Sunday, October 26, 2014

Worker Wednesdays in 2015: MEANLY FORCE DC Mayor to Employ the homeless

Of late I've thought a lot about and said a lot about the need to be mean and forceful in order to get government and others to do what poor people need done in order to afford to live. And while I have talked for my full eight years of homeless advocacy about what able-bodied homeless people need in order to find meaningful employment (with the last five years being well-documented on-line), I recently decided that homeless employment is ALL that I'll focus on. At the October 21st meeting of DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) I announced that decision and explained that there are many people speaking up for other sub-populations of the homeless community.

I also said that we should get the homeless working before they reach retirement age. That statement actually drew a little laughter, speaking of which, there were several times during that meeting that well-paid people broke out into laughter. Some of the homeless and formerly homeless people were actually offended by the light-hearted spirit of those whom we sometimes refer to as “poverty pimps”. Just days earlier I was taken aback by a photo of a Mike Brown protest in which the Blacks looked worried or angry while the Caucasian sympathizers were all smiles. Thanks for the sympathy ; but, mourn with those who mourn. Don't be happy-go-lucky around the mournful. (Read Proverbs.)

This morning I went to my second breakfast of the day at Asbury United Methodist Church at the corner of 11th and K Streets in Northwest DC. They feed on the fourth Sunday of each month beginning around 9:30 AM and closing down between 10:30 and 11. The crowd was especially large today. All of the nearly 200 seats were filled with about 50 people (myself included) standing around the wall. I'd never seen it that full in the several years that I've attended fourth-Sunday breakfast there. I also noticed that, like I stated at my regular church a few blocks away just over a month ago, there were considerably more Hispanics in attendance. (Yo amo a los Hispanicos y puedo hablar poquito espanol.)

While there, I spoke to a couple of the women who volunteer there each month about both concerns. One was a good friend named Carlotta James whose youthful appearance belies her nearly 60 years of age and whose husband Jesse James also volunteers there. The other was a woman in her 70's named Sandra who does the introduction and instructs the often loud group on rules and procedures. Sandra commands a lot of respect and doesn't care if you think of her as a “mean old lady”. I like her style. When I mentioned the number of people in the room and the threat of a visit from the fire marshal, Sandra (who doesn't answer to “Sandy”) said, “That's what we need. I want them to come”. I guess she wants to bring attention to the burgeoning homeless population in any which way she can. I told her about the increased number of Hispanics and the need to instruct people in Spanish to which she said that she used to know some Spanish due to having been married to a Panamanian and that she had, of late, considered brushing up on it for the stated reason. My final point to her, with Carlotta having returned to work at this point, was that I am sometimes accused of being too mean to government officials as I press them for solutions to homelessness. Sandra said quite matter-of-factly that “Sometimes you need to be that way in order to get things done”. Needless to say – though I'll say it anyway – I love Sandra. (I also love Carlotta.) Sandra is wise enough to know that meanness is often necessary. That's probably the understatement of the millennium.

It's not hard to make the case for why advocates for the poor need to be mean. The late but still-renowned homeless advocate Mitch Snyder is on record as having said, in so many words, that advocates for the poor have to be mean and aggressive in order to force the powers that be to notice and address the issue of poverty; because, government would rather do the bidding of the wealthy and the well-to-do. After all, capitalism is a tyrannical system that permeates the world. But it's not as monolithic as one might think. We just need to be organized and have a lot of fight.

Former one-term mayor Adrian Fenty was in his second year when he implemented Permanent Supportive Housing in 2008. That program was initially funded with federal money and by the end of 2010 had housed about 2,000 mentally- and/or physically-disabled homeless people. It took 15 months of prodding him before he announced the effort on April 1st, 2008 with the first people being housed in early September of that year.

Current one-term mayor Vince Gray is in his fourth year, having lost the Democratic primary on April 1st, 2014. In March of this year, after 38 months of prodding and the abduction of an 8-year old girl from the family shelter, Mayor Gray announced a plan to house 500 families in 100 days beginning on April 1st. The plan was partially successful. On October 14th, 2014 he issued a plan to replace the 288-room DC General Family Shelter (of which 40 units are condemned) with six apartment buildings that would contain a total of 300 temporary units for homeless families. This plan is set to be fully implemented by November 2015, ten months after he leaves office, making it unenforceable and tenuous.

