Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fund Homeless Employment Strategies

The following was a testimony I prepared for DC Mayor Muriel Bowser's Budget “hearing” on February 23rd, 2015. It turns out that the event was actually a roundtable discussion with dozens of tables and hundreds of people brainstorming about what the mayor's budget priorities should be. That said, I never read my testimony to government personnel while being televised like I would at an actual hearing. No worries; as, you get to read it here and now.

At the risk of evoking thoughts about my notorious love of women and/or inspiring a lesser charge of infatuation with Muriel Bowser (infatuation usually being associated with females), I'll say that the mayor has made yet another brownie point with me. Let's be clear: I came to DC on July 31st, 2005; experienced the last 17 months of the Tony Williams administration; but, I never met the man. I met Adrian Fenty during the summer of 2006 while he was campaigning for mayor – having served as such from January 2007 to January 2011. He and I have gone nose-to-nose a couple of times. Then there was Mayor Vince Gray who avoided me like the plague. Fact of the matter is that, while having two people or items in a series gives you the space to compare or contrast them, it takes at least three people or items to establish a pattern or trend and to be able to predict what's coming next. With Ms. Bowser being the third sitting DC mayor that I've dealt with, I have now reached a place where I can discuss the patterns or trends that I see from one mayor to the next. So, you can table the aforementioned accusations unless and until I fail to crack down on Muriel Bowser for any missteps that she might take concerning the District's poor.

I noticed weeks ago that Muriel doesn't maintain a security detail in her immediate presence like her two male predecessors did. I guess that if you don't plan to piss people off, you don't need to prepare for their retaliation. (That's a good lesson for the president, Congress and the feds.) But that's not why she's made yet another brownie point with me. It is because of her early engagement with the public so as to gather their input on what her policies should be.

Adrian Fenty was infamously arrogant and wasn't big on public engagement. On April 6th, 2008 he sent several administration officials to the Franklin School Shelter to “TELL” its 300 men what would be done to them and their shelter. Vince Gray held his “One City Summit” on February 11th, 2012 to the tune of $600,000 (and hours before the death of Whitney Houston). He never followed through on what 2,000 DC residents said was most important to them. Had he done so, we'd have much more affordable housing, many more living-wage jobs and a much better educational system – just for starters.

In what I would have to assume is an attempt to avoid “analysis paralysis”, Mayor Muriel created four positions for the “housing navigators” mentioned in the previous blog post. They'll be actively connecting homeless people to housing while the administration puts together a more robust plan for addressing homelessness – triage then long-term treatment. In keeping with her avoidance of analysis paralysis and in direct contrast to the 13 months it took Gray to put together a “meaningful” public forum, Mayor Muriel has held at least two public forums hardly a month-and-a-half into her administration. (And I'm sure it didn't cost $600,000 or $300 per participant to organize.) Another point made in a previous blog post is that the council too is gathering input for a plan to address homelessness; though, in contrast, they are not implementing any form of “triage” in the meantime. The council is more like than the mayor to suffer (and cause others to suffer) from analysis paralysis.

I sometimes wonder if there is a telepathic connection between Mayor Muriel and myself; as, she is doing almost everything that I was hoping for. I'd told people that, if she didn't meet with the homeless and/or their advocates by April 1st, I would lay into her hard. She's more than satisfied that demand, with me having never articulated it to her. I'll now give her until July 1st to partially implement a plan for homeless families and until October 1st to begin planning around employment for able-bodied homeless people. If she meets both benchmarks, I'll know that either we do have such a connection or she simply reads my blog for advice. Either one is welcome news, though the former opens up more possibilities -- and creates more questions.
That said.....

Fund Homeless Employment Strategies

Hello. My name is Eric Jonathan Sheptock and I've advocated for the homeless since June 2006. While on the council, Ms. Bowser was a signatore on the resolution that declared December 31st, 2014 to be Eric Jonathan Sheptock Day in Washington, DC. That said, she's familiar with my work – pro bono “WORK”.

As a seasoned homeless advocate, I would say that “WORK” is the operative word here. Though some would argue that not enough has been done for the most vulnerable homeless who can't work, I firmly believe that a portion of the Human Services and Employment Services budgets should be devoted to connecting able-bodied homeless people to living-wage jobs and affordable housing.

I have said in my blog and to my fellow homeless advocates that I love what Mayor Bowser is doing in terms of homelessness. She's hit the ground running and made ending homelessness (which three male mayors before her ostensibly “tried” to do) her pet project. Even while on the council, she stated her support for Permanent Supportive Housing which assists the mentally and physically disabled homeless. However, no administration to-date has made a robust effort to connect homeless or low-income workers to living-wage jobs. I'd have to conclude that previous mayors going back as far as Tony Williams would much rather see those who can't make six figures leave DC. But cities don't function without janitors, cab drivers and stock boys. Low-wage workers of the world, ARISE!!!

