Why DC Has So Many Black, Single, Homeless men

2015 has been a year of international connections for me. In early February I met a French-born, multiracial woman near the McPherson Square Metro Station. She was talking to homeless people and had a camera in her hand. I inquired as to what she was doing. That encounter led to her, a friend who arrived from France weeks later and myself working together on a project about homeless love which we completed in late May, even garnering some media attention.

Also in late May I met a German woman who was visiting several American cities. With her having visited New York and Philadelphia during the time that people were randomly placing”No Cat Calling” signs on streets and in the subways, I asked her if she'd seen any of these signs. She asked, “What is cat calling?” I said, “It's when a man asks for sex from a woman he doesn't know”. She said she'd seen one such sign on the Philly subway. What she said next pleasantly surprised me: “What's wrong with that?! It's only a question!”. If all German and American women thought like that, the world would be a better place! My French lady friends told me that Europe did the Hippy thing later than America and they did it better. Spain definitely takes the cake (without icing). Oh, and I ABSOLUTELY LOVE their law around models!!! (I think they were the first country to legalize same-sex marriage nationally.) Mucho amor por (y en) Espana!

In early June fellow homeless advocate Michael Stoops had a debilitating stroke. He was moved from the hospital in DC to a rehab facility in Silver Spring,MD in July. Most of the nurses there are women from various African countries. As you can well imagine, I've had a few conversations about the fact that men are allowed to have multiple wives in different parts of Africa. One of them reminded me that the same is true in Utah.

In late June I received an e-mail from a woman who was arranging for 16 Chinese high schoolers to visit DC and learn about American homelessness. She didn't know about Michael Stoops having had a stroke and wanted me to convey the message to him. I forwarded her e-mail to the interim director of NCH. On July18th fellow NCH speaker John Harrison and I spoke to the Chinese students and their American Chaperons. Teachers at their school in China were so impressed with what the students said upon returning that the teachers wanted to hear us themselves. John, myself and a third speaker named Shelley Gilbert spoke to the teachers on October 11th.

In mid-October I read a Facebook message from an American woman who has lived in France since 1996. Nicole is doing a doctoral thesis about social issues with a focus on why there are so many Black, homeless, able-bodied men in DC and several other American cities. When I responded to her message, I learned that she'd been following me on Facebook for quite some time. She'll visit the U.S. soon and I'll show her around to various non-profits, homeless service providers and homeless people. Her question is one that I've been answering for quite some time, though people in government don't seem to want to pay attention. The advocates may need to be more aggressive, much like the advocates of the 1980's.

I'll preface my multifaceted answer with a reminder of a couple of glaring failures of DC government. In 2004 DC Government adopted a 10-year plan to end homelessness. I arrived here in the summer of 2005. I began advocating in June 2006. In 2007 DC Government scrapped its 10-year plan which would have ended homelessness by December 31st, 2014 if it had succeeded. Still new to advocacy, I was not at the meetings about scrapping the plan. The only explanation that I could find as to why the plan was deep-sixed came from the website of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), thousands of miles away. It simply said that the government was not meeting benchmarks. So, let me get this. Because they were only doing a little, they decided to do nothing. Though they gave up, they didn't give back salaries earned on this failed effort. Hmmm.

It's my understanding that DC was 70% Afro-American in the 1970's. In 1975 the city began to shut down many of the trade schools, eliminating job training for the trades that built the city. In 1979 Marion Barry took office as mayor and began a summer jobs program that I've heard people in their 50's and 60's laud as the program that set them on the right path as young adults and even helped them work their way out of poverty.

Then there was the crack epidemic of the 1980's and Reagan's war of drugs which has been going on more than twice as long as the War in Afghanistan. Many Afro-American fathers went to prison, their sons growing up without ample male influence in their lives. Some of these sons and their sisters are now in their 20's. It turns out that 40% of the parents at the family shelter are between the ages of 18 and 24. Just to be fair, I should say that, in some cases, the fathers of these 20-something adults didn't go to jail or prison. They were encouraged by the rules of the welfare system to leave their families so that the women and children could receive government assistance. Now the children of this 50-something group – a mix of returning citizens and those who were “sprayed with 'welfare-repellent'” – are in their 20's and raising “the grandchildren of grief” in the family shelter.

Anthony Williams was DC's mayor from 1999 to 2007. He is credited with setting the wheels of gentrification in motion. He authored laws and policies that catered to businesses. The business improvement districts thrived during his reign. Rent control laws were weakened. In 2006 he tried to give the Franklin School (Shelter) to developer Herb Miller. He couldn't prepare an alternative location for 240 homeless men quickly enough. The city backed out of the deal; Mr. Miller sued the city and the courts awarded him $500,000 for design work, though he never touched the building.

Many people believe that the business community by way of the BID's is working the government like a marionette from behind the scenes and 16 years into a 20-year plan to gentrify the city (1999-2019). As of 2012, Afro-Americans made up 48% of DC's population. (It's probably in the low 40 percentile now.) Though not the majority anymore, we remain the largest racial sector in the city. Even so, Afro-Americans don't have a political mandate. Businesses and the well-to-do are of primary and secondary consideration, respectively, to the local government.