Adrian Fenty used what I refer to as “the facade of caring” to justify the closure of the DC Village Family Shelter in October 2007 and the Franklin School Shelter in September 2008 as he told the general public that either facility was “unfit for human habitation” and led them to believe that the housing programs which he implemented in connection with each shelter closure would provide ample housing. Both programs have had funding problems and the current mayor has not fully invested in either. Fenty also failed to tell the general public that, while there were 6,044 homeless people eight months before Franklin closed, there were 6,539 homeless people in January 2010. Even with so many people being housed, the government couldn't keep pace with the increase in homelessness. With Franklin being closed, we now have more homeless people than we had when it was open. We counted 7,748 this past January, up from 6,859 last year. (That's an increase of 889 or 12.9% in one year.)

Mayor Gray used starkly different tactics. He painted a picture for the general public of homeless parents whose average age range is 18 to 24 years old as being a bunch of lazy, shiftless moochers who just want to game the system. He got others in his administration to sing the same song. His deputy mayor of health and human services Beatriz “BB” Otero made the grave error of sending a memo with a message to that effect out to many homeless advocates. I still have it saved on the laptop from which I'm presently blogging and I periodically remind people of her words.

All of this brings to mind two patterns that should be of utter importance to all DC-based homeless advocates. It took about two and a half times as long to get Gray to make a robust effort to house homeless families as it took to get his predecessor to make a robust effort to house disabled homeless singles. At this rate, the next mayor can be expected to make a robust effort to help another sub-population of the homeless beginning in his (hopefully) or her 95th month, which puts us at November 2022 or later. With the last two mayors having done just one term, this means we might never get there.

The second pattern has to do with exactly what sub-populations we're talking about and what seemingly-humane reasons mayor can conjure up for ignoring or under-serving them. Local homeless service providers have a bit of a fixation on the “vulnerability index”. The “V.I.” affords service providers with a tool for determining which homeless people get housed first and which ones can be allowed to linger in shelter or on the streets. DC's last two mayors have applied the underlying principles of the V.I. In their own ways. Fenty knew that he couldn't, with a straight face, refuse to help the mentally- or physically-disabled homeless adults; as they are fully vulnerable. Gray knew that, while 20-ish homeless parents without mental or physical issues are not vulnerable, their small children are. Gray pushed harder and longer against the tide of advocacy on their behalf but eventually caved. Able-bodied homeless singles (those without dependent spouses or children) are clearly the least vulnerable – yea even totally invulnerable. The next mayor might go so far as to utterly refuse to help able-bodied homeless singles all the way through his or her first term and, if re-elected, well into the second term. Have I told you that the last two mayors each did only one term???
 
Rents have steadily risen in Washington, DC over the past 10 to 15 years. I moved here in 2005. Currently the average rent sits at $1,500 per month which requires that one make about $30 per hour if working full time. Some years ago, DC Government signed dozens of affordability covenants with landlords across the city. All of them are expiring simultaneously. Rents are jumping from $1,000 to $1,600 per month all at once. People who are halfway through their year-long leases are being given two-months' notice of the 60% increase. There is bound to be a wave of evictions in April, as landlords may not evict during inclement weather. Furthermore, the cost of DC Government maintaining the housing of the formerly-homeless people in their housing programs could soon increase by 60% or result in 38% of those people returning to homelessness. (With rents jumping to eight-fifths or 160% of what they used to be, the same pot of government money will house only five-eighths or 62.5% of what it used to house.) I predict that DC will have at least 11,000 homeless people by January 2016 and 15,000 by 2020 if nothing changes. DC Government should aim to house at least 3,000 homeless people total for each of the next five years with most of them being connected to living-wage jobs and eventually weaned off of the system.

I should add that the average life expectancy for a homeless person was recently raised from 50 to 52 years. In any instance, I have less than seven years of life left. (If I don't quit smoking AGAIN, my time might be considerably shorter than that.) But whenever I meet my maker, this particular blog post can be used to state my position on how the homeless advocates should proceed. Never let it be said that anyone attributed an idea to me that I didn't support during my life -- the way they do with MLK, Jr., Mitch Snyder and Jesus Christ. I don't support anyone being nice to a capitalistic government that primarily does the bidding of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. I support meanness and revolution that forces the wealthy and their governments to adequately and comprehensively assist and employ the poor. I also would like to return to work – but not without a major victory on the homeless advocacy front. Let's see what comes first: me obtaining a living-wage job and affordable housing or death. (I'll be 52 in 2021 if I see it.)