If we get homeless A-bods working and weaned off of the system, that leaves more resources to assist the permanently disabled. But farbeit from me to suggest that we ignore our most vulnerable citizens. We should assist all sub-populations of the homeless community at acquiring housing simultaneously – families, single A-bods and the disabled. Maybe we should devote a third of all available “exit strategy” funds (as opposed to shelter and feeding funds) to getting each sub-population housed.

I know that I haven't given any concrete dollar amounts concerning “homeless employment and exit strategy” funds; however, I will soon be meeting with Bowser administration officials to discuss a detailed plan for connecting homeless people to employment. I am also a co-leader in a project that involves interviewing homeless people about their employment challenges. That said, additional plans, figures and information are forthcoming in the near future.

Thank you for your time.

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Love DC Mayor Muriel Bowser('s Plan for Ending Homelessness)

Quite frankly, I think that the Bowser administration is doing better than the council (headed by Phil Mendelson) when it comes to addressing homelessness. Muriel Bowser hit the ground running when she took office. She used Miriams's Kitchen as a backdrop when announcing her cabinet appointments for positions that are related to homelessness. (Oddly enough, “Homeless Czar(ina)” Kristy Greenwalt wasn't present.) Since taking office, the mayor has moved Deborah Carroll from being interim director of the Department of Human Services (DHS) to being director of the Department Of Employment Services (DOES). I'm holding out hope that Ms. Carroll, who has already responded well to my request for a meeting about homeless employment, will continue to please me by forcing a continuous and robust public conversation around this topic and will impress me with what she actually “DOES”.

While I won't completely rehash all of the compliments that I gave Mayor Bowser in the previous blog post, I'll say that she is incorporating concepts that I've talked about for several years now. She has given the public a general idea of how she plans to proceed when it comes to ending homelessness, with details to come later. I applaud her for that. The council, on the other hand, continues to hold hearings during which they gather input on how to proceed. The administration will get there “lickety split” while the council is still “packing its sh*t” (for those of you who know the joke). Though I plan to testify at a council hearing about homelessness (having been unable to do so at the first one), I am more enthused about working with the very accessible administration. After all, the mayor can move on her decisions without having to get buy-in from 12 other elected officials (minus the two currently vacant seats which could leave us with a majority female council once filled in April).

It seems to me that the mayor is incorporating a concept that I thought, spoke and wrote about long ago by making the end of homelessness in Washington, DC her “pet octopus” – a core issue with tentacles that extend into other areas and afford her an infinite and ever-metamorphosing agenda. One tentacle has already taken her fully into the affordable housing arena. Efforts are underway to stretch another tentacle into the living-wage job arena. Before all is said and done(?), she'll venture into the areas of domestic violence, medical bankruptcy and untreated mental illness – as all are causes of homelessness. (Heavy drinking and illicit drug use are the sixth and seventh biggest reasons for homelessness in this country, even if news reports make it seem like the majority of homeless people are substance abusers. Nothing could be further from the truth.) We've got a septapus so far. I'm sure we'll find an eighth tentacle soon.

During the January 30th, 2015 hearing on homelessness, Inter-agency Council on Homelessness Director/ Homeless Czarina Kristy Greenwalt told the council that there is a need to capture people living in poverty BEFORE they become homeless. The administration as a whole has gone on the record as wanting to implement preventive measures. I've told people over the years that ending homelessness is like fixing a leaking water supply line insomuch as you would turn the water off and stop the flow before you mop up the mess. I'm glad Bowser and her “Dream Team” get it.

The Department of Human Services, under the direction of my long-time friend Laura Zeilinger, is building a concept which they're temporarily calling “Flow Housing”. (They're taking suggestions for a better name.) Flow Housing will serve people who will always be poor and will need unending financial support while they live and work in DC. (Such programs for the working poor are corporate subsidies for employers who under-pay their workers, not hand-outs to lazy moochers. But we need them anyway.) This effort by DHS hearkens back to conversation that I had with Laura in her former life as deputy director of DHS under former mayor Fenty before going to the USICH. At that time, I told her that we need to focus on making homeless people completely self-sufficient such that they don't need any type of subsidy. I knew that my suggestion would be difficult, if not impossible, to fulfill. She took the bait and said what I expected as she told me that many people would always need some level of support. Now that she's back in DC government, she's acting on that understanding with her creation of “Flow housing”. Good job.

