Wednesday, October 14, 2015

OUR FIGHT: To Prevent (Further) Gentrification of the Homeless

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser is making plans to replace the 248-family (c. 992 person) DC General Shelter with five or six smaller shelters that are scattered across the city. There has been talk of putting one in each of the capital's eight wards. Over the past 10 years the city and various developers have floated plans to redevelop the area that includes the hospital-turned-family-shelter. When DC was in the running to host the 2024 olympic games, there was discussion of building the Olympic Village where the family shelter now sits. I suspect that conversation will recur during the bidding for the 2028 games, though it would have to include consideration of what to do with the jail and meth clinic which are located on adjacent properties.

The 360-bed New York Avenue Men's shelter is across the road from the recently refurbished Hecht's Warehouse which is now a condo building with commercial space on the first floor. Developer Douglas Jemal, to his credit, DID hold a couple of meetings with myself and a few other homeless advocates to discuss mitigating the tensions that would exist between the shelter and his then-unfinished development across the road – a face-saving, token effort in my opinion. After all, he made it a point to fill each of the hour-long meetings with much small talk and very little business. He has had what I'll assume were much more serious meetings with city officials. Anyone who, like Senator Bernie Sanders, is keenly aware of the damage done by capitalism and of the devices of its proponents also knows that those conversations won't end until the homeless have been gotten “out of the way of capitalism”.

A mile and a half away, the 180-bed Adams Place Men's Shelter is already being offered on the altar of capitalistic gentrification, though there is no new development within a stone's throw of the building. There is, as of yet, only half serious discussion of its closure, with it being right in front of the leading edge of the eastbound cloud of gentrification. The gentrifiers are developing their ability to look ahead (while DC Government masters the art of procrastination).

The 432-bed 801 East Men's Shelter sits on the east campus of St. Elizabeth Hospital with Homeland Security moving into the west campus on the other side of MLK, Jr. Ave. – a move we've known about for more than five years. More recently Mayor Bowser began to broker a deal that would place a Washington Wizards facility on the east campus. The article about this new facility made no mention of the fact that the Wizards would have a homeless shelter as a neighbor – which is quite unusual for this city, the seat of world capitalism.

Finally (for now anyway), there is the 1,350-bed Federal City Shelter which is better known as CCNV (the Community for Creative Non-Violence). It sits diagonally across the road from a large development that will be completed somewhere between 2023 and 2025. Capitol Crossings will be built on a quarter-mile long platform that is being constructed over the open-top, below grade Center Leg Freeway (I-395). You can bet your bottom dollar that city officials will accommodate the future occupants of these several buildings well in advance of the project's completion. Depending on who you talk to in the DC or federal governments, the city will gain the right to close the Federal City Shelter (which was given by the feds to DC Government under Title V) as early as 220 days after DC Government gives notice to vacate or as late as July 2021. If the former date is correct, FCS residents could be put out in May 2016. Though I tell the many homeless people who ask about it that, all things considered, the shelter probably won't close before the end of 2017, I have begun to hear dozens of homeless people discussing a possible January 2016 closure. At least there's a sense of urgency to improve their situation. At most there is the potential to develop this energy into a revolution and to fight for full systemic change.

So, let's do the math. All numbers are hypothermia season bed counts with some shelters decreasing the number of beds during the seven warmest months of the year. Hypothermia season runs from November 1st or the first freezing night until March 31st or the last freezing night.:

DC General: 992 +/-
NY Ave: 360
Adams Place: 180
801 East: 432
FCS/CCNV: 1,350
TOTAL: 3,314

DC has about 8,000 homeless people. (It's safe to assume that we've again gotten above 7,300 since thispast January.) The city has about 650,000 residents. About one in every 80 DC residents is homeless at any given time and about one in 35 experience homelessness each year. That compares with one in 400 and one in 80 nationally.

It should be noted that the Federal City Shelter has six separate entities in it:

DC Central Kitchen (which feeds 5,000 people per day)
Clean and Sober Streets Drug program
Unity Health Clinic
CCNV Shelter (men and women)
Open Door Shelter (women)
John L. Young Shelter (women)

The two women's shelters will relocate to Chinatown in early 2016 and the vacated spaces at FCS will not be used thereafter. That will bring the building census down to 1,150. I'm predicting that the city will stop using the 250 hypothermia season beds come fall 2016 and shut them down indefinitely. That will bring the census to 900. The Bowser administration will probably house 600 of them and create a smaller shelter for the other 300. Let's hope that the housing is not as tenuous as it was when DC Village Family Shelter was closed in October 2007 – a fiasco that the advocates are working to avoid as DC General is closed and replaced.

Mayor Muriel Bowser is showing a commitment to addressing homelessness, though she is focused on the family shelter right now and silent on FCS. Housing homeless families is commendable in ALMOST anyone's book. That complicates matters when the advocates try to make their case to the general public and show that the plan has (or had) flaws or that it only serves to cushion the effects of capitalistic gentrification. After all, it's unrealistic to think that those working for the poor will never have to compromise with those who are eyeing a homeless shelter as a site for an olympic village or merely as something that needs to be torn down before a major development across the road is completed.

I find it easier to make the case that city officials past and present have mastered the art of procrastination and that the current mayor is making sure that some of her plans fly under the radar until she has set enough in motion and her plans are irreversible. The latter would explain the relocation of John Young and Open Door as well as the statement by a DC Government administrator that it is not part of the FCS closing. As for the procrastination, I told dozens of people, many in DC Government, who attended the December 2013 ICH meeting about the several shelters that were or soon would be affected by development. Then-DHS Director David Berns told me that we wouldn't have to worry about 801 East for at least 18 months. He said nothing of the other shelters that I had mentioned. He resigned in June 2014. The 18 months elapsed in June 2015. With the Homeland Security relocation having already been in the works in 2013, we now have the Wizards moving into the neighborhood, tech companies eyeing the Anacostia neighborhood of DC and an uncanny silence as media and politicians fail to juxtapose these issues. Make what you will of it.

[NOTE: Since writing this blog post yesterday, I found out from someone who couldn't have read it yet that the mayor is in fact aiming to close FCS/CCNV by the end of 2017.]

We need to restart the public conversation around these issues. Sadly, it doesn't seem that we'll ever resurrect the fiery advocacy of the 1980's. MITCH SNYDER is gone, as is MARY ANN LUBY. Homeless Advocate MICHAEL STOOPS had a debilitating stroke in June 2015 and will never work again. So, like I said in a recent sermon, we need to exhibit RIGHTEOUS ANGER and fight social injustice. With a CLINTON/SANDERS ticket seeming (to me) to be a reality following the October 13th Democratic Debate and the GOP having become irreversibly irrelevant, it's conceivable that those working to end homelessness will have ample political support come 2017. Keep hope alive. Even so, I charge all who read this post to come together at FAIRBUDGET COALITION meetings,ICH meetings, WLCH meetings, WIN meetings and EMPOWER DC meetings so as to develop a strategy for combating and preventing GENTRIFICATION OF THE HOMELESS.

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