Sunday, November 22, 2015

Extraordinary Birthdays: Bringing Cheer to DC Metro's Homeless Children

Homelessness seems to be quite the intractable problem in the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth – having increased from 5,757 in January 2007 to 7,748 in January 2014 and having decreased by 450 the following year to 7,298. Washington, DC had a 10-year plan that was supposed to end homelessness in the city by the end of 2014. It didn't. The news, in recent years, has been full of reports about the city tearing down homeless encampments, about synthetic drug use near shelters, about deplorable conditions and food-for-sex scams being perpetrated by shelter staff and most memorably about an 8-year old girl who went missing from the family shelter in early 2014. Homelessness is Hell. There's just no other way to put it.

However, there is at least one organization that is working hard to give some of the many children who experience it in Washington a brief respite from the troubles of homelessness which current DC Mayor Muriel Bowser promises to make “rare, brief and non-recurring”. They are a non-profit called “EXTRAORDINARY BIRTHDAYS”. Born themselves in November 2010, Extraordinary Birthdays has made it their business to bring joy to the lives of over 400 children experiencing homelessness thus far. Founder and executive director Schinnell Leake emphasizes that, with all of the homeless advocates raising their voices for and with homeless parents in order to effect an adequate response to the family homelessness crisis by city officials, EOB has chosen just to focus on bringing joy. No politics. Just joy.

She,along with her associate director Nikiah Wade offer individualized parties to each child who completes another revolution around the sun while in Shelter. There are other non-profits around the country that offer group parties to children celebrating a birthday while in shelter. But for EOB that's just not good enough. To them each child is an individual who deserves individualized recognition. They're not just nameless faces in a crowd. They have individual hopes and dreams – and ways of partying, for that matter. Each child is offered the cake of their choosing, gifts and books. (Hey, we gotta promote learning!)

Here's how it works. A family enters shelter – one of the lowest points in their collective lives. They are asked dozens of questions about their finances, personal facts and the situation that got them there – possibly a very long turn of events. Just when they feel like screaming, “Not another form to fill out!” – you guessed it – they're handed another form. But, lo and behold, it's a different kind of form. This one, like the several they just got through filling out, asks for birth dates – those of the children. But then, instead of asking for the same boring details that the other forms ask for, this one asks about the children's individual preferences – what kind of party they'd like for their birthday, what kind of gifts they'd want and what kind of books they like to read. All of a sudden, the mood in the room changes as the parent(s) realizes that this is about bringing joy. It's the silver lining in their dark cloud.

The shelter staff gathers up these forms and, at the beginning of each month, delivers the forms for children celebrating a birthday that month to EOB. The celebrations are generally held in the last week of the month – one party per birthday child – at least for those 12 years old and younger. (However, with families becoming homeless any and every day of the month, EOB must remain flexible. They've pulled parties together with as little as a week's notice.) The $175.00 or so that go into making each child's birthday feel like the special occasion that it is goes toward creating a party motif that is most becoming of the child, as per the description given by the parent(s). Some girls like Barbie or My Little Pony décor. Some boys prefer a G.I. Joe or a construction worker motif. In any case, attendees get attire to match. The subject of the party gets to invite family and friends – yes even their friends from the shelter. After all, classmates who've not experienced homelessness are not always sympathetic toward those who have. The more mature children – those turning 13 and older – are not given parties; but rather, a cake and a gift card worth $35-50.

Speaking of gifts, we all know that kids will be kids. When asked what they want for their birthday, kids can rattle off lists that would break the bank. Thank God for parents – those parents being called upon by Extraordinary Birthdays to vet their children's choices and narrow them down to those which would be most appropriate given the families' then-current circumstances. Those circumstances, quite naturally include extraordinary security measures which put limits on what EOB can do with the parents for the children. That said, when cameras are allowed, a photo book is made of the party – not to remember homelessness and strife, but to celebrate the kid and celebrate life.

Extraordinary Birthdays does not seek the credit for the joy they bring – though they DO insist on witnessing it. Gifts are given to the parents to give to the children who are encouraged to thank Mom and Dad. Well, in all honesty, it was the parents who conveyed the will of their child to EOB. The “Extraordinary” staff is delighted just to see the joy on the children's faces as they enter a space that was made to their liking with their loved ones gathered around and tear into their gifts with immeasurable anticipation – a much-needed break from the troubles that currently plague their lives.

