The Death of Homeless Advocacy (or Establishment of Plato's Republic)

Before homeless advocate Michael Stoops had his debilitating stroke, He would introduce me to the college and university groups that had come to learn about homelessness by swaying and moving his hands from side to side as if he were playing a six-foot tall keybord as he said the following:

“I've been doing this work for forty years. And, if we don't start doing more than feeding and sheltering the homeless, then in forty more years when all of you are MY age, you'll still be talking about wanting to end homelessness.”

That succinct spiel had come to replace an earlier and shorter one in which he would say, “We here at the National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) are trying to work ourselves out of a job”. As it turns out, he did just that on June 7th,2015, though not in the way that he had hoped. With the CCNV organization having begun in 1970; Mitch Snyder having joined them in 1974; NCH having been established in 1982 and a host of other advocacy organizations having sprung up since then, we should wonder why homelessness hasn't been completely eradicated. The longevity of these efforts taken together with the continued existence of homelessness speaks volumes to the need for different tactics than the ones we're currently employing. (Maybe we just need to do what was done in the 80's, as opposed to coming up with something new.)

Simply put, the advocates for the poor and homeless need to be more aggressive. Dozens of homeless people put their freedom on the line as they refused to leave a federally-owned rat hole in the mid- and late-80's. Mitch Snyder and 11 other people went on hunger strikes in order to pressure President Reagan into giving this deteriorating building to DC Government to be used as a shelter for at least 30 years, ending in July 2016. (At the end of this restrictive covenant, DC Government will own the building free and clear and can do what they want with it.) These advocates were also instrumental in the creation of the McKinney (Homeless Services) Act which became the McKinney-Vento Act which was signed and renewed by Obama as the HEARTH Act on May 20th, 2009. That said, the advocacy of the 80's is still yielding results while the advocates who came later are fading and failing sooner. I firmly believe that it's due to the less aggressive manner of today's advocates.

As recently as the fall of 2002 a local group of advocates were able to pressure then-mayor of DC Anthony Williams into converting the vacant Franklin School into a homeless shelter which was closed by the next mayor in 2008. Though it came later than CCNV, the Franklin School Shelter was closed sooner. Now that's food for thought. Mayday DC was still somewhat aggressive in their tactics, though I'm not certain they can even hold a candle to the Mitch Snyder Movement.

Hundreds of people – few of them actually homeless – came out to protest the closure of the Franklin School Shelter in 2008. Though any and all support for the cause is very much appreciated, the reversed proportions of homeless people to housed people from the 80's until now speaks volumes to the disenfranchisement of poor people.

Adrian Fenty's closure of Franklin School 20 months after taking office and more than two years after promising to keep it open if elected did much to put him at odds with the homeless community. His famously arrogant manner was the icing on the cake. He was someone the poor of the city loved to hate. This made for a moderately aggressive affordable housing movement. Though Fenty left office on January 2nd, 2011, the advocates continued to clog the halls of the Wilson Building with hundreds of protesters for several months thereafter.

Mayor Vince Gray wasn't as openly arrogant or combative as Fenty, though his policies proved to be more draconian. Thirteen months after taking office, he held his One City Summit wherein he led some to believe that he would meet the demands of all of his constituents, not just an elite few. The promised follow-up summit never happened. Being almost 30 years older than his predecessor, Vince Gray was deft enough to get his entire administration singing the same tune by portraying homeless parents as lazy, shiftless and gaming the system. This decentralized the message and diluted the attention of the advocates – causing us to have to confront various administrators rather than ganging up on the mayor.

Current DC Mayor Muriel Bowser seems to be interested in ending homelessness. Her administration has begun work on family homelessness, even if they haven't perfected their plan just yet. They're reversing the damage done to the Permanent Supportive Housing program by Vince Gray. And they'll soon meet with homeless singles to begin to chart a path forward for this sub-population as well. In spite of having aired my suspicions about her, I'll withhold judgment for now.

That said, the current administration seems to be more tuned to the demands of the advocacy community, eliminating the need for aggressive advocacy – a bitter-sweet truth, to be sure. We have the opportunity to move forward on policy initiatives that will connect many homeless people to housing, though sometimes we need to tweak the mayor's plan. However, if we get any softer, we might not be prepared to stand up to the next draconian mayor. We need to regain and then keep our aggressive edge.

One might ask when, if ever, we can let our guard down. The short answer: Never. As indicated in Plato's Republic, there must be “guardians” who warrant against any backsliding into an era of hurtful capitalism, ineffective government, abusive government or anarchy. But we must not settle for “compassionate capitalism” either. We must push for a complete paradigm shift away from a government that keeps the lid on the pressure cooker by giving daily sustenance to the needy to one that guarantees living-wage work and affordable human necessities to all able people, giving freely to the disabled.

Though many non-profits and a few coalitions are working on a myriad of social issues, I've yet to hear any of them articulate a definition for full success – mine or otherwise. They build their agendas around the government's budget process and advise the government as to how much money to put toward each social issue from year to year. Their level of success rises and falls with different administrations. We always have to size up the current administration instead of there being a paradigm in place whereby all administrations have the same understanding, for once and for all, as to what their duties to the various sectors of society are. This, from what I can tell, is the direct opposite of what advocates of the 80's did. We've gone from having a group of rag-tag homeless people building their demands around a basic human need for shelter in the immediate to having a mix of non-profits who often struggle to get homeless people involved in the fight for better shelter and affordable housing. With very few non-profits foregoing any government funding, most are not motivated to expose the failures of government to its poor. The poor and homeless have allowed the non-profits to become the revolutionaries who fight for them and the government has paid the revolutionaries not to fight.

This brings us to the question: Why is there not more talk about affordable housing??? Well, asit turns out, the non-aggressive “revolutionaries” have allowed the phrase “affordable housing” to be co-opted by government. Fifteen or twenty years ago the phrase “affordable housing” was uderstood to mean housing that could be afforded by working people who paid no more than one-third of their income toward housing. A demand for affordable housing was understood to be a demand set upon landlords to keep the rent down to a reasonable level, with government enforcing that demand. Now the definition has been expanded to include government housing programs which pay rental subsidies for the neediest while rents on the open market go through the roof. In essence, the government has gone from regulating rental prices so that people of all economic strata can live in DC to allowing landlords to get out of control while the government houses a few of the helpless victims of capitalism. We've all but completely surrendered.

Maybe demanding that the government establish the aforementioned paradigm shift which remains consistent across administrations amounts to us setting the bar too high – even in lieu of how plans to gentrify the poor out of DC have progressed across the Williams, Fenty and Gray administrations over the past 16 years. Maybe its wiser for the advocates and those who are directly affected by social ills to establish a consistent paradigm that we continually force upon the powers that be – to become Plato's guardians.


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