Ending Homelessness: DC's Failure and the World's Efforts

I am known for a number of things that I do – namely for my homeless advocacy. I'm also known for my bass-baritone singing. Then there is my dancing. But this past Tuesday dozens of people were reminded of my propensity for brutal honesty and for being the bearer of bad tidings. After all, homelessness is bad news and the grim reality is that capitalism is a hurtful system that permeates the world. Those who own or control large sums of money are driven by the profit motive and don't want to do anything that will cut into their ungodly amount of profit – such as lowering rents or feeding the poor. And they surely don't want land to be used for the social good of all by, for example, being made available for poor people to build modest homes on. It is truths like these that caused me to add this slogan to my e-mail signature recently: “Asking an advocate for the poor to be nice is like asking a soldier to fight a war without a weapon”.

On Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 the bi-monthly meeting of DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) took place at New York Ave Presbyterian Church (the church of Abraham Lincoln). Weeks earlier the tabulation for the January 29th point-in-time homeless enumeration had been published, revealing a 13% increase in Washngton, DC's homeless population in one year – as the surrounding counties in the DC metro area posted an overall decrease. During the first public comment portion of the meeting, I told a room full of DC Government personnel and homeless service providers – many of whom make $100,000 or more per year – that we're failing. I stated the astronomical increase in homelessness as the basis for my statement. The city administrator who chairs ICH meetings disagreed and said, “We're not failing. We're facing bigger challenges”. Such statements by city officials begin to explain why some homeless advocates view these meetings as “government masturbation”: government folk making themselves feel good.

I was accompanied to this meeting by Lorena Za`rate, the president of Habitat International Coalition (HIC) which fights for the right to housing in about 120 countries and has gotten other countries to make the right to housing part of their constitutions. She was impressed by the fact that homeless people were allowed to attend and speak at the meeting but appalled by the fact that people are homeless in such a rich and powerful country, let alone being homeless in the capital of that country.

Apart from my mention of the increase in homelessness in DC from 6,859 people in 2013 to 7,748 in 2014 with a population of +/- 650,000, there was no other mention of this disturbing statistic. This was rather alarming to me in lieu of how Sue Marshall, the director of The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), whose organization oversees the HUD-mandated count has, in past years explained what she believes to be the reasons for the increase or decrease in homelessness. The meeting was extremely subdued and ended earlier than usual, leaving extra time for public comment. Hmmm.

This was the first meeting since Kristy Greenwalt became director of the ICH. She began her cabinet-level job at this newly-created position on April 28th which was only about eight months before the mayor leaves office. Hmmm. She was actively participating in meetings about DC homelessness as far back as December 2013. What made it more peculiar that this failure of the system was only given short shrift was the fact that the federal H.E.A.R.T.H. Act requires DC and other city and state governments to meet certain benchmarks by August 31st in terms of ending homeless, which begins to explain why Ms. Greenwalt was hired toward the end of her boss' term. It should also be noted that Kristy has talked about how most of the ICH's work is done in committee, not at the larger bi-monthly meetings. This is a basic truth about committee structure; but, playing too deeply into it can cause the bi-monthly meetings to become pro forma and pointless.

After the meeting, I introduced Lorena to several people including Kristy. Lorena and Kristy had a brief exchange that I didn't listen in on. Though it stands to reason that they didn't get into any deep philosophical discussion, I almost wish that they had. Those who address homelessness from Washington, DC – at the federal AND local level – stand to learn a lot from a foreigner, especially Lorena Za`rate.

My first encounter with Lorena was on June 15th, 2014 as I exited the annual convention of the National Alliance of HUD Tenants (NAHT) on my way to the convenience store and she entered the convention. I'd been asked by NAHT to show her around DC. So, I'd taken the time to look her up on-line. As we passed on a concrete island in the middle of the road, I called out, “Lorena!” to which she seemed slightly startled. We spoke and went on our separate ways.

Moments later, we were in the convention hall together. She got to hear me deliver a short but fiery speech. She was on immediately after me. I was thrilled to hear the Marxist leanings in her speech. When she returned to our table, I whispered to her that people would call her a Communist to which she replied, Ï don't care”. I knew then that I loved her.

We spent much time together for the next four days until she had to catch her plane to Canada on the 19th. I brought her to the offices of several agencies that serve the homeless on a local or national level. But during this time I heard her say things that the governments of our nation have yet to sufficiently understand. She opposes the corporate ownership of land and believes that it should be made available for the greater social good. She believes that the right to housing should be granted in any and all national constitutions. She has talked about the need for a well-rounded approach to ending homelessness – one that involves policies that make all of the surplus housing available to the poor and homeless. Lorena Za`rate is a God-send. I love her.

I juxtaposed the most recent ICH meeting and my mention of Lorena Za`rate in this blog post so as to present the problem along with the soluion – a long-standing habit of mine. In times past, I've told the ICH that they should put more attention on housing the “least vulnerable” insomuch as they can be connected to jobs and weaned off of social services whereas the “most vulnerable” will go from shelter to government-subsidized housing but will remain in the system. Helping those who can work will eventually alleviate resources which can then be used on the most vulnerable. This argument represents a solution that has fallen on deaf ears. (I, for years now, have mentioned much simpler ideas such as putting binders containing the descriptions of various homeless and public services in all homeless shelters and day centers so that the homeless can help themselves to this info. That too has yet to be done, as simple and cheap as it is.)

Though city officials aren't likely to tell you this, I have a sneaky suspicion that the profit motive and the unwillingness to attract poor people to DC or even retain the long-time poor residents that are here have a lot to do with this supposed “failure” that I write about. Doing more to assist the least vulnerable would be a tactical solution that wouldn't create a direct afront to the wealthy; whereas, presenting housing as a human right and encouraging public ownership of the necessities of life would be a matter of principle that would indeed create a direct afront to the wealthy. Both are needed. In DC we have neither. That's why we have an ever-increasing number of homeless people.


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