With homelessness taking a big toll on the child's psyche, Extraordinary Birthdays helps them survive the moment. Schinnell leake has noticed increased happiness and confidence on the part of these kids who have become keenly aware of the downside of life. She also notes that, while many people give to the homeless between Thanksgiving and New Year's, EOB is bringing good cheer all year.

But Schinnell and Nikiah couldn't and wouldn't do it alone. In addition to the staff at a half dozen DC Metropolitan Area shelters, EOB works with many volunteers. After all, who could turn down an opportunity to bring a little sunshine into the darkness being experienced by these little ones??? EOB also partners with So Others Might Eat, the national Center for Children and Families, the Homeless Children's Playtime Project and many more.

As you can well imagine, all of this partying has a business side to it as well. With it often taking about $200 to afford a few hours of happiness to these little ones, it is necessary to solicit donations. I'm sure we can agree that it is money well spent. Much of EOB's funding comes from individuals who donate on-line – some actually preferring to make a more personal donation by baking for the event. (It doesn't have to be either/or. You can do both/and.) Some comes from other non-profits. With the business of partying with tykes and “tweens” (8 to 12 yrs old) taking up so much of their time, EOB didn't place much emphasis on advertising for their first three and a half years. But with them now having five years (and a lot of cake) under their belts, they have countless success stories with which to further promote their work – the work of spreading cheer throughout the year.

This relatively new emphasis has paid off. In 2014 EOB was featured on a segment of Fox 5's “Pay it Forward”. Even so, Schinnell Leake maintains that she can't think of any better way for her to spend her time and “the big pay-off” comes when she turns a little frown upside-down. Maybe that's why she was recently one of two finalists out of an original pool of 6,000 women in Loreal's “Woman of Worth” contest – because she sees that it's worth her time and effort to positively influence tomorrow's change makers today.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Reposted from 9/2/2012: DC's CCNV Shelter is Threatened With Closure AGAIN (2011, 2012, 2015...)

 Below are 2 of the many "threats" of closure that CCNV has received over the years. The portion that describes the 2011 threat also explains why these threats should be taken seriously.


Even so, I promote living-wage employment and affordable-on-the-open-market housing for able-bodied homeless people, not just a better shelter. (But "Dr. D.C. Houser" is currently doing triage -- housing the disabled and families with children in hopes that able-bodied, low-income, single, homeless people will just leave town or die)

From 2012:

On Friday, August 31st, 2012 all 300 men on the third floor of the CCNV shelter received notices from the CCNV administration which, among other things, stated that the shelter might close as early as next year. The Federal City Shelter (which actually has three separate shelters within it) holds 1,350 of what was DC's 7,000+ homeless people (a number we're trying to get back DOWN to in 2015). CCNV holds 950 itself. In April 2013 we were threatened with the loss of 1,600 to 2,000 shelter beds -- 470 of those beds having been threatened in an e-mail from then-deputy mayor Beatriz "BB" Otero.

From 2011:

We all know that rumors are often circulated by well-meaning people who take a grain of truth and unwittingly add a pound of error. This is as true in the world of homeless advocacy as it is in the larger community. That is why on July 14th, while at a COHHO (Coalition Of Housing and Homeless Organizations) meeting, I made it a point to ASK whether or not what I'd heard about the sale of the defunct DC General Hospital which is now home to a women's shelter and a family shelter was true. The mostly empty hospital was slated to be developed as part of the Hill East subdivision project before the economy went south. I found out during this meeting that the development plans have not been resurrected -- YET. So, we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Ahhhhh!

Then again, rumors were circulated on a regular basis about the impending closure of the Franklin School Shelter. It eventually was closed in September 2008. So, what started out as a rumor DID eventually materialize into the truth. Interestingly enough, I personally heard the men say that they'd heard those rumors before and that the shelter wouldn't be closed. And they said this right up until the time that people from DC Government's Dept. of Human Services (DHS) came to the shelter to explain how the closure would be executed and to field questions on April 6th, 2008.

Rumors are circulated on a yearly basis about there being plans to close the CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter which holds 950 people -- with other shelters in the same large building holding another 400 homeless people. It's being said again. But this time around the staff has explained that this is the real deal. However it is a conditional threat -- one which might be averted.