All things considered, we need to reverse the pattern whereby it has taken longer to procure a robust effort by the mayor to assist the homeless. We need to see if we can get a major announcement by April 1st, 2016 from the mayor-elect to employ at least 2,000 homeless singles and house at least 1,000 others each year and have the plan implemented within six months thereafter. We should have future prevention built into the plan. But that will require relentless prodding no matter who wins.

The famously mean David Catania seems to be better-suited for satisfying this goal than Muriel Bowser. I love his mean streak. A sweet mayor won't be able to combat the pervasive business interests that are gentrifying Washington, DC at an ever-increasing rate. It is with this in mind that I plan to type up a plan for connecting homeless singles to employment and presenting that plan to the 14 offices of the mayor and the DC Council beginning in early 2015 or even on Wednesday, November 5th. I'll try to do it at the same time on “Worker Wednesday” each week. I'll announce it on-line. Hopefully many will join me. Though none go with me, I still will prod the mayor.

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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Job Discrimination Against the Homeless: Shirley Contracting and DC's First-Source Law

CORRECTION: I continue to gather more facts about the large Shirley Contracting (Clark Construction Group) project near the CCNV Shelter. The project will net Shirley $1.3 billion, not the $2.8 billion I was previously told. That doesn't change my argument that they should be made to do more to hire DC residents, such as establish an employment trailer in Washington, DC as opposed to prospective employees needing to travel all the way to Lorton, VA for an interview. Here are a couple of links about the 2.2 million square-foot project known as "Capitol Crossings": ARTICLE and WEBSITE

It's been said by social justice advocates and activists that, “There are 20 years that don't make a day; and then, there's that day that makes 20 years”. I think I just had my day that makes 20 years on October 3rd, 2014. I attended a hearing at Washington, DC's City Hall (The John A. Wilson Building). It was about the 41% cut to TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) that went into effect on October 1st, 2014. I didn't plan to testify, only to observe. However, as I heard various homeless or poor mothers and one single woman from the non-profit community testify, the gears began turning and I gave into tempation.

A woman on the previous four-person panel set things off when she shifted from talking about the increased hardships that she and her child will endure as a result of the near-half reduction in public benefits to talking about how she doesn't believe that city officials really want to end homelessness or poverty. She even talked about how the system that creates or deepens people's poverty then blames those people for their poverty and was one of at least two mothers who talked about how more poor people will commit crimes of survival as their public benefits are cut. They went on to mention the prison-industrial complex and how that, as people commit crimes of survival, prisons are being built and expanded and police are at the ready to arrest the poor and throw them in jail where money can be made off of them.

I shared the testimony table with three mothers. Naila (nah – EE – lah) is still relatively new to advocacy. Other long-term advocates and I have been offering our support to get her started. She sat to my right. Naila was the first person on our panel to speak. She told of homeless parents being intimidated by staff for speaking out about shelter conditions and of how the homeless families at the Quality Inn, courtesy of DC Government, had received notices of eviction with nowhere to go and no one to talk to. I fleshed out what the woman on the previous panel said by giving some very specific examples of systemic failures that add up to poor people being gentrified out of the city or that make their lives harder. After all, I've dealt with DC Government for eight years and some change. I know about their major SNAFU's since June 2006 first-hand and have heard about others that occurred prior to my becoming a homeless advocate. A woman who shares my mother's name and put herself through professional schooling while homeless sat to my left. A woman who suffers from Dyslexia but has three gifted children sat to the right of Naila who broke into tears as she heard the mother of three speak. I held and comforted her.

Councilman Jim Graham was so impressed with the testimonies of our panel that he strongly advised us to organize for power. Immediately after our panel was finished, the four of us stood, exchanged hugs (which is uncommon at a hearing) and walked into the hall to exchange contact info and plan when we would meet to organize. (That will happen on Monday, October 6th at 1 PM at the MLK, Jr. Library in Room A-9.) I was impressed by the fluidity of our collective testimonies even though we hadn't collaborated on them. I was also impressed by the critique of the capitalist system that took place during the hearing. It was reminiscent of the hearing a day earlier before the same councilman concerning the future of the CCNV Shelter. During that hearing a man who is new to advocacy talked mainly about the hurtful effects of the capitalist system and the fact that much of what city officials claim to do out of concern for homeless people is just a facade. While myself and other advocates have known these things for years, it is unusual for a person who is testifying to exit the topic of the hearing and give a general critique of the system; and, it is almost unheard of to have several people's testimonies so unintentionally and coincidentally build the case for an indictment against the same.

