DC Government's Attitude Toward the Working Poor

When I began advocating for the homeless in June 2006, my colleagues and I were fighting against the Williams administration's proposed closure of the Franklin School Shelter. Our arguments included the fact that the shelter was located in Downtown Washington, DC near multiple subway stations and several bus lines that made it easy for the working homeless to get to their jobs. We also argued that every shelter should make accommodations for the working homeless to reserve their beds and not have to choose between working and having a shelter bed – a tough choice indeed, especially during inclement weather.

Franklin School Shelter was eventually closed by the Fenty administration after Adrian Fenty made campaign promises to members of the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter in which he stated that, once elected, he would not close Franklin. CSFS began the process of becoming a non-profit under the name Until We're Home inc. but disbanded before that process was complete. Some of the former members went away, never to be heard from again. At least one has died. Others, like myself, have continued to advocate either with other groups or as individuals. But my advocacy has retained its emphasis on homeless employment.

I DID jump on the Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) bandwagon and advocate for housing for the disabled homeless. It was due, in part, to me having been told that after the most vulnerable homeless were helped that the least vulnerable who just had employment issues would be housed and connected to employment. PSH was first talked about at the local level (in earnest anyway) in April 2008. Hundreds of vulnerable people were hurriedly and haphazardly housed in the last week of September 2008. More than six years later, the program has not gotten around to assisting homeless a-bods (able-bodied people); the Department of Human Services (DHS) administration has gone through several turnovers during the last two mayoral administrations and the DHS administrators who've been involved for at least seven years seem to have forgotten that promise.

Fast forward to the summer of 2010. ONE DC, a non-profit that fights for affordable housing in DC's Shaw neighborhood, organized the creation of a tent city in response to Adrian Fenty's broken promise to build affordable housing on a city-owned plot of land known as “Parcel 42”. We occupied the land from July 10th until October 7th when the city tore it down. Then-Councilman Michael Brown visited our site and during our conversation he said, “Even if the city were to create affordable housing for those who make $35,000 per year of less [and can pay $900/month or less], everything else in DC is so expensive that they still wouldn't be able to live here”. We would have to assume that the current council and administration are thinking along similar lines; as this would explain why rents have been allowed to skyrocket and why the city has decreased its commitment to connecting hard-to-employ people to jobs.

The average rent now sits at around $1,500 per month, requiring that a full-time worker make almost $30 per hour. Dozens of affordability covenants that the city signed with landlords have been allowed to expire simultaneously, causing rents in those complexes to go from $1,000 to $1,600 all at once. Add to this the fact that DC Government's Department of Employment Services (DOES) under Muriel Bowser has been changed from a stand-alone department with a cabinet-level director to a division of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). DOES is more of a social service than anything else, primarily assisting poor and difficult-to-employ people. That begs the question, “Why put them under DCRA and not DHS?”. It also begs the bigger question, “Are demoting the director's position from the cabinet level to the division level and tucking DOES away within DCRA the mayor's way of showing that she has little or no interest in assisting those who'll probably never be high-income earners?”. Taken together, the city's failure to do everything (or even “ANYTHING”) within its power to keep rents down and the new administration's way of distancing itself from the working or willing-to-work poor create a message that city officials just want the poor to leave. Then again, the low-wage workers deliver some much-needed services to the local economy. Without hospitality workers in our hotels and restaurants, the capital's tourism industry would go belly-up.

Fast forward to February 2013 when a Washington Post article indicated that a pilot program in which 11 homeless parents were being trained in construction trades was shut down, in spite of 10 people succeeding with one having had a stroke and become disabled (evidently the swiftest way to acquire housing). Now slow forward a mere two months and the recently-departed administration is issuing statements wherein they strongly imply that homeless parents are lazy and shiftless. The latter would seem to be nothing more than a fabricated lie which is being used to justify draconian policies that force low-income workers out of the city.

In spite of the important contributions that low-wage workers make to the local economy, getting homeless service providers to make a robust effort to assist homeless a-bods with their employment issues has been – and continues to be -- an uphill battle. I've done several blog posts that address this issue. I've been featured in multiple articles that highlight this issue. I hear homeless people asking for employment assistance on a regular basis. I stood up at the October 2014 bi-monthly meeting of the DC ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) and told the group that we need to do something for the a-bods before they reach retirement age. Then there was the December ICH meeting which, to my elation, was preceded by a roundtable discussion on homeless employment. While this roundtable discussion says nothing about the mayor's or council's interest in homeless people's employment, it is a good starting point for building momentum – and build momentum we will.

In the past I've harped about how the U.S. Dept.of Labor and a 1,350-bed shelter are right across the road from each other and yet DOL has not attempted to connect any of these homeless people to employment. I actually DO understand how administrations work and that US DOL is a federal agency, not a local one. It's just an awkward geographical coincidence. As if that weren't enough, there are now plans to build a platform with several buildings over the I-395 underpass which is just north of the shelter. This puts the Dept.of Labor, a ginormous shelter and a super-ginormous construction project in consecutive blocks.

A couple of colleagues and I met with members of the development team of Property Group Partners (PGP) and Balfour Beatty Construction on December 15th, 2014 to discuss homeless employment. The developers were very accommodating. They promised to modify their website by posting instructions for obtaining employment there (a process which is not completely intuitive). They asked me for a list containing aggregate numbers of people who can perform various trades; but, shelter staff has not been accommodating in terms of allowing me to gather such information. More recently, PGP offered to purchase food and find meeting space for a meeting that my associates and I plan to hold with homeless job seekers. PGP/BB have become awesome partners and offered a ray of hope for the working poor. I look forward to continuing this relationship.

Hardly a day goes by anymore where I don't tell someone that, “Before you call a homeless person lazy, you should offer them a job and whatever other supports they need to make it to the first check”. This is a basic principle that our government needs to wrap its collective head around. It looks as though my colleagues and I will need to make this happen, in spite of the government. Not a problem. On Wednesday, January 21st, 2014 American University Professor Dan kerr, 17 of his students, other invited guests and myself will meet at Washington, DC's MLK, Jr. Library in Room A-3 from 9:30 to 11 AM to begin a process of documenting the struggles that homeless people have obtaining employment. Once videos are made and the website built, we'll present this information to policy makers for their consideration. Let's move things forward, in spite of the government. The beat goes on.


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