The Federal City/CCNV Shelter was opened in phases from 1986 to 1988 due to the direct action of dozens of homeless people under the leadership of Mitch Snyder. In 1986 Mitch Snyder's people and the Reagan administration signed a restrictive covenant which stated that the building would remain a shelter and continue to serve the homeless community until at least July 8th, 2016. Though Snyder and Reagan are both dead now, their covenant still holds power. However, the building being perceived as a health hazard -- whether or not it actually is -- always gives government a seemingly legitimate reason for closing a building. After all, former DC mayor Adrian Fenty used such reasoning to close the DC Village Family Shelter as well as Franklin School which held 300 men just prior to its closing (60 of those beds having been added in November 2006 due to renovations that were underway at CCNV).

One of CCNV's then-current volunteer staff explained the situation to me: "DHS and the Dept. of Real Estate Services (DRES) -- now the Dept. of General Services -- will inspect the building on July 15th. Though the building maintenance is done by DRES, we at CCNV (which is run by volunteer staff) are 20% responsible for the upkeep of the building. The government is inspecting many government buildings across the city that are being poorly maintained and this is one of them. Several departments of the government will inspect the building over the next 2 weeks. If we fail any of the inspections, the building could be closed."

I then said, "I'm trying to imagine what they would do with 1,350 homeless people (one-fifth of DC's homeless population at that time -- 1,350 is now a smaller fraction of a larger number of homeless people in DC)."

He continued "That's already been discussed. The city would get rid of the CCNV management and bring in their own paid staff who would be charged with shutting down the shelter. They would phase it out in 6 to 8 months by making people leave and find somewhere to go. Within a year the place would be empty. That's why we are going to keep the lights on late tonight so that people can do a thorough cleaning." (Though not the nicest place in the world, the building IS actually cleaned on a regular basis.) So, let's hope that they pass the inspections that will occur over the next 2 weeks. There's a lot at stake.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mayor Bowser, What Is the Future of DC's CCNV Shelter??? Jobs for Residents???


Update on the
Future of CCNV
Because you have a right to know

DC GOVERNMENT has asked me “NOT TO HIT THE PANIC BUTTON” – that is NOT to worry HOMELESS people with a guess of a 2017 or 2018 CCNV shelter closure. So, I made THIS INFORMATIONAL FLYER which I'm sharing in print and electronically. Please click on and share it with any and ALL of your interested contacts. 

DC GOVERNMENT insists that NO DATE HAS BEEN SET for the closure of CCNV.

Nonetheless, I suspect that DC Mayor Muriel Bowser MIGHT be developing plans to close the Federal City Shelter which is also known as the Community for Creative non-Violence or CCNV before the end of 2017, but probably not before the presidential inauguration following what I believe will be a Clinton/Sanders victory in November 2016. I've been asked by the administration not to speak "definitively" about the mayor's plans irrespective of what I see happening in the neighborhood.

There is the matter of the 2.2 million square foot, $1.3 billion dollar Capitol Crossing project across the road from the CCNV Shelter. This site could be completed as soon as 2023. Nobody in their right mind actually believes the shelter will be allowed by city officials to remain until then. (Many homeless people are anxious to be employed by this construction site across the road from the shelter.)

In this case, the developers are very friendly and accommodating, though they may unwittingly play into the city's plan of gentrification by giving the administration a "constructive" reason to close a shelter that has drawn a lot of negative attention lately. 


The John L.Young and Open Door Women's Shelters were scheduled to relocate from FCS to the former Gospel Rescue Mission location in Chinatown in November 2015 as a result of an initiative by former mayor Vince Gray. Due to delays in the renovation, that move will take place in early 2016 -- decreasing the building's census by about 200 women.  I was told by an administration official in June 2015 that DC Government does not plan to use the vacated space at FCS, being that the 75-year old building is dilapidated (and I believe it sustained some damage during the earthquake of 2012). I'm wondering when the administration will decide to stop using the 250 hypothermia-season beds, bringing the census just below 900 people.

Ms. Bowser was on the DC Council in 2013 when there was a hearing about FCS/CCNV at which time then-Councilman Jim Graham took steps to convene the CCNV Task Force whose two dozen people and nine months of effort ended with the passage of a law which contained 17 guiding principles (and no concrete recommendations) and that essentially gives the mayor (which she was well on her way to becoming when it ended in July 2014) carte blanche to do as s/he chooses to the 1,350 people that the building can hold. Some advocates want to meet with the mayor so as to hash out a plan that satisfies the needs of all FCS residents and creates ample supports for those who will become homeless in the future.  