While past administrations have focused on providing deplorable shelters with poorly-trained staff and have moved as slowly as possible to create affordable housing, Mayor Bowser has articulated plans that include both suitable shelter in the immediate and affordable housing in the not-so-distant future. After all, someone with spaghetti for brains could figure out that any plan to end homelessness would have to include the creation of housing that can be afforded by the homeless. Mayor Muriel Bowser gets it.

Many people, including the media, want to know my opinion of Mayor Bowser's plan to end homelessness – especially her plans for homeless families. Well, here it is. I LOVE IT!!! Some people are calling into question Ms. Bowser's decision not to use $600,000 that the previous mayor set aside for new case managers at the family shelter for that purpose. They believe that, if she doesn't use it to hire additional case managers, she ought to use it to retrain the existing case managers. While it's true that the case managers can be quite unprofessional, I believe that Ms. Bowser made the right decision.

The mayor plans to hire four “housing navigators” who will assist homeless families and individuals at finding the most suitable housing. A few years ago, DHS admitted to having so many case managers and so few housing units that everyone – service providers and homeless people alike – was frustrated. People were being made to see case managers who told them that there was no housing available for them. Why bother?! That's what I call “case non-management” – bringing someone into your office just to tell them that you can't help them. The mayor is putting housing – the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – ahead of improving or increasing case management. Hoorah.

Unbeknownst to her, I've often argued that we should focus on creating a large number of affordable units and living-wage jobs for the homeless; let the high-functioning homeless run for them; and then, offer case management and a taken-by-the-hand approach to those who are left, as they have deeper issues. I've said that, if we create and enforce rights that prevent high-functioning homeless people from being discriminated against in their searches for jobs and housing, then as many as 60% of the homeless would get THEMSELVES out of homelessness. (Many homeless service providers would become unnecessary and unemployed in one fell swoop – all the more reason to do it.) It makes no sense to ask each individual homeless person what they need or to require them to participate in case management before we have sufficient stock of what we know are the most widely-shared needs of the group – affordable housing and living-wage jobs. If we have these things in store first, then the case managers can actually help their clients who visit the office. Howbeit, her logical plan to focus on connecting homeless people to affordable housing doesn't preclude her from using the $600,000 to retrain case managers. It doesn't have to be “either-or”. It can be “both-and”.

In closing, I'll say what you've probably guessed by this point: I LOVE DC Mayor Muriel Bowser (so far). It's not due to her being a woman, though I am infamous for loving women as much as I do. She has gotten off to a really great start. I don't know if she's driven by her desire to out-do the last three male mayors who “tried” and failed to end homelessness, fear that I would be as hard on her as I was on mayors Fenty and Gray or a genuine desire to end homelessness and to enable people of all economic strata to live in DC. It could be two or all three. No matter the reason(s), I love what she's doing. Like I told Ms. Bowser at the Homeless Point-In-Time Count, “Let's keep it that way”. If DC Mayor Muriel Bowser is reading this, I'd have you to know: “WildThing, I [know] I love you”.

There are 20 years that don't make a day; then, there's that day that makes 20 years.

The news of her plans for the homeless is an awesome birthday gift for me. February 15th, 2015 (my 46th birthday) is also 46 days after Eric Jonathan Sheptock Day. I'll spend at least some of the day enjoying the fact that the city's poor and homeless will find some relief under this mayor.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser Might Actually End Homelessness!!!

In recent weeks many people have asked my thoughts on DC Mayor Muriel Bowser who took office on January 2nd, 2015. I tell them that, while I believe that she really wants to end homelessness, I worry that she doesn't have the right people informing the process. Like I told Mayor Bowser at the January 28th homeless point-in-time count (one of at least five homeless/affordable housing events that I know she's attended since December 29th, 2014), I like her appointment of Laura Zeilinger as director of the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) and a few other cabinet appointments – kristy Greenwalt as director of the Inter-agency Council on homelessness (ICH), Brenda Donald as deputy mayor of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Polly Donaldson as director of the Dept. of Housing and Community Development (DHCD).

I also told her that, after the results of the 2014 count indicated that there had been a 13% increase in DC homelessness in a single year (going from 6,859 in '13 to 7,748 in '14), we didn't have the usual report-out at the next bi-monthly ICH meeting; and, there's no sense in gathering the data if we aren't going to use it. (Mayor Bowser wants to use a data-driven approach.) I concluded by telling her that I'm on her side. And I am.

Unfortunately, folk in DC Government are often too professional to be practical, though I don't suspect the Bowser administration to suffer from “analysis paralysis”. I've gotten the sense that Ms. Bowser values "professional opinions” more than she values the opinions of those who are directly-affected by the social ill which is being addressed. Unless she changes this aspect of her nascent administration, it might just be her undoing. She has, on at least a couple of occasions, given homeless people short shrift when they told her about a problem. On the other hand, she's tapped people from the non-profit community to become part of her administration – with the lion's share of high-level positions going to women.

