Let's Work with Mayor Bowser to Decrease homelessness

It's wonderful that DC now has a mayor who is fully committed to making homelessness “rare, brief and non-recurring”. In 2003 and 2004 Tony Williams oversaw the creation of a 10-year plan to end homelessness – a plan that was discarded after three years. Adrian Fenty oversaw the creation of Permanent Supportive Housing for the elderly and disabled homeless. Vince Gray committed to addressing homelessness in the waning months of his administration, following the abduction of 8-year old Relisha Rudd from the family Shelter in March of 2014. In the meantime, the city has gone from having 5,757 homeless people in January of 2007 to having approximately 8,000 homeless people in DC proper now -- which shouldn't be confused with the 12,000 in DC Metro. (The foot count of DC's homeless wasn't done this year due to Snowstorm Jonas “Snowzilla”.) Howbeit, Mayor Muriel Bowser might just be the one to reverse the trend – though not without the help of the DC Council.

Mayor Bowser has retained Kristy Greenwalt as the director of the Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH). Kristy, who assumed her current post on April 28th, 2014, is the first director of an agency that has been meeting since June 2006. Kristy has overseen the creation of a 5-year plan which is slated to connect all of the city's current homeless to housing by the end of 2020 and which will lead to all newly-homeless people being connected to housing within 90 days. These represent awesome,though ambitious, goals.

Mayor Bowser has also brought back Laura Zeilinger who served as assistant director of the Dept. of Human Services under Fenty and has made her director of DHS. Evidenced by a recently-released audit that was done on DHS in 2014, Laura is working hard to rebuild the department and fix its many flaws. If the several women whom the mayor has appointed to direct departments that serve the poor, homeless and socioeconomically deprived are the mayor's “Poverty Dream Team”, then Laura Zeilinger is definitely the quarterback – and she often gets sacked by the media and mounting public pressure. She's a real champ.

The fact remains that Mayor Bowser has made significantly decreasing homelessness in DC – an effort that three men before didn't succeed at – into something of a pet project. Since it may come to define her first term, she's highly motivated to succeed – a truth which has its pros and cons. What's more is that the general public is becoming more politicized as the nuances of dealing with DC homelessness get played out in the public sphere – from the Amber alert posters of Relisha Rudd on buses and bus shelters to the media coverage of tent-city closures to the council and ward meetings about the mayor's plan to replace the DC General Family Shelter which, for the most part, replaced the DC Village Family Shelter – the former having increased its capacity from 115 units to 288 units in 2012 after the latter was closed in 2007.

It was a man who passed homeless people under a bridge each day on his way to work who decided to buy a few tents out of pocket. He then began a crowd-funding site through which he raised $24,000 and bought many more for the homeless in other locations around the city. This led to residents of the Foggy Bottom community taking notice of dozens of homeless people who'd been camped out near the Watergate hotel for years – but without tents until late 2015. Some of these residents contacted city officials in order to have the tent city dismantled. Since then, DC Government has begun a campaign to dismantle tent cities all over the city. The man who began it all, though he's not happy about the tent cities being dismantled, is glad that he was able to play a role in bringing attention to the issue of homelessness.

Members of the public have voiced their concerns at meetings which the Bowser administration held in various wards on February 11th, 2016 to promote her family shelter plan. They can also be seen testifying at the March 17thcouncil hearing on this matter. They can be heard raising many technical and logistical questions from the proposed shelter sites' cost to their proximity to bus lines and transit stations. (This post won't due justice to the many things people said. View the hearing.) But it was the residents of Ward 5 who really set the bar for the public's engagement in this process of remaking the family shelter system. Residents thought that the proposed site for the Ward 5 family shelter was not suitable for many reasons. However, they didn't stop there. They scouted around and found alternative sites, loaded them onto a website and sent the link along with a letter to city officials. This is a prime example of how we can avoid merely complaining about the doings of public officials and we can actually work together to make DC a better place.

It's worth noting that many homeless people have barriers to employment that won't be resolved within 90 days. This doesn't preclude the administration from housing them first and addressing their employment challenges later. After all, the designers of the city's Permanent Supportive Housing program said during the series of meetings between April and September of 2008 that the plan was to start out housing the most vulnerable homeless who have mental and physical disabilities and to eventually transition into also housing those who are able to work (A-bods). In either instance the city would use a “housing first” approach that places the person in housing and then addresses the issues that led to that person becoming homeless. With city officials scrambling to implement the federal law called the Workforce Innovations and opportunities Act (WIOA), this might be a good time to complete the transition to also housing the able-bodied homeless – a transition that began with the crisis response to the DC General Family Shelter situation but has yet to spill over into the singles' shelters.

It's imperative that we take note of the fact that DC homelessness is the result of a toxic mix of social ills – low wages, increasing rents, gentrification, a problem-ridden educational system etc. Some of the residents who experience these and other social ills never actually become homeless. Others take years after losing a job to finally enter shelter. But all DC residents should want cures to these ills and to the homelessness that often results from them. As many homeless advocates often say, “We're all just a paycheck away from becoming homeless”.


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