law that were ostensibly intended to soften its negative impact on poor people have no teeth and there are so many loopholes that the rent doubles every ten years and over 40,000 Afro-Americans left DC between 2000 and 2010 -- namely due to the increased rent. It has been determined more recently that about 3,000 poor (mainly Afro-American) people per month are leaving this city due to the high cost of living while just over 4,000 (mainly non-Black) high income earners move in.

During Williams' last year in office, the council passed the Inclusionary Zoning law which requires that 8 to 10% of all new residential developments be affordable to middle- and low-income people. The law has caveats that allow many developers to obtain waivers and very little affordable housing has been created by this law in the seven and a half years it's been on the books. Also during his term, a sweat equity law that would have allowed people to rehabilitate depressed properties and move in was rejected by the council. Five years and much public pressure later, Mayor Gray instituted a government-administered "sweat equity" program through which the heads of homeless families were trained in the construction trades while renovating a building which they would then be allowed to live in for three years.

After Williams there was Adrian Fenty (2007 to 2011). He closed two shelters and created two housing programs for which he didn't create long-term funding streams. In the case of both the DC Village Family Shelter and the Franklin School Shelter he said they were "unfit for human habitation". In the latter case he also said that he didn't want to "warehouse homeless people in large shelters". The Franklin School Shelter had 300 men on two floors of the 5-story building. The CCNV/Federal City Shelter has 1,350 people but he made no mention of plans to close it. Franklin School (built in 1869) is in the heart of Downtown DC and surrounded by new development. Many of the advocates who were around in 2008 when the shelter was closed believe that the business community (led by Downtown BID) was behind the shelter closure.

Homeless families were given the impression that they'd receive rental assistance indefinitely but now are being given assistance for only four months with the possibility of receiving two extensions -- 12 months of assistance. Some see no point in leaving shelter because they'll never make the $89,000 per year that a family needs in order to live in DC. Many of the homeless singles who were placed in the city's Permanent Supportive Housing Program are being transferred over to federal vouchers with a lingering threat of having those vouchers cut. It is also difficult to get any information from the city on attrition rates for what is left of PSH.

Mayor Vince Gray is the most overtly anti-poor mayor that I've met during my nine years in DC. Both he and Fenty have told lies of omission or emission to the public concerning the poor; but, Gray has gone so far as to accuse homeless families of gaming the system in order to get free room and board as well as other amenities. He had Deputy Mayor Beatriz "BB" Otero to begin that narrative in an April 30th, 2013 e-mail to dozens of advocates. At this point, several other members of his administration have used that narrative -- including Director of the Dept. of Human Services David Berns who is also on the record as saying that he can't end homelessness.

David Berns has told me that, while it's cheaper to house a homeless family ($15,000/yr) than it is to shelter them ($50,000+/yr), it's actually cheaper to shelter homeless individuals who don't have mental or physical handicaps than it is to house them. This begins to explain why the city has finally begun an effort to house homeless families, though we can't ignore all of the public pressure that's been applied. it's a fiscal decision, not a moral one.

What could DC Government possibly know about morals? They disinvest in public housing and allow it to fall into disrepair, only to have police Chief Cathy Lanier say that public housing is the worst thing to happen to poor people in lieu of the disrepair. I told her, in response, that it is now the government -- not the banks -- doing the "red-lining". Poor people in various developments (government- and business-owned) are told to move out of their units during renovations and that they'll have the right to return at the same rent levels, only to have those promises broken time and time again. We have Arthur Capper, Kelsey Gardens and Temple Court just to name a few.

But DC's failures toward the poor community extend far beyond issues of shelter and housing. The sad account of RELISHA RUDD is just another chapter in this ongoing saga of DC's systemic failure of the poor. Her mother was visited by Child Protective Services due to 1 -- having filthy living quarters, 2 -- having insufficient food in the house, 3 -- failure to provide necessary medical attention and 4 -- child abuse. Her kids weren't removed. If any effort was made to improve her parenting skills, it didn't work. Now her eldest child is missing and presumed dead with her having released the girl into the custody of someone who should never have had time alone with the girl. He's since killed his wife and himself.

This story wreaks of incompetency on the part of CPS and is reminiscent of the Banita Jacks case in which a poor Afro-American woman was reported to CPS, allowed to keep her four girls and ended up killing them as early as May 2007 with police finding the bodies in her freezer in January 2008. I personally know a grandmother whose 5-year old grandson has asthma and epilepsy. The boy's mother left him in a mall parking lot at four years old. police found him. He was given by CPS to the grandmother for 11 months and returned to the mother who still uses drugs and leaves him home alone. The grandmother fears for his life. Could this be micro-genocide/democide at the local level???

Denise Gibson was taken away from her mother at age 6 in 1990 due to her mother having become homeless. She aged out of foster care in 2005 and became homeless. Her year-old daughter was taken away. She had a son in February 2011 and he was homeless for his first month of life. The Washington Post patted DC Government on the back for housing Denise in late 2011. The Huffington Post wrote a more accurate response article which blamed DC Government for not interrupting the cycle of generational poverty.

Only about half of DC students (51%) have graduated in recent years. 36% of Washingtonian adults are functionally illiterate. 90% of Washingtonian adults have diplomas. If 90% have diplomas and only 64% are functionally literate, then 26% are being given diplomas that they didn't earn. It's been determined that 68% of jobs in DC require an education beyond high school but only 25% of Washingtonians received an education beyond high school. This is the same school system that failed to report RELISHA RUDD's absences to police until she'd been missing for over three weeks.

Several years ago Councilman Marion Barry began a poverty commission that didn't get far. He was supposedly going to figure out how to combat poverty in DC; but, he was censured for seemingly unrelated reasons and had his committee assignment taken away. Since then, no one in DC Government has taken up the cause.

As the conversation around the future of the CCNV/Federal City Shelter continues, I see that the concerns of the business community are moving to the fore and slowly replacing the concerns of the homeless community -- the latter of which is quite disenfranchised and often won't stand up for itself. The process has not evolved enough for me to definitively point the finger; but CCNV, like Franklin School, is also in the part of town covered by Downtown BID. This is cause for concern.

Taken together, these considerations paint a grim picture of there being a concerted effort within the ranks of DC Government and the business community to push the poor out of DC. Create laws that cause the rent to skyrocket. Disinvest in public housing. Close shelters only to disinvest in the housing programs that replaced them. Disinvest in public education. Allow incompetency to reign supreme for years on end within Child Protective Services. Take poor families and color them bad. Break promises to allow former residents to return to renovated properties. Veil your desire to push poor people out of the city in a facade of caring i.e. closing "uninhabitable dwellings" without one-for-one replacement. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

I asked, "What does the story of a missing 8-year old homeless girl named RELISHA RUDD (who was failed by several DC Government agencies) have to do with the business community's government-sanctioned plan to rid the city of poor people?" Simply put, if you fail to adequately deliver much-needed social services to the same poor community that you failed to properly educate and who can't compete in the local job market, they'll leave the city out of necessity. James Earl Jones might just put it like this: "If you tear it down, they will leave".

Now maybe you've begun to see why some people refer to "urban renewal" as "negro removal". It's not that Afro-Americans don't like nice things. It's that we can't afford to remain after those "nice things" are built in our neighborhoods.


Anonymous said…
Spot on Eric as always. What is happening in DC is happening throughout the country. Eventually, this sham of a democracy will be exposed for what it truly is, a crumbling empire with delusions of grandeur.

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