During my testimony I mentioned the fact that there weren't many homeless families present at a hearing that directly affects them; because, they don't have enough money to ride the transit system – that the problem we were there to discuss was self-compounding insomuch as the decreased funds decrease the ability of the poor to attend events where they should be speaking out about their plight. I also said that,though it's rather pie-in-the-sky, maybe we should approach the transit authority about assisting homeless families by giving them free rides or reduced fares, especially when attending such a meeting. Councilman Graham would later say that he can help with transportation. I also mentioned the fact that,with homeless families at the Quality Inn having been told to leave with nowhere to go and no one to talk to about their plight, we were returning to the atrocities of the winter of 2010-11.

During that winter, homeless mothers were turned away from an over-crowded shelter with their infants and toddlers in tow and given tokens to ride the bus all night. (The buses stop between 2 and 5 AM.) One particular boy who was born onFebruary 10th spent his first month of life homeless as his mother slept with him in her storage unit, the Greyhound station and the stairwell of an unsecured apartment building. I too mentioned the insufficient political will to end homelessness, as I had the day before. At both hearings I mentioned Shirley Contracting which has begun a large 10-year building project right across the road from the shelter and only made a token effort to hire homeless people. I'm left to wonder if they've made any more of an effort to hire other Washingtonians.

I left the hearing at about 1:20 PM to go to an interview with an American University student who wanted to know about the phenomenon whereby homeless people are made to feelinvisible. Along with one other man, I told her about how the general public often tries not to notice a homeless person. I told her of how homeless parents often sleep in the bushes of various parks for fear that if they apply for shelter, the shelter is full and they are honest about not having anywhere to sleep indoors, then theirchildren will be taken away. This causes homeless parents to want to become “invisible”. I also told her about FEMA camps that are being erected in various cities, ostensibly in preparation for a disaster, and are being used as homeless shelters where a homeless person must go and is not allowed to leave without an escort in a van.

Then it was on to the radio station where I was one of three people on an hour-long show that centered around the book by my good friend, former Cleveland resident and current American University professor Dan Kerr called “DerelictParadise”. His book addresses poverty pimping from an academic standpoint. It shows the connection between the cheap labor afforded by day labor halls, the race to the bottom in terms of wages and the increase in homelessness since 1945. Dan, a Caucasian, beat me to the punch by being the first to mention that “urban renewal” is actually”negro removal”. (I really WAS getting ready to say that in my next comment when he said it. Great minds think alike.) It was here at WPFW 89.3 FM during the show with Garland Nixon from 6 to 7PM on October 3rd, 2014 that I mentioned the indictment of Shirley Contracting for the third time in two days (all three times having been taped and made available in the public domain.) The indictment is as follows:

In late August or early September 2014 Shirley Contracting which is a subsidiary of Clark Construction began work on a 10-year project near the 200 block of E Street NW in Washington, DC. There is a shelter building which holds up to 1,350 of the city's 8,000+ homeless people which is located diagonally across the road on the southeast corner of the same intersection. It contains three separate shelters, a clinic, a drug program and a kitchen that feeds 5,000 poor people per day and is collectively known as the Federal City Shelter. The CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) is one of those shelters in the building with 950 of the beds. There are probably 300 people in that building who are fully capable of doing construction labor. There may be upwards of 100 who have skills in the construction trades.

Washington, DC has what are called “First Source Laws” which mandate that employers make a good-faith effort to ensure that at least 51% of their employees are DC residents. After they make a good-faith effort to hire DC residents, they are allowed to hire people from outside of DC. The following amounts to what I suspect was a token effort to hire DC residents and one which uses homeless people in ways that the homeless might not be aware.

I was told by a man who, along with his co-workers, comes from the Academy of Sciences during his lunch break to help homeless people write resumes and apply on-line for jobs that Shirley Contracting had indeed contacted the shelter administration to inform them that the company was hiring. This friend had been led to believe that the company wanted to hire a large number of people from the shelter. The shelter administration did not make it their business to convey this information to all residents, though I have no complaint about the man who told me.

I went to the company's website, sent them a message expressing my desire to discuss them hiring homeless people, made a flier with their contact info along with what I'd been told and posted those fliers at the shelter. On or around September 10th I called Shirley Contracting. I was put through to a certain Carrie Carr-Maina (703-550-1127) and explained my understanding of the matter. She seemed rather friendly, for what that's worth to you. (She works in HR.) She said that, while she doesn't know who from her company contacted the shelter, she thinks that they might have simply told the shelter that Shirley is hiring but doubts that they stated a desire to hire any homeless people. She emphasized that anyone may apply. She explained that the application can be done on-line or in person at the office in Lorton Virginia which is beyond where the transit system goes and considerably difficult to get to – especially if you are a homeless person of limited means. (It stands to reason that the interview would be in Lorton even if one were to apply on-line.) Ms. Carr-Maina suggested getting a van and bringing 10 people out to apply in Lorton. She also told me that Shirley Contracting would be participating in a job fair at the Washington Convention Center on September 24th.

