Monday, January 11, 2016

Muriel Bowser , Kristy Greenwalt & DC Homelessness (Employment)

Washington, DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) which is headed by Kristy Greenwalt issued its five-year plan (2015-2020) around June 2015 – 11 months after legislation was passed that gives Mayor Muriel Bowser carte blanche to do as she chooses with the CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter and its 1,350 residents. The plan, as it turns out, says a lot of what my fellow advocates and I have been saying for many years now. This 100-page report has a number of elements that I really like; however, it's missing some very important elements – in my opinion anyway. For what it's worth to you, what IS there is good. It stands to reason that this highly redundant report would only be 30 pages or so if everything were mentioned once, though it might grow again to 40 or 50 pages if we were to add what else I believe belongs in it.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll say that I had a particular focus when applying for my current position on the ICH. As stated in my televised nomination testimony (which can be viewed on the DC Council website) I clearly stated that I am intent on learning the city's plans for the future of the CCNV Shelter which the city will soon have the legal rights to close and that I am intent on pressuring city officials into doing more to connect ALL able-bodied homeless people to living-wage jobs. It would seem that these are two of the most difficult things for city officials to accomplish and that they are very reluctant to top-load their agenda (as I advised Kristy to do in 2014) – all the more reason for me to continue to focus on these issues. In any instance, it is with this focus that I reviewed the five-year plan.

I admittedly only read the plan in early January 2016 – some seven months after it was published. There is the fact that administrative reads are usually quite boring. However, my primary reason was that I wasn't hearing anything in the meetings that I attended that convinced me that the ICH was working from a social theory or sense of principle that I could appreciate. What I heard verbally left me with the impression that reading this document would be a colossal waste of time. I was pleasantly surprised, even if not pleasantly enough.

The questions which I would hope and expect for the ICH to address include the following:

1 – Are we asking the hardest questions up front, doing a deep critical analysis of our plan and beginning to take action on what will probably prove to be the most difficult tasks immediately (top-loading our agenda)???

2 – Have we taken all necessary steps to avoid the mistakes of the past???

3 – As a body that seeks to end homelessness, are we doing the most intuitive things first – like putting in place an on-going process that will continually create affordable housing at a faster rate than people enter into the homeless services system???

4 – Being as people enter the homeless services system after having often held jobs and proven to be well-functioning adults, are the plans we're devising geared toward re assimilating ALL able-bodied persons into society???

5 – Does the plan account for all homeless people in the city??? That is to say, “Does each homeless person fall into at least one sub-category for which plans are being made?”.

6 – Do we need resources that we don't currently have or does anything that the ICH might need to do fall outside of its purview??? (If so, have we begun a process to acquire such resources and/or to get those with broader purviews to assist us in all necessary manners???)

As you can well imagine, the answer to the first five questions is, “No”.
The answers to the three parts of question six are: “Yes”, “Yes” and (I'm almost certain) “No”.

The plan starts out on what I'll call a positive note insomuch as it contains a letter from Mayor Muriel Bowser in which she acknowledges that there are high levels of economic inequality, that family homelessness has increased at an alarming rate and that the city has been doing more to manage homelessness than they do to end it. Later on the plan states that a housing wage in DC is $28.25/hour (presumably for a 1-bedroom with one person working 40 hours/week). It even points out that the minimum wage is a little more than one-third of the housing wage. A mere two years ago I would not have expected to get such an unambiguous statement from a DC mayor about the difficulty low-income workers have living in the city where they work. The “plan” which comes off to me as more of a “report” definitely makes some ambitious admissions, though one would have to attend a lot of meetings in order to gain a clear picture of how the plan will play out. (I had a hard time deducing the various steps and phases, even though I've done this work since June 2006.)

On yet another positive note, this document promises that it will not just sit on a shelf collecting dust, claims to be a living document that will be updated from time to time and acknowledges that the plans that many cities have devised for ending homelessness have fail – two such plans having existed in Washington, DC. Unfortunately, it doesn't elaborate on why those plans failed, much less address lessons learned. “S/he who fails to learn from the mistakes of the past is doomed to repeat them.” To be fair, I'll say that someone who has advocated for some thirty years told me that she wasn't sure if anyone knew why the 10-year plan of 2004 called “Homeless No More” was scrapped. She doesn't think there was a formal decision to do away with it – that it just fell from people's radar. The only information I could find on-line about why the plan was (passively) scrapped was on the website of the Western Regional Advocacy Project or WRAP and said that the plan was done away with due to “not meeting benchmarks”. At any rate, let's hope that this current document “lives” long enough to finish the job of ending homelessness in DC.