I've suspected since as far back as May 2015 that Muriel Bowser is one to fly under the radar and to implement plans that, taken at face value, look good. It saddens me to say that I think I'm right. Muriel Bowser, like any politician, doesn't seem to want people protesting her plans. I get that; but, disliking protests doesn't preclude her from holding town hall meetings during which people can give meaningful input -- something she has done for less contentious issues. She probably knows that almost any plan to close a facility that serves the homeless will be met with opposition, as was the case with the Franklin School Shelter.

Like former DC mayor Adrian Fenty whose protege she is, Mayor Bowser is able to present her plans to close a homeless shelter as a good thing. She can tell the public about her plans to house people. She can explain that she will create several smaller shelters. The general public will assume that the mayor won't leave the homeless high and dry. Unfortunately, most people have short attention spans and memories to match.

The homeless as well as their advocates know that, as with the former DC Village Family Shelter in October 2007, a mayor can promise indefinite housing and claim a year or two later that there is not sufficient funding for this promised housing. S/he can then offer to pay people's rents on a sliding scale over a years time, requiring a family that is caught in the throes of generational poverty to pay in excess of $2,000 rent for a three-bedroom. That's not to speak of the fact that the government apartments that some people are moved into are more “unfit for human habitation” than the shelter that the government so compassionately moved people out of. Though there is no shortage of complaints about city shelters, many realistic homeless parents realize that it is the closest thing to safe and affordable “housing” that they have at their disposal right now. For those reasons, they elect to remain in shelter.

How stupid do they think we ARE!!! 

Muriel Bowser was on the council when DC Village Family Shelter was closed. She witnessed the protests before and after Franklin School Shelter was closed in 2008. She would have to be aware that I was a named plaintiff on a lawsuit against the city in connection with the Franklin School Shelter closure. She knows that an Occupy DC-affiliated group broke into the building three years later. She should also know that there were problems with the implementation of Permanent Supportive Housing which Fenty used to justify the Franklin closure, only to find that he couldn't develop a feasible plan for the building. Some of the former shelter residents who were among the most vulnerable and disabled didn't receive the promised “wrap-around” services as the shelter was closed quickly and haphazardly. Various DC residents have wondered why, in lieu of the limited renovation options, he was so adamant about closing the shelter. The answer to that question is also the primary concern of the city's able-bodied homeless community:

City officials are aiding gentrification (whether through intent or ignorance) and actively decreasing the number of low-income rental units – effectively getting poor people “out of the way”. To further complicate matters, the freight train of gentrification is so far down the track now that even a good-hearted mayor can't stop it at this point. Ought she to try???

Mayor Bowser can mount a losing battle against gentrification; but, who wants to mount a losing battle? She can make it a point to call out the evil gentrifiers so as to expose them; but, evil people know they're evil without being told. Chances are they won't change because you expose their evil. She can actively contribute to the gentrification process. Or she can do her best NOT to contribute to the injustices that are perpetrated upon the city's poor by the wealthy and well-to-do. However, Mayor Bowser said less than a week into her term that she plans to run for re-election. With city rents rising; the changing demographics making the concerns of the poor less relevant; and Blacks now comprising less than half of the city's population, Mayor Bowser has every reason to cater only to those who make $80,000 or more annually and eat their meals off of China -- where she herself IS right now.

This means that we who are the poor and our advocates need to fight harder or our defeat is certain. In a strange twist to Washington, DC's story of gentrification, a developer recently told me that he has made various efforts to assist the city's Human Services functionaries in creating newer smaller shelters to replace the large, decrepit one located across the road from his recently-completed development; but, the city's Human Services functionaries have found every reason whereby to obstruct THEIR stated plan to move toward smaller shelters.

As stated in a prior post, I believe that as many as 600 of the shelter's 1,350 occupants might be housed, which looks good on its face. The other 750 will most likely be moved to other sites or have their bed eliminated when they leave the shelter for a few nights -- similar to what was done with Franklin.

While the (secret?) plan is not all bad, the lack of community input IS. 

So, let's get the word out and have the homeless community come together to assert our collective will. After all, government making decisions FOR us instead of WITH us doesn't do anything to make homeless people into productive, well-functioning citizens.

Nothing about us without us!!!

If a government employee's apartment building were going to be closed, demolished and rebuilt, that person would want to know as far in advance as possible. If said government employee wants homeless people to become responsible adults, they can start by involving the homeless in conversations that affect them.

A failure to plan is a plan to fail:
 A failure by DC Government to connect able-bodied homeless singles to living-wage jobs IS INDEED (part of) a plan to force them out of the city.

Let's FORCE the administration to give us answers!!!

