Eric Sheptock on the ICH Committee: Good or Bad?????

In 1987 Ronald Reagan and the 100th Congress were pressured by the aggressive tactics of the Mitch Snyder Movement into passing the McKinney-Vento Homeless Services Act. This act allows homeless service providers to obtain surplus federal real estate through its Title V provision. It also mandates that school districts be prepared to counsel and assist homeless students. In response to the act's provisions, the U.S. Dept. of Labor (DOL) performed the Job Training Homeless Demonstration Project beginning in 1988 – an effort that ended with 25% of the homeless who took advantage of the program being employed for at least 13 weeks. There are other innumerable effects of the McKinney-Vento Act which are still being felt by the homeless and their service providers today. However, it's worth noting that, while Mitch Snyder and company should be lauded for the progress they made by bringing the plight of the homeless (some of whom were eating from trashcans near the White House) to the attention of Reagan and Congress, we should have made more progress than we have at this point in time.

Fast forward to May 20th, 2009 – the day that President Obama signed the HEARTH Act (Homeless Emergency Assistance, Rapid Transition to Housing) into law. In the almost seven years since, there have been congressional funding shortfalls that have led to the HEARTH Act being implemented piecemeal by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and urban Development (HUD). On a positive note, the re authorization calls for all cities that receive HUD funding to meet certain benchmarks for ending homelessness. It also calls for each locale to have a “homeless czar(ina)”, as DC Council Chair Phil Mendelson can be heard calling Kristy Greenwalt during a 2015 hearing – someone who can make quick, if not unilateral, decisions on HUD-related matters. (I felt hope insomuch as I have a certain penchant for benevolent dictatorship/autocracy with its ability to rise above the fray of “congressional bickering” and get sustenance to the needy in a timely fashion.)

With DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) having appointed up to five homeless or formerly-homeless community representatives since shortly after its inception and with me having attended the first meeting in June 2006 as a non-member, I was appointed as a community representative in November 2015 following a nine-month application process. (The process was altered by Ms. Greenwalt. She began her job on April 28th, 2014 and was retained by Mayor Bowser.) Long story short, I'll get more chances to speak at meetings and DC Government has slightly more leverage to “make me be nice” – this in spite of the fact that I hear the same unresolved conversations that I heard five or more years ago. With me euphemizing their words, some have told me that the ICH meetings come off to them as “government [handy work]: making themselves feel good”. The ICH has now gone from having bi-monthly meetings with a 10-minute public comment period at the beginning and end to now having quarterly meetings with a comment period at the beginning – cutting the public comment from 120 minutes per year to 40 minutes. With me being at the table now, I can speak at will during the 90-minute working meeting. And speak I will.

I was in Florida visiting my 78-year old mother and other family members on December 1st, 2015 – the day of the first full ICH meeting following my confirmation. In March 2016 I'll sit at the table for the first time – if all goes well. And that's a big “IF”. Being a straight-forward man (a quality that many don't appreciate these days), I've made it clear that I approach the ICH with an agenda and that I'll do more to bring the concerns of the homeless to the ICH than I will to laud the ICH before the homeless. That agenda is laid out in my November 4th, 2015 testimony before Council Chairman Mendelson: to promote meaningful discussion about the future of the CCNV Shelter and effect a transition from merely focusing on housing the most vulnerable homeless singles and families with children to also connecting able-bodied homeless single people to living-wage jobs and affordable housing. Despite my many e-mails to that effect and my testimony being on the public record, some people are still surprised. Even so, my nearly 10 years of fighting for a greater investment in homeless “A-bods” has moved to a new high (or low – maybe).

When I began advocating in June 2006 under the leadership of the late Mary Ann Luby, we were fighting to keep Franklin School Shelter open. (It closed in September 2008.) One of our arguments was that it was located near two subway stations and many bus lines that afford the working homeless a convenient way to their jobs. In conjunction with its September 2008 closure, at least 300 mentally and physically disable homeless men were housed. Fast forward almost four and a half years through my many blog posts and newspaper articles about homeless employment to January 2013 when I filed a FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request with the feds and obtained information about the property rights pertaining to the CCNV Shelter. I e-mailed the 100 pages of information to city officials and became somewhat of a catalyst in the then slow-moving conversation around the shelter's future. Finally, factor in that DOL sits across the road on the shelter's south side and a ginormous $1.3B construction project which is slated for completion in 2023 sits across the road on the north side. As you can well imagine, many of the homeless want help getting connected to employment across the road. (The big machines are doing most of the work right now and hundreds of laborers won't be needed for at least another six months.) Even so, the geography of these several city blocks stands as a testament to government's failure to adequately assist homeless A-bods. I intend to raise this concern whether or not I'm on the ICH, unless and until it is adequately addressed. The government saying “We are (or plan on) working on it” doesn't count as adequate.

