DC's Decreasing Homelessness – Despite Negligible Employment Efforts

Let's start with a little word smithing.

“Administrato-prudence” (as opposed to “Jurisprudence”): The pragmatic sum or totality of the efforts of an administration as indicated by empirical evidence. How a combination of laws, policies and administrative efforts actually improve or worsen the lives of that administration's constituents.

OK. Now that we have a working definition for "administrato-prudence", we can proceed with a discourse on DC's efforts to end homelessness, efforts that began [in earnest?] in 2004 and were supposed to end homelessness in the Capital by December 31st, 2014. We had 7,298 homeless people onJanuary 28th, 2015 – a drop of 450 or 5.8% from the previous year. The city didn't end homelessness by the set date; however, the story doesn't end there – fortunately.

During the quarterly meeting of the DC Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) on June 2nd, 2015 Tom Fredericksen of The Community Partnership for the Preventionof Homelessness (TCP) did a report-out on the figures from the January 28th Point-In-Time (PIT) Homeless Count which were published in mid-May. The decrease was good news, of course. He gave a lot of numbers concerning the various sub-populations of homelessness (families, singles, unaccompanied youth, disabled etc.). He pointed out that some of the 10 counties surrounding Washington, DC saw increases in their homeless populations and advised us to be cautiously optimistic concerning our modest decrease.

I've expressed my dismay numerous times since June 2014 over the fact that TCP was not told by the ICH to do a report-out concerning that year's count which rendered a 13% increase over the previous year – going from 6,859 in 2013 to 7,748 in 2014 (+889 people). Since then, I've also stated my suspicion that government administrators who should have thick skin were too emotionally weak to discuss a glaring failure. (They also refused to talk about the reasons for the failure of the previous 10-year plan before embarking on another such journey; and I won't let them forget it.)

So, I asked Tom what he thought was most responsible for the decrease from 2014 to 2015 and if we can be sure that there won't be a “balloon payment” of newly homeless people flooding the shelters in the next year or two. He figures the rush to house homeless families in the waning days of Mayor Gray's administration was the main driver for the decrease. He didn't respond to the latter part of my question, though I heard sighs of disgust as I asked it. (I take pride in my tendency to ask the hard questions on the front end of a planning process, rather than having a “wait and see” mentality.)

Administrato-prudently speaking, we have failures across multiple mayoral administrations and an apparent emotional weakness (the nicest assumption I could think of) which prevents administrators from having the hard conversation about past failures – even the failures of their predecessors. The singular exception to that rule has to do with institutional memory. I've heard various administrators over the years admit to the fact that institutional memory is very poor. I've yet to see any of them restart efforts that were left undone by previous administrations once my colleagues and I reminded them.

Case-in-point: The Harriet Tubman Shelter for single women was made into a 24-hour shelter in 2009(?) during the Fenty administration. Day programs that were intended to help the women exit homelessness were implemented. It was a pilot program that was going to be extended to other shelters if it worked well. My colleagues and I reminded city officials to check on its progress throughout the Gray administration (2011-2015). That STILL hasn't been done. Furthermore, the pre-meeting round table discussion on June 2nd addressed the issue of homeless day centers/ day programs. Oddly enough, the “professional” leading that discussion was not made aware of the fact that there will be a day center at the former location of the Gospel Rescue Mission by November 2015. She therefore asked open-ended questions about where day centers should be located and how they should function. Had I not brought up this project which is already in the pipeline, it would never have entered the conversation. This represents institutional memory (..err amnesia) at its worst.

While the aforementioned are administrative flaws, the primary impetus for this blog post is the apparent administrative intent that has manifested itself over the past 16 years. To be fair, I 'll say that the administration of DC mayor Muriel Bowser (Jan. 2nd,2015 to Jan. 2nd 2019) has, thus far, proven to be committed to addressing poverty and homelessness – even if they've yet to do anything tangible for homeless adults who are ready, willing and able to work. For at least six years my fellow advocates and I have tried to influence DC Government to do more to connect homeless A-bods to living-wage jobs. We went so far as to get the U.S. Dept. of labor (DOL) to commit to funding such an effort if DC Government would file the proper paperwork by June 1st, 2009. DC Government failed in that capacity and the DOL money reverted back to the general fund.

I personally have done numerous blog posts and been featured in several newspaper articles about the need for homeless employment. Many homeless people have articulated the need for living-wage jobs, whether they were at DC Government meetings or speaking to myself and other advocates. Yet and still, no robust effort has been made by city officials to connect homeless people to living-wage employment – unless you want to count the brief, shallow mentions of employmentwith “Homeward DC”, the first half of another 10-year plan, as satisfying that demand.

I often offer this cynical explanation for why I think DC Government refuses to put their best foot forward when it comes to homeless employment: Even though about 80% of DC's homeless community can work but has insurmountable challenges acquiring employment, the government doesn't want to create an environment wherein scores of homeless and poor people begin to inundate the District in order to get these low-skill and/or good-paying jobs. Let's face it; the homeless move from city to city telling each other where the work and/or best homeless services are. So, rather than “build a homeless field of employment dreams” and have them “come from everywhere”, former mayor Vince Gray chose to ostracize homeless parents and accuse them of being lazy and of gaming the system.

Mayor Bowser has initiated efforts to connect underprivileged people to employment, though they stop short of directly addressing the deepest and most insurmountable challenges faced by the homeless community. Given time, she might do that. But instead of holding my breath waiting, I'll use that breath to voice this concern. In any instance, the administrato-prudence of the last 16 years seems to suggest that city officials would much rather see poor people seek employment outside of DC while continuing to draw high earners into the city. Let's hope Mayor Bowser proves me wrong by reversing the trend set by her three male predecessors. But don't just hope; hop into action. Hope and hop non-stop til we win or we drop.

At multiple ICH meetings more than a year apart (including the June 2nd, 2015 meeting) I've heard fellow homeless advocate Donald Brooks point out that DCGovernment's Dept. of Employment Services (DOES) didn't have any representatives at the meeting. At ICH meetings in 2012 through 2014 I myself pointed out how that former directors of DOES were at the table but not participating in the meeting. Those who serve the disabled homeless – often getting paid to visit their homes after they're housed – are always the most vocal meeting attendees. Administrato-prudently speaking, why do you think that is?????

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