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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

My Appointment to DC Inter-agency Council on Homelessness

No one who knows me can imagine me feeling a need to be validated by the system. After all, I began advocating in June 2006 -- less than two weeks before the first ever DC ICH meeting. I've been involved with this body for the entirety of its existence thus far, missing very few of the big meetings which used to be bi-monthly but are now quarterly.

However, Kristy Greenwalt became its first director on April 28th, 2014 and is implementing a number of changes -- some for the purpose of bringing the ICH into compliance with new federal regulations. In February 2015 other advocates and I were informed of ICH positions that were being created or becoming open. I made it a point to apply -- which has proven to be a lengthy process. Fast-forward nine months to November 4th, 2015. On this day there was a nomination hearing in front of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. I was one of 12 applicants who testified. While I'm not sure how many seats were open, I know that only three of the 12 people were either homeless or formerly homeless with the regulations calling for three to five members to be from that category. Someone with inside information called me about two hours after my testimony to tell me that I've been confirmed. I still await the official word, though I'm sure my friend is right. That said, here is the testimony I read which can also be accessed on the DC Council website:

Eric Sheptock's ICH Nomination Testimony

Chairman Mendelson and the DC Council:

As you well know, I am Eric Jonathan Sheptock whom several of you honored on November 18th, 2014 as you declared December 31st, 2014 to be Eric Jonathan Sheptock Day in the District of Columbia. It was due to my work from June 2006 to the present fighting for the city's homeless community. Even with several council members having taken office this past January and the late Marion Barry's seat having been filled since then, I know that all but one or two members have met me. It stands to reason that a body which has so honored me (giving me the day by which the 2004 plan would have ended homelessness if it had worked) would appoint me to the DC Inter-agency Council on Homelessness as a community representative.

With my nine-plus years of advocacy being well-documented on the internet and accessible through a simple Google search, I need not belabor the topic of my experience. Even so, I will indeed point out that I attended the first ever ICH meeting under the auspices of then-city administrator Robert Bobb as it was held on the 11th floor of 441 4th street NW – the Judiciary Square Building – in June 2006. I went to several of the ICH inaugural hearings which were held in several locations that are easily accessed by the poor and homeless of the city. As a matter of fact, I still have a lengthy e-mail document that spells out what people said at those hearings. That document and the annual point-in-time count give me multiple points of reference that I can use to determine how well we are doing at ending homelessness or even improving the conditions that people must endure while homeless.

Some might say that my critiques are, at times, as poignant as those given by the late, great Mitch Snyder. But anyone who knows me knows that I am a solution-oriented person. It has been a personal rule of mine for over 25 years that I don't open my mouth to complain unless I have a possible solution (there being an obvious exception when I lack the necessary expertise). That said, I was quite bothered when I heard talk of a second multiple-year plan without anyone having looked at why “Homelessness No More” has turned into “Homes No More” since its 2004 passage. I was also quite bothered by the fact that, with the ICH normally discussing the increase of decrease in homeless people at the meeting which follows the publishing of the count results, there was no discussion of the 13%, one-year increase to 7,748 people at the June 2014 ICH meeting. I dug and got an answer as to why – another pertinent skill of mine.

It should be noted that I am currently building the conversation around the future of the Federal City Shelter also known as CCNV, though I'm not the only one. I was a significant player in bringing forth the June 27th, 2013 Human Services hearing during which Councilman Graham decided to create the CCNV Task Force which has led to the creation of legislation that allows Mayor Bowser to create and move on a plan that hopefully will improve the lives of the shelter residents. I filed a FOIA request with the feds in January 2013, sent the info to Mr. Graham, pressed him every couple of weeks about the promised hearing and worked with my advocacy colleagues to get the homeless and concerned citizens involved. I plan to continue this particular effort; therefore, it behooves the DC Council to appoint me to the ICH. After all, me being on the ICH causes me to have to “play nicely in the sandbox”.

Whether I'm poignant or polite, my dedication to ending homelessness is clearly unwavering. However, my vision and goals are not defined by what we are ending so much as what we are beginning and creating. With so many of the advocates fighting for the disabled and for families, I have made my primary focus the able-bodied homeless adults – a topic I am speaking on extensively with a French citizen who is currently working on her doctoral thesis. That said, I envision a world in which any full-time worker can afford all of life's necessities without government assistance – with those who can't work being provided for. This vision includes but is not limited to affordable-on-the-open-market housing and requires that all jobs pay a living wage. Let's work together toward these and similar goals.

Thanks.

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