On a separate but related track, I'm working with American University Professor Dan Kerr on a project that highlights the challenges faced by homeless people who need employment. In April 2015 we organized an event at Georgetown university Law Center (for which the Property Group Partners Development Corp catered $1,400-worth of food) and we gathered interviews from dozens of homeless people about their work histories and current employment challenges. This information will be presented to about 200 homeless people on March 27th, 2016 at Asbury UMC – in place of the health advice presentation that usually precedes breakfast on the fourth Sunday of each month. They will be given opportunities to add concerns that are not already on our list. The full list will eventually be used to affect public policy around homeless employment. Hopefully it will lead to DC Government connecting more than 25% of its homeless A-bods to employment for more than 25% of a year.

The “failing feds” and the fact that DOL hasn't made a robust effort toward homeless employment in the past 28 years lend themselves to the argument that the U.S. Government may have given up on homeless employment. This offers DC Government a prime opportunity to outdo their overbearing mother. However, my “Marxist homeless advocate” intuitions tell me that local officials who would rather “make themselves feel good” than to “grow a pair” won't seize the moment. After all, when tenuously-housed people see that the government is making it possible for low-income workers to live in the city of their employment, there might just be a public outcry for such initiatives to be expanded and made available to all of the city's working poor. What mayor wants to set him/herself up for that?????

From what I can tell, Mitch Snyder had a nasty disposition but led hundreds of people whose work we continue to benefit from today. When you juxtapose the slow progress of the past 25 years with the fact that advocates have become nicer, it would seem that one is the result of the other. It's also worth noting that most video footage we have of Mitch Snyder is from 1984 onward, with him having begun to advocate in 1974. His movement's greatest victories all came between 1984 and 1988, possibly as a result of him having gotten mean enough to be effective after 10 years of advocacy. I'll have been advocating for 10 years as of June 2016. Unlike Mitch Snyder, I have been grafted into a government agency. Whether that proves to be a positive of a negative remains to be seen. In any instance, I'll treat it as a positive until proven otherwise.

I knew during the application and nomination process that I could be somewhat muzzled and made to tone down my rhetoric if I was accepted onto the ICH board, even as the DC Council and government should have known I was coming with both an agenda and knowledge of government's failings since homelessness became highly visible on the streets of America some 40 years ago. It boils down to the fact that I might speak for a total of six minutes at the table each quarter or for two minutes from the audience and raises the question, “Do I really want to allow myself to be “forced into kindness” in order to get four additional minutes of air time per quarter?????”.

As it turns out, that may become a moot issue. You see, I've also encouraged DC Government to visit the CCNV Shelter and talk with residents about how we should interpret the legislation that was brought forth as a result of the task force and to weigh-in on other occurrences that have us wondering if the shelter might be closed in the next three to seven years. I continue to update shelter residents about my advocacy efforts. Many of those residents will attend the March 27th breakfast at Asbury. During my introduction, I have every intention to inform the homeless about the level of commitment that DC Government has or hasn't shown toward homeless employment, in my opinion; but, there will be more of a focus on how these 200 people think we should proceed at creating this paradigm shift.

If all goes well, this and similar events being planned for the second quarter of 2016 will lead to us formulating an agreed-upon list of “homeless employment demands”. Once enough of the homeless A-bods are on the same page, revoking my position would amount to political suicide insomuch as it would have a “hydra effect”. Government would go from having one homeless advocate raising concerns that challenge the local manifestations of capitalism to having dozens of homeless people who now feel spited raising their vices for both their employment and my reinstating. This hydra effect would be deepened by the fact that government would also go from having a spokesperson with knowledge of government function and an ability to negotiate solutions to having advocacy novices shouting them down with the demand for jobs. So, at the end of the day, homeless A-bods and I win. You might even say that DC Government “has created a monster”. In this case it's not Frankenstein; but the hydra of Eric Sheptock at the table which, if chopped off, will turn into dozens of unhappy homeless A-bods shouting from the audience. Either way, DC Government will have to address homeless single persons' employment in 2016 – a year of JOB-ilee. Besides, Dan and I seek to build a movement. This may be it.

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