It's also worth noting that the admissions that grave social ills exist in the capital of the most powerful nation on Earth, when taken together with the targeted social programs which the plan lays out, play right into a major argument raised by my fellow Marxists and I: Governments would rather give a “programmatic reason” which delivers minimal services to the poorest of the poor than to create a system-wide response that cures these social ills for all of said government's constituents. That is to say that DC Government would rather have programs that assist extremely poor and disabled citizens than to push for legislation that forces rents down to a reasonable level and pay up to a reasonable level for everyone – an idea that would greatly decrease the need for social services and enable more of those in shelters to resolve their own crises.

While I didn't expect the “report” to lay out what (if any) social theory Muriel Bowser or Kristy Greenwalt might be working from (Marxism, Social Democracy, Keynesian-ism etc.), I have known DC Government's Dept. of Human Services (DHS) and the ICH to adopt mantras. In 2008, while developing plans for DC's version of Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH), DHS said repeatedly that they “didn't want anyone to die on the streets”. (If they don't LIVE on the streets, they won't DIE on the streets.) They then proceeded to assist the “most vulnerable” homeless, with many people in the service community either having forgotten or not been in their current jobs when it was said that PSH would eventually assist the “least vulnerable” homeless who only have trouble getting connected to jobs. Now Mayor Bowser wants to make homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring” – a mantra that is repeated many times throughout the document. With the Marxist thinking that guides all of my advocacy work being firmly established, I have a guiding principle that encapsulates all of my efforts for the foreseeable future: Anyone who works in this city and thereby contributes to the life of this city should be able to afford housing and live in this city.

As for how well DHS has done at ensuring that no one dies homeless on the mean streets of DC, I have to give them high marks. Before 2009 (the first full year for PSH) there were 100 or more people per year dying homeless in DC. In 2015 there were about 40 – this in spite of having had 6,228 homeless people in January 2009 and 7,298 in January 2015 (1,070 more). Whether or not Mayor Bowser and Kristy Greenwalt make homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring”, that remains to be seen. I probably won't see that day myself – especially if it takes multiple terms (December 2020 being almost two years into the next mayoral term). As for my part, I have a number of irons in the fire even now and continue to work on getting city officials to make their decision about CCNV public and to develop a meaningful plan around homeless employment. In these matters I'll succeed or I'll die trying. (I've found what hurts DC Gov the most and I'll keeping bringing it up until I break them in.)

That segways us nicely into what the report was missing. While page 43 (on the PDF page counter which doesn't match the typed-in page numbers) there is a chart that sort of explains the plans for facility upgrades at some shelters and completely new buildings for others. It doesn't mention every city-run shelter. Furthermore, CCNV is not a city-run shelter, though it IS in a city-owned building. Add to this the fact that there was a nine-month long task force which concluded in July 2014 – almost a year before the 2015-2020 plan/report was completed. Oddly enough, the plan/report makes no mention of CCNV. One might assume that a plan which is going to end homelessness across the city would mention a shelter which holds about 1,000 people (with other entities in the same building holding another 300+ beds).

The plan makes a token mention or two of homeless singles who might be able-bodied. In each instance the mention is vague and ambiguous, allowing a seasoned advocate to assume that the writer had the most vulnerable homeless singles in mind. As for the sub-populations for which a plan is laid out, if only vaguely, they include families and the disabled. Even if one, after reading the plan/report, is unable to develop a clear mental picture of how the city plans to end homelessness for these two sub-categories, it's clear that city officials have a laser-sharp focus on them. The plan/report aligns perfectly with what the mayor has said on the news: that she is working on providing homeless parents (whose average age range is 18 to 24 years old) with a path to the middle class. I've looked in the written plan and listened to the news for even the slightest hint that Mayor Bowser is aware that there are homeless people ages 25 to 60 who need more employment assistance than DOES (Dept. Of Employment Services) offers – people who aren't adequately assisted by the department's current rigid structures or narrow purview. I neither read nor heard any.

This begins to explain why I go as hard as I do. After all, a plan that going to end homelessness in this city, making it “rare, brief and non-recurring”, can only succeed if every homeless person in the city falls into at least one of the sub-categories of those being actively assisted by the ICH's plan. This has not (yet) proven to be true for able-bodied homeless singles. Neither has it proven to be true for residents of CCNV, most of whom fall into the “A-bod” category. We're being ignored twice over. Fix that, Muriel Bowser and Kristy Greenwalt.

(I might need to do a “Part 2” to this blog post, as I couldn't say everything I have to say in this already lengthy post.)


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