On September 23rd I called Carrie Carr-Maina to confirm that she would be at the job fair the next day. She said she would but then asked me if I'd seen her e-mail. I hadn't. She then proceeded to tell me that I was publishing bad information about Shirley Contracting that included the idea that the companywould transport homeless people to Lorton for the interview. I asked her when she sent it and she said the 15th. I thought that a mentally ill homeless advocate whom I know may have made his own version of my flier and sent it out in the name of SHARC, the advocate group that I chaired beginning at the group's inception in April 2011. When I went back and read the e-mail, it had a faxed copy of my flier and a company flier along with a message from Carrie about the large amount of human resources that were wasted dealing with people who were calling in based on bad information. My flier said nothing about the company having offered to ride homeless people to the office in Lorton.

During this conversation I asked her about the claim by a certain homeless man that Shirley Conracting was hiring through the Local 657 labor union for construction and general labor. She said, “No”. She also told me that many other Shirley jobs were coming to a close and that those workers would be transferred to the site near the shelter, leaving very few jobs for the homeless to obtain.

I received a text from a different number (702-358-0411) on September 23rd which said that the job fair was at the Doubletree Hotel in Crystal City. The number belongs to what appears to be an identity protection firm in Las Vegas named “Level 3 VoIP”. I'm left to wonder why anybody from Las Vegas is contacting me, with me having no connections there. I didn't actually see the text until the morning of the 24th. I'd hung fliers directing people to the Washington Convention days earlier. I now had to write what I thought was the proper address on the fliers by hand. But it was too late. Some people had already made their way to the Convention Center.

I wrote this entire experience off as water under the bridge and decided that I would still do all that I could to connect homeless people to the jobs across the street from the shelter. I printed the company flier that Carrie had sent me, which had very scant information about the company's job offerings. Then I went to the hearing about the shelter's future on October 2nd. During my testimony, I mentioned the irony of it being so hard for homeless people to get the job across the street. I highlighted that there was an affordable housing issue on one side of the road and a living-wage issue on the other side of the road. What I would hear another man testify about moments later would cause the plot to thicken.

The last man to testify was new to advocacy. He made an indictment of the system as a whole and talked about how DC is being given to the wealthy and the well-to-do. Then he mentioned his experience dealing with Shirley Contracting. He'd initially been told that the job fair was in Crystal City. He claims that it actually took place in Pentagon City. At that moment I realized that I wasn't the only one to be given the run-around by Shirley Contracting and that it wasn't a matter of my own carelessness. I made sure to mention my updated assessment at the October 3rd hearing and during my October 3rd broadcast.

I've brought this matter up during several of my in-person conversations (as opposed to radio broadcasts). My friends and associates agree with me that, if Shirley has a project which will net them $1.3 billion and which will last for 10 years, they should have to establish a DC office or a mere office trailer on the job site where Washingtonians can apply and interview. We also agree that Shirley just used the homeless. Irrespective of their homeless status, the 1,350 people at the Federal City Shelter are DC residents. Shirley could, in theory, call the shelter director to say that they are hiring and then put that down as having reached out to over 1,000 DC residents about prospective employment with the company. Not only would it bring them closer to reaching the bare minimum of DC residents so as to justify them looking outside of the city for employees, in accordance with the First Source Laws. It might also bring them closer to satisfying some federal law that mandates that they reach out to depressed communities and other disadvantaged groups – such as “Equal Opportunity Laws”.

We can't let this token effort pass as a satisfaction of either law. Let's strengthen either law so as to require Shirley Contracting to establish a DC-based employment office and to visit the shelter and talk directly to groups of prospective employees at the shelter across the road. Let's take it a step further by strictly defining the real employment opportunities that they must offer and the reasonable accommodations that they must make to enable homeless people to obtain employment at the site across the road. They should also have to help them make it through until their first check – namely with cash advances against their hours worked. They should have to do this last thing for at least two weeks and, at most, five or six weeks. I've picked a fight with Shirley. Who will join that fight?????


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