During the point-in-time count, Mayor Bowser said, “I know people are saying that you have to be a woman to work for me; but, I have some really great men working for me too”. She then acknowledged City Administrator Rashad Young. Period. (He's rather large; but, he still only qualifies as one man.) Howbeit, that was an awkward event in at least one other way: Various federal and city officials were introduced at least three times by the different speakers – Shaun Donovan, Sue Marshall and Muriel Bowser. I felt like shouting, “We know who the Hell they are! Will you quit introducing them already!”. I didn't.

That said, I got the feeling on December 29th that the mayor had a “girl power” thing going on; as, the event at Miriam's Kitchen which feeds 300 homeless people per day was a press conference about her cabinet appointments for positions that deal with homelessness. Though I saw it four days before she took office, I probably should've seen her "girl power" theme sooner. After all, the three previous mayors – all men – said that they'd end homelessness but didn't. So, if she succeeds, it will be to the chagrin of these men and will further validate women as a viable force in the world (or the city, anyway). Then again, who needs validation?! Just in case any woman reading this does, I am in full support of Mayor Muriel Bowser's “girl power” antics. I encourage her to do whatever gets the job done without deviating from good principle. The end justifies many (but not all) means.

As it turns out, Mayor Bowser is not the only one who feels that the city's failure to end homelessness has become the scourge of DC. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson has made homelessness something that will be addressed by the COW (Committee Of the Whole). In the past it was the responsibility of the one councilperson who had oversight of the Dept. of Human Services. This developing dichotomy creates the potential for these “separate but equal” branches of government to come to logger heads over the approach. That has already begun to happen in a small way that I won't bother explaining here and now. But we can turn that negative into a positive by throwing much public support behind what we believe to be the better approach. (I would start by supporting the mayor insomuch as she's more capable of making unilateral decisions without any “congressional bickering” and I support and prefer the use of executive power over group decisions -- no matter who is in office or what their gender is.)

This would be a good place to mention the fact that I actually voted for former councilman David Catania as mayor because he has a mean streak which I believe is necessary to make government think and function better. While Mayor Bowser doesn't need to develop a mean streak in order to be effective, she DOES need to be able to force people to have the hard conversations – no matter how sweetly she commands them to do so. She needs to get her administration to admit when they are failing and to then rectify the situation. The failure to discuss the astronomical one-year increase in homelessness was due to certain people not wanting to discuss various grim realities related to homelessness and poverty or their own apparent weaknesses. They were kind to a fault. If they don't change swiftly, I'll need to change that diagnosis to “stuck on stupid”. Let's hope they change. Force the hard conversations.

With Ms. Bowser choosing to use a data-driven approach, we must remind ourselves that the same data can be interpreted differently by different people. However, when you consider that:

1 – DC had 5,757 homeless people in 2007
2 – Permanent Supportive Housing was launched in earnest in September 2008 and was federally-funded in Fiscal Years '09 and '10
3 – we had 6,546 homeless people in 2011 and
4 – we had 7,748 homeless people in 2014 (a 35% increase in seven years with 2015 results coming out in May).....

…..all you can irrefutably conclude is that nothing we've done to end homelessness has worked. All other conclusions must be derived from that one.

Mayor Bowser has repeatedly stated her support for Permanent Supportive housing. It's a good program in its own rite. It is worthy of increased funding. However, we need to do more than fund programs for the disabled if we're going to end homelessness. Data collected by a city contractor has indicated that at least half of the homeless are both able to work and under age 60. When you factor in the elders who choose to work, that may account for as much as 60% of DC's presumed 8,750 homeless people or 5,250 people.

Past administrations have avoided initiating any robust effort to connect homeless A-bods to living-wage jobs. I believe that it is part of a grand scheme to push all low-income people out of the city. But it also stands to reason that an effort to connect homeless A-bods to employment would expose unfair hiring and renting practices and put the city at odds with many developers, landlords and employers. I dare Mayor Muriel Bowser to rise to the challenge anyway. Force the hard conversations. Show that women have the power to challenge the status quo.

It's worth noting that many homeless advocates have been invigorated or reinvigorated by the mayor's resolve when it comes to ending homelessness. More than a few groups that work on homelessness and affordable housing have sprung into action and invited the mayor to speak at their events in the past five weeks. But, to my dismay, not much is being said about homeless employment. Even so, I am currently working with two professors and their two dozen students to gather data and do interviews that highlight the difficulties that many people (not just the homeless) have finding living-wage jobs. We'll present our findings to the DC Council and the mayor's administration by the end of May. Hopefully, this will cause the mayor to rise to the challenge of homeless employment and to force the hard conversations. Keep hope alive.

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