DC Mayor Muriel Bowser Might Actually End Homelessness!!!

In recent weeks many people have asked my thoughts on DC Mayor Muriel Bowser who took office on January 2nd, 2015. I tell them that, while I believe that she really wants to end homelessness, I worry that she doesn't have the right people informing the process. Like I told Mayor Bowser at the January 28th homeless point-in-time count (one of at least five homeless/affordable housing events that I know she's attended since December 29th, 2014), I like her appointment of Laura Zeilinger as director of the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) and a few other cabinet appointments – kristy Greenwalt as director of the Inter-agency Council on homelessness (ICH), Brenda Donald as deputy mayor of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Polly Donaldson as director of the Dept. of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

I also told her that, after the results of the 2014 count indicated that there had been a 13% increase in DC homelessness in a single year (going from 6,859 in '13 to 7,748 in '14), we didn't have the usual report-out at the next bi-monthly ICH meeting; and, there's no sense in gathering the data if we aren't going to use it. (Mayor Bowser wants to use a data-driven approach.) I concluded by telling her that I'm on her side. And I am.

Unfortunately, folk in DC Government are often too professional to be practical, though I don't suspect the Bowser administration to suffer from “analysis paralysis”. I've gotten the sense that Ms. Bowser values "professional opinions” more than she values the opinions of those who are directly-affected by the social ill which is being addressed. Unless she changes this aspect of her nascent administration, it might just be her undoing. She has, on at least a couple of occasions, given homeless people short shrift when they told her about a problem. On the other hand, she's tapped people from the non-profit community to become part of her administration – with the lion's share of high-level positions going to women.

During the point-in-time count, Mayor Bowser said, “I know people are saying that you have to be a woman to work for me; but, I have some really great men working for me too”. She then acknowledged City Administrator Rashad Young. Period. (He's rather large; but, he still only qualifies as one man.) Howbeit, that was an awkward event in at least one other way: Various federal and city officials were introduced at least three times by the different speakers – Shaun Donovan, Sue Marshall and Muriel Bowser. I felt like shouting, “We know who the Hell they are! Will you quit introducing them already!”. I didn't.

That said, I got the feeling on December 29th that the mayor had a “girl power” thing going on; as, the event at Miriam's Kitchen which feeds 300 homeless people per day was a press conference about her cabinet appointments for positions that deal with homelessness. Though I saw it four days before she took office, I probably should've seen her "girl power" theme sooner. After all, the three previous mayors – all men – said that they'd end homelessness but didn't. So, if she succeeds, it will be to the chagrin of these men and will further validate women as a viable force in the world (or the city, anyway). Then again, who needs validation?! Just in case any woman reading this does, I am in full support of Mayor Muriel Bowser's “girl power” antics. I encourage her to do whatever gets the job done without deviating from good principle. The end justifies many (but not all) means.

As it turns out, Mayor Bowser is not the only one who feels that the city's failure to end homelessness has become the scourge of DC. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has made homelessness something that will be addressed by the COW (Committee Of the Whole). In the past it was the responsibility of the one councilperson who had oversight of the Dept. of Human Services. This developing dichotomy creates the potential for these “separate but equal” branches of government to come to logger heads over the approach. That has already begun to happen in a small way that I won't bother explaining here and now. But we can turn that negative into a positive by throwing much public support behind what we believe to be the better approach. (I would start by supporting the mayor insomuch as she's more capable of making unilateral decisions without any “congressional bickering” and I support and prefer the use of executive power over group decisions -- no matter who is in office or what their gender is.)

This would be a good place to mention the fact that I actually voted for former councilman David Catania as mayor because he has a mean streak which I believe is necessary to make government think and function better. While Mayor Bowser doesn't need to develop a mean streak in order to be effective, she DOES need to be able to force people to have the hard conversations – no matter how sweetly she commands them to do so. She needs to get her administration to admit when they are failing and to then rectify the situation. The failure to discuss the astronomical one-year increase in homelessness was due to certain people not wanting to discuss various grim realities related to homelessness and poverty or their own apparent weaknesses. They were kind to a fault. If they don't change swiftly, I'll need to change that diagnosis to “stuck on stupid”. Let's hope they change. Force the hard conversations.

With Ms. Bowser choosing to use a data-driven approach, we must remind ourselves that the same data can be interpreted differently by different people. However, when you consider that:

1 – DC had 5,757 homeless people in 2007
2 – Permanent Supportive Housing was launched in earnest in September 2008 and was federally-funded in Fiscal Years '09 and '10
3 – we had 6,546 homeless people in 2011 and
4 – we had 7,748 homeless people in 2014 (a 35% increase in seven years with 2015 results coming out in May).....

…..all you can irrefutably conclude is that nothing we've done to end homelessness has worked. All other conclusions must be derived from that one.

Mayor Bowser has repeatedly stated her support for Permanent Supportive housing. It's a good program in its own rite. It is worthy of increased funding. However, we need to do more than fund programs for the disabled if we're going to end homelessness. Data collected by a city contractor has indicated that at least half of the homeless are both able to work and under age 60. When you factor in the elders who choose to work, that may account for as much as 60% of DC's presumed 8,750 homeless people or 5,250 people.

Past administrations have avoided initiating any robust effort to connect homeless A-bods to living-wage jobs. I believe that it is part of a grand scheme to push all low-income people out of the city. But it also stands to reason that an effort to connect homeless A-bods to employment would expose unfair hiring and renting practices and put the city at odds with many developers, landlords and employers. I dare Mayor Muriel Bowser to rise to the challenge anyway. Force the hard conversations. Show that women have the power to challenge the status quo.

It's worth noting that many homeless advocates have been invigorated or reinvigorated by the mayor's resolve when it comes to ending homelessness. More than a few groups that work on homelessness and affordable housing have sprung into action and invited the mayor to speak at their events in the past five weeks. But, to my dismay, not much is being said about homeless employment. Even so, I am currently working with two professors and their two dozen students to gather data and do interviews that highlight the difficulties that many people (not just the homeless) have finding living-wage jobs. We'll present our findings to the DC Council and the mayor's administration by the end of May. Hopefully, this will cause the mayor to rise to the challenge of homeless employment and to force the hard conversations. Keep hope alive.


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