In recent years, with the possible exception of 2015, about half half of DC students were dropping out of high school. At least 68% of jobs in the city require an education beyond high school. In order to fill these jobs, the city has to hire people from various states; because, those educated by the city aren't fit for those jobs. As the allure of a government job draws well-educated 22-year olds into the capital, the demand for rental units skyrockets. The law of supply and demand drives rents up. This mixture of circumstances brings the young adult children of well-to-do parents into the city. These yuppies are able to pay high rents. Developers are therefore building high-end apartments and condos. They're also installing streetcars and dog parks – amenities that are used primarily by non-Black communities. They've built a convention center, a ball park and other pricey developments in the past 15 years. Some of these amenities have literally displaced poor people through eminent domain. In other instances, a new development has raised the values of nearby, unimproved properties. This raises the taxes of these often decrepit dwellings and, in turn, raises the rent. Now slum dwellings have become more expensive, but not any nicer.

Between 2000 and 2010 over 40,000Afro-Americans left DC because the rent which averages about $1,500for a one-bedroom, is too damn high. Finally let's factor how that the city signed affordability covenants with various landlords in 1995 and Mayor Gray's administration allowed those covenants to expire without renewing them. Now rents in some apartments are jumping from $1,000 to $1,600 all at once.

In 2012 a report indicated that 36% of Washingtonian adults were functionally illiterate, though I couldn't find the more recent article. 90% of adults in the city at that time had diplomas (which means 26% were given diplomas they couldn't read). Two reports on DC literacy came out within a week of each other that year. One said that DC was the most literate American city insomuch as it has many libraries, book stores and places with free internet access. The latter indicated that 36% of Washingtonians can't read any of the literature which is at their disposal and dubbed DC the least literate American city. Though both reports came out before his One City Summit, then-mayor Vince Gray only referenced the former as he discussed the state of the city during his speech at this event. Hmmm.

Now to address the current administration. Mayor Muriel Bowser (2015 to 2019) seems to have a good heart and to want to effectively address homelessness. That said, I take issue with how her administration is addressing homelessness. In the spirit of fairness, it must be said that Mayor Gray (2011 to 2015) undid much of the work done by Mayor Fenty (2007 to 2011) to house the most vulnerable homeless (those who are mentally ill or physically disabled). Gray failed to invest in what government terms “maintenance of effort”. Now the Bowser administration is playing catch-up.

That said, the Bowser admin has its flaws too. They just put together a 5-year plan to end homelessness – yes, another one. There was no review of the old, failed plan. (By the way, the DC Council honored me by declaring Dec 31st, 2014 to be Eric Jonathan Sheptock Day in the District of Columbia. That's the day by which homelessness should have been ended.) With homelessness in DC rising and falling from year to year by 5% or less usually, there was a 13% increase from 2013 to 2014. At the next DC Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) meeting in June 2014, the agency that normally does a report-out on the homeless count didn't do it. When I brought up DC Government's failure to learn from the failures of the former 10-year plan or to discuss the astronomical one-year increase in homelessness, I was called a pessimist by a bureaucrat Hmmm.

I also catch flack when I point out certain concepts. I've explained that, initially, Permanent Supportive Housing was supposed to house the most vulnerable, handicapped homeless people and then move on to the least vulnerable – eventually assisting those who only had difficulty landing jobs. Very few people in DC Government remember that. (Some began their jobs after 2008.) The government has gotten stuck in most vulnerable mode. In the seven years since PSH came to DC, they haven't begun to assist the able-bodied single homeless people that the plan initially called for. Having to get back to where they were before Mayor Gray is one very legitimate reason. However, I believe that something much more sinister lies beneath the surface.

I believe that various employees of DC Government are aiding gentrification either intentionally or through their ignorance and lack of self-application. Many in the government see too many obstacles to connecting long-time homeless people to living-wage jobs. Employers are allowed to tell Washingtonians unabashedly, “I don't want to hire you because you're homeless”. There's no law against it, though some people are fighting for a homeless bill of rights in the city that would, among other things, warrant against that.

I also believe that city officials realize that, if they were to ignore the disabled or children, everyone and their mother would cry, “Foul!” However, they also realize that they can label able-bodied men as lazy and can thereby justify failing to assist them – even if these men are begging for employment assistance. So, the city will do as little as possible for those for whom there is no moral mandate that the city help them. To be fair, I should say that Mayor Muriel Bowser has begun some employment initiatives that are still being developed. I'll have to withhold judgment on that issue for now. Much of what I've said about how the city deals with employment issues for its most impoverished community only applies to past administrations. However, the Bowser administration is guilty of failing to even try to understand the failures of the past before moving forward with a new plan.

The machine of gentrification is a fast-moving, 2-mile long freight train with many wheels and other moving parts. It's already left the station. As a matter of fact, it's near its destination. History is repeating itself with a slight variation. After former slaves and their children built America's inner cities, they worked themselves out of jobs; their communities became slums; and these Afro-Americans began to apply for social services in the cities that they built. Now those who have done construction work and other five-figure-wage work that has aided the process of urban renewal/ Negro removal are being priced completely out of the city that they rebuilt.

I find it both interesting and appalling that it takes someone who lives on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and others in the international community to shed light on the injustices of the most powerful and imperialist nation in the world. But I'll take it for what it's worth. So, this year of international connections may end with the salvation of the American Negro coming from afar. But to answer Nicole's question succinctly, the federal and local governments see Black men as expendable, irrelevant non-persons and they're waiting for us to just go away.


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