Half, Half & Half: How Mayor Bowser Can Reduce (and Eventually End) DC Homelessness

It's clear to anyone that's paying attention that DC mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration are Hell- (or shall I say “Heaven”???) bent on ending homelessness in the capital of the most poerful (though no longer the wealthiest) nation on Earth. I won't bother speculating (here and now, anyway) as to whether it's a “girl power” issue (which I'm not adverse to), a genuine concern for the homeless, a matter of bowing to public and media pressure or a matter of competing with the DC Council to deal with a clossal failure that has become the scourge of DC Government (with them having “tried” for over 10 years to end homelessness while it only increased). However, I will address my gravest concern and present a real solution.

“Homeless Czar(ina)” and ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt has gone on the record multiple times as realizing that there are systems that fall outside of the homeless services continuum and create homelessness. She realizes that her purview and those of some of her “sister” agencies are too narrow to end homelessness in and of themselves. She knows that we need affordable housing across the city – affordable housing that is not part of a government program. Yet she hasn't articulated just who is needed to make this happen – unless you consider that the mayor is the default person for this matter. Fact of the matter is that I personally have stood up in many Inter-agency Council on Homelessness meetings since June 2006 and said pretty much the same things that Kristy – who officially began her current post on April 28th, 2014 – is now saying.

Kristy is awesome and I have no beef with her. Nonetheless, It's appalling that anyone – a mayor, administrator or otherwise – would give greater credence to an idea when it comes from an administration official than they would when it comes from a directly-affected, homeless person. They should consider the idea on its own merits – not be so caught up on who it came from. In spite of me still loving her, I hold it against mayor Bowser that she seems to value the opinions of administration officials and non-profit personnel over the opinions of the unpaid homeless advocates – even when an advocate is intelligent and articulate and even though ending homelessness is her pet project.

On Wednesday, March 18th, 2015 there was a meeting about the mayor's five-year plan to end homelessness. Presenters of the plan and administration officials who fielded questions included Kristy Greenwalt, Ms Kelly Sweeney-McShane, Laura Zeilinger, Polly Donaldson and a woman from the DC Housing Authority. Girl Power. (Maybe the mayor is concerned that people will assume that she's focused on ending homelessness in order to appease my wrath and/or that she won't be seen as that “woman apart” that she so longs to be seen as if people think that she's being fed ideas by – of all people – a homeless man. Oh well.) Dozens of attendees were divided into eight groups with each having a facilitator. Due to the tight 90-minute schedule, only the presenters, administrators and facilitators addressed the entire room. Others spoke only within their small groups. Unfortunately, the facilitator at my table – a woman (which I believe all facilitators were, if memory serves) – failed to mention my “half, half & half idea. But before I explain it here, I'll mention what I think is the gravest concern when it comes to ending DC homelessness.

A failure to do conceptual planning that considers the reasons for past failures will be the downfall of my beloved Bowser administration. This is the only other thing that I hold against her. I recently spoke with a man I know who serves as a homeless advocate in San Jose, California. He told me of a public official in Cali who had a good heart and wanted to end homelessness in her jurisdiction but failed to look at why a previous plan failed. She failed again. As he gave this account, it sounded as though my alter ego were on the other end of the line talking to me. Here in DC it will be, “Same song, Different verse, A little bit louder, A little bit worse” if we aren't careful.

When I say that the plan must be conceptual, I mean that we can't decide what ideas to use based on what people are willing to do or feel good about. We must consider matters of principle such as the fact that past administrations have been willing to assist the most vulnerable due to them being helpless (Fenty) or ostracized able-bodied homeless parents by presenting them as lazy moochers (Gray) and we must tease out these thoughts instead of merely dancing around them. I also mean that we should categorize the types of things that need to be done to set able-bodied people back on their feet rather than blaming them for their condition, as the latter is a zero-sum statement that does nothing to solve the problem. We must recognize that our effort to do this will set up a major fight with employers, landlords and developers; but, we must start and win this fight.

We must also ensure that we aren't falsely defining the homeless problem as a disabled persons' issue in order to justify steering city contracts to the non-profits and funding relevant government agencies for yet another year. After all, many non-profits are funded to assist the disabled – regardless of how well or poorly they do this – and must draw a picture of continuous need in order to justify the continued existence and funding of the non-profit. We must also ensure that government reports such as the one that was issued in response to the disappearance and death of 8-year old Relisha Rudd from a homeless shelter are not written in defense of government agencies but are truly designed to solve and prevent systemic problems. Though Mayor Bowser inherited a terribly flawed system, she now needs to fix the aforementioned issues and incorporate these conceptual solutions.

That leads nicely into my half, half & half idea. Simply put, if the mayor wants to cut homelessness in half in one fell swoop, she needs to connect the approximate half of DC's 9,000 homeless people who are currently working to housing that they can currently afford by taking some or all of the $10,000 that the city spends annually sheltering each individual and using it to subsidize their rent. If a homeless person has been working for at least half a year on the same job and can pay at least half of the average $1,500/month rent, then the city should house them and subsidize their rent. This would cut the homeless population in half. Thus the name, “Half, Half & Half”.

When I mentioned the idea to Kristy after the March 18th meeting, she said that about 10,000 people use DC homeless services each year. This means that about 1,000 people pass through city shelters and move on. It also means that, a bed that's been vacated by a working homeless person who got housed may still be needed by someone else. Then again, if the mayor's recent conversation with Montgomery and Prince George County officials leads to these counties creating homeless services that are equally good to those of DC, that would reduce the influx from these other jurisdictions and might completely eliminate Kristy's argument.

Another variation of the idea is that homeless people who are working be encouraged to co-habitate. If each person has worked on the same job for at least half a year, can pay at least half of the rent and can get along with another homeless person of their choosing who meets the same requirements, then they can be placed in the same unit with continued city support for up to a year.

My fellow homeless advocates would not be happy about me offering an idea that might enable the city to justify the reduction of shelter space. So, let's be clear: I'm offering solutions to homelessness, irrespective of what happens to the vacated beds. Even so, I can support the elimination of one bed for every two people who move into housing, so long as the city has suitable methods in place for increasing shelter space on demand. That said, I'm glad the mayor wants to “do one thing and do it well”, as we used to say. (Of course she has to do a lot more than one thing; but, ending homelessness is her pet project, much to my elation.) FULL STOP.


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