Muriel Bowser: How Does Her Admin. Think and What Moves Them??? (Creating Real Accountability)

Last edited on 1/20/16

Martin Luther King, Jr. whose work we celebrated on January 18th fought for the rights of Blacks and poor people from 1955 to 1968. Mitch Snyder (1943-1990) fought for the homeless (the poorest of the poor) from 1974 to 1990. I've been fighting for the homeless since mid-June 2006. Were you to compare our lives, you wouldn't find that we have a lot in common – probably nothing more than the fact that we all have fought for the poor – MLK, Jr and Mitch having died doing so. Though I make no effort to emulate either man, I see yet another thing that we all seem to have in common. In all three cases we seem to have a moment of clarity after about 10 years of advocacy and/or activism.

Between 1963 and his assassination MLK, Jr. made multiple speeches in which he talked about the lack of progress in terms of how Black Americans are treated. During this same time he was at odds with Malcolm X and other movement leaders about the way forward – namely concerning whether to keep begging those in power for equality with Whites or to take it by force. Mitch Snyder began advocating in 1974. However, all videos I've seen of him are from 1984 onward. It seems that about 10 years into their work each man realized that he was butting heads with an intransigent system and had thoughts about regrouping and/or going hard(er). I am only guessing that it was Mitch Snyder's stepped-up methods that made his story “sexy” to the media after he'd been at it for 10 years. In any instance, I'm approaching the 10-year mark in my advocacy.

When I began advocating in mid-June 2006, we were in the waning months of then-DC mayor Anthony Williams' administration. Since then we've had two full mayoral administrations and are now just over a year into another. During that same time frame the nation has had two presidents. I have concluded, due to a mixture of federal and local government initiatives over the past 10 years, that the best ideas for reducing homelessness come from the federal government and that the city government is little more than a conduit for the proponents of gentrification -- that the advocates are fighting a proxy war with landlords, developers and employers by way of city hall (though we ought to take out that "middle man").

President Obama signed the HEARTH Act into law on May 20th, 2009. With it being the renewal of the McKinney-Vento Act of 1987, it requires cities and states to actually meet various benchmarks in terms of ending homelessness. On July 22nd, 2014 President Obama Signed WIOA into law, requiring that cities and states actually meet certain benchmarks in terms of connecting hard-to-employ populations to jobs. This can also be viewed as a remedy for the failure of the Dept. of Labor to effectively connect a majority of able-bodied homeless people to employment as part of a social experiment they did in 1988. Let's not forget about the Permanent Supportive Housing program for which DC received federal funds in FY 2009-10 (10/1/08 thru 9/30/10).

I see these two federal laws running their courses in DC Government. Kristy Greenwalt was appointed as the first ever director of the DC ICH on April 28th, 2014, though she will temporarily run DHS' Family Services Administration following the departure of Michele Williams. In her role as ICH director, Kristy satisfies the provision of the HEARTH Act that requires that there be a point person in the local government who can make HUD-related decisions – a homeless czar(ina). As for WIOA, DC Government's Dept. of Employment Services is now collaborating with the Dept. of Human Services in ways that they never have before. (Former DOES directors sat quietly at dozens of ICH meetings – a point that I've made during public comments at these meetings.)

Washington, DC has adopted laws and policies over the past 40 years that have led to poor communities losing whatever opportunities they had for social uplift. The late Marion Barry did things to slow the roll of the gentrifiers; but, he couldn't completely stop the process. The process of gentrification sped up in the late nineties and reached lightning speed in 1999 during the first term of Anthony Williams. Mayor Muriel Bowser inherited the results of 16 years of rapid gentrification which she has limited ability to reverse. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised to find admissions of the problems caused by rising rents and stagnant wages mentioned in the 5-year plan to end homelessness in DC – making it "rare, brief and non-recurring". As Muriel Bowser sets out to reach this ambitious goal and her DHS director makes promises of progress in 2016, it's worth noting that her administration is caught snugly between two federal acts that demand they get results on the one hand and local business leaders (especially landlords) who might be reluctant to get with the program on the other hand.

With me seeing that the good graces of DC Government and local businesses have not substantially decreased homelessness in the past 10 years, I'm betting that it will be the federal legislation (which carries the threat of sanctions and/or loss of future funding for non-compliance) that does the most to decrease DC homelessness.

That leads nicely into the issue of how government ought to think. I won't belabor the issue of government responding to public pressure and crises, having addressed such matters in other recent blog posts. I've already built the case for DC government responding to federal legislation in the previous paragraphs of this blog post. I've written about the “Facade of Caring” in the past; but, I'll briefly explain it here. About 15 years ago the city closed the DC General Hospital, knowing then that the building was dilapidated. About 10 years ago they made it into a family shelter. For the past six years there have been complaints of poor living conditions at the family shelter with this building falling apart at an ever-accelerating pace. Now the city cares toomuch to let families remain in a building that sits where the Olympicvillage might be built for 2028, if the mayor has her way (assuming she'll try again). Then there is the issue of public housing. The DC Housing Authority cares too much to let poor people remain in dilapidated housing that they and the government failed to renovate. Long story short, the local government (across multiple administrations) neglects a shelter or housing project and allows it to fall apart and then “cares” enough to move everybody out.

So far we have public pressure, crises and federal legislation which are proven to get results from DC Government in terms of addressing homelessness. We also have the facade of caring and its beneficiaries -- the local business community – pulling city government in the other direction. Add to this the fact that there was no conversation about the 13% increase in homeless people from 2013 to 2014, though the results of the Homeless Point-in-Time Count are usually discussed at the June ICH meeting. This led me to believe that government only wants to make itself look and feel good – a suspicion that was supported by a presentation that was given at a January 12th, 2016 meeting. Truth be told, I don't expect anyone to intentionally make themselves look bad. That brings us back to the issue of public pressure.

DC Government has been talking about greater accountability and transparency for at least as long as I've been advocating for the homeless. They report out about what they are doing; but, if the reporting on homelessness is any indication, it is only since Muriel Bowser took office in 2015 that we are seeing any admission that we're not doing such a hot job. I'll chalk that up as victory. Maybe it's time for us to step back from the demands for accountability and transparency for a brief moment and ask ourselves what logical assumptions we should consider before reasserting these demands – like the fact that government, like anyone, will present their doings in a positive light. It is therefore up to the citizens to formulate and ask the hard questions. We need to tease out the negative patterns that run across administrations and demand that the sitting mayor stop the madness. We need to find the gaps in reporting (such as when we are told that 700 or so homeless people were served by employment programs with half getting jobs but are not reminded that the city has over 7,000 homeless people). We need to press city officials to tell us what they decided concerning the future of the CCNV Shelter for which they held a nine-month long task force and created legislation that allows the mayor to close it. We need to take notice of the fact that the 5-year plan to end homelessness doesn't expressly state that the city will connect homeless singles who are ages 25 to 60 and don't have addiction problems or jail records to living-wage employment. Accountability and transparency only exist when the citizens ask the hard questions.

That said, mayor Muriel Bowser gets high marks from me thus far for being better than the three male mayors that preceded her; however, there is plenty of room for improvement. (I'll put what else I have to say about how government should think into my next blog post, as this one has already reached an ungodly length.)

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