Communication Breakdown & the Solution: Kristy Greenwalt's ItCH vs Homeless Advocates

While thinking to myself recently about what I would discuss with DC ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt if she were to accept my invitation to treat her to lunch in October and to mend fences, I began to consider the following question:

"What qualities does having an ICH director add to the process that weren't present during the nearly eight years that this body existed without a director???"

The DC ItCH (inter-agency Council on Homeless) held its first meeting in June 2006 (the month I began advocating). It was held in the One Judiciary Square Building (441 4th St NW DC). As per DC Law, it was chaired by the city administrator who at that time was Robert Bobb. Since then we've been through city administrators Dan Tangherlini (who went on to direct GSA), Neil Albert (who now directs Downtown BID) and Allen Lew (who oversaw the construction of the Convention Center and Nationals' Park both of which displaced low-income people). Rashad Young is now DC's city administrator under Mayor Muriel Bowser.

I didn't get much of an opportunity to get to know Mr. Bobb before Mayor Tony Williams left office in January 2007 and Mayor Adrian Fenty brought on his successor. Neil Albert is, in my opinion the best of the four whom I've had sufficient opportunity to get to know. Mr. Albert had a penchant for getting immediate answers. If anyone -- even a homeless person -- mentioned a problem with a program that was run by DC Government or any of its contractors, CA Albert would call the program director on the carpet immediately. He was also swift to enact practical solutions to problems that other administrators take forever to address. He didn't suffer from "analysis paralysis" by any stretch of the imagination and he connected well with anyone and everyone, from what I can tell. (Those whom he called on the carpet might not have been all that fond of him.)

That said, it is not the job of the city administrator to focus his (or her) energy totally and completely on addressing poverty and homelessness. In past administrations the member agencies of the ICH have found ways to work together as the number of homeless people swung through modest decreases and astronomical increases for eight years -- going from 6,157 in January 2006 up to 8,350 in 2016. The ICH has served to slow the increase in homeless people but failed to actually decrease it. That brings us back to the question:

"What qualities does having an ICH director add to the process that weren't present during the nearly eight years that this body existed without a director???"

In trying to answer that question, we can consider the three aforementioned categories:

  • Ability to decrease DC's homeless population
  • Penchant for immediate, practical solutions, as opposed to analysis paralysis
  • Ability to connect well with all types of people -- especially the homeless

Homelessness continues to rise in DC -- both before and during Kristy Greenwalt. Everybody fails in that respect. (That was almost too easy.)

I've never seen anyone in DC Government besides Neil Albert make a call to the responsible party while the group I had come with was still in their office, discuss a solution in our presence, hang up the phone and explain to our group how he'd just solved a long-standing problem in five minutes or less -- as soon as it was brought to his attention. I've never seen any other city administrator call a program director on the carpet during an ICH meeting and ask for an immediate response to the problem that was articulated by a homeless person. All others either say that they'll "get back to you" (which they don't always do) or they do their best to suppress a topic that they don't care to address (especially if it involves a government administrator or program staff having wronged a homeless person). From what I can tell, no one in the current ICH nor any agency contracted by DC Government to serve the homeless has a penchant for immediate and practical solutions. Analysis paralysis runs rampant -- as does gentrification.

One reason that the ICH doesn't implement immediate solutions to the simpler problems and has yet to yield any measurable results for the longer term problems is that they have ceased and desisted from engaging the advocates who have experienced homelessness in any meaningful communication. The ICH has become quite matriarchal in nature -- "Mother knows best".

The DC ICH held a quarterly meeting on September 13th, 2016. While it was dominated with administrative updates that didn't seem to interest local homeless advocates at all (myself included), the meeting was punctuated with messages about an apparent communication breakdown that has manifested in the smaller committee meetings as well.

Before the meeting started, a fellow advocate asked me if a labor law known as "WIOA" was part of a homeless services act known as the "H.E.A.R.T.H. Act". I explained that HEARTH was signed by Obama on May 20th, 2009, that WIOA was signed by him on July 22nd, 2014 and that the two were separate. He asked if it was high time for us to get into DC Government and the ICH and insist that they move more swiftly to implement WIOA. I explained that, after WIOA was signed into law, it was up to Congress to fund it; it was up to the U.S. Dept. of Labor to implement it nationally; it was up to the DC Council to provide any necessary local funding; then the ICH can act. I explained that, until everyone else has gotten all their ducks in a row, there's n point in hammering the ICH or DOES.

During the meeting, a homeless advocate who the government determined to be polished enough in his mannerisms (which they don't think Yours Truly is) told the group that he needed them to translate their bureaucratic, administrative talk into plain and simple English. He said, "you're sitting here talking about different programs and funding mechanisms. When I go out and speak to my homeless constituents, what can I say this means for them??? How many of them will get housing???" Kristy Greenwalt explained that for three of the five programs that were discussed, the talk was about continued funding for housing programs that were already full. She said that one of the programs discussed was changing its format and that only one of the programs was actually new. (I think it amounted to a net gain of 100 housing units for DC's almost 9,000 homeless people, assuming we've gained a few hundred since January.)

There was a second public comment period at the end of the September 13th ICH meeting -- something that has been a rarity for the past year and a half. Having spoken during the first comment period, I also stood up during the latter one and thanked Kristy for affording an answer to the advocate who was at the table. I also explained that the homeless advocates need to have opportunities to set the agenda and discuss matters that are not part of the government's over-structured agenda. With several homeless people and advocates having mentioned matters that fall squarely into the lap of DCHA Director Adrianne Todman during the first comment period, I pointed across the room to her during the second comment period (having wondered why she sat there quietly instead of offering an immediate response). She graciously responded to people's concerns once they knew who she was.

The ICH has a committee format. Kristy Greenwalt made it clear early on that she believes that more gets accomplished within the smaller committees than gets accomplished in the larger quarterly meetings of the full council. In spite of having said in early 2014 that she would make centralized decisions in the absence of any decisiveness from the group, she has allowed this body to function in a decentralized manner since she started as its director on April 28th, 2014. This decentralized format doesn't work well for the homeless. It probably does more than any other policy or practice to create a breakdown in communication.

In some respects the thinking of the homeless is more organized than that of government. My admonition that Kristy and her ItCH begin the thought process with the grim and sobering reality that DC could reach 10,000 homeless people during what might be Muriel Bowser's only term as mayor if she doesn't play her cards right is about more than just choosing to focus on the negative. It's also about being a realist and having an organized way of thinking that gives all people working to end homelessness a point of reference that they can use to determine if our shared goal is being met.

Simply put, if DC had 8,350 homeless people in January 2016 (which it did) and another 3,650 people are projectedto fall into homelessness during the remaining four years of the plan, then the city must house an average of 3,000 people per year in order to meet its goal -- doing the "balloon payments" that they've talked about doing if they should house less than that in the first years of the plan. Each full council meeting and every committee meeting should begin with an explanation of how much closer the matters being discussed in that meeting will bring us toward satisfying the annual goal. The person leading each meeting should speak as though they were referencing an organizational chart that shows how that day's efforts fit into the big picture. (It wouldn't hurt to actually have an organizational chart that everyone can see.)

Like the advocate at the table who asked that the administrative-ish be translated into everyday English, other advocates are attempting to take the disparate conversations that the ICH has about programs, policies and initiatives and to "pin the tail on the bureaucratic [donkey]". We're left to wonder if ICH members from the government and the non-profit community are deliberately trying to blind-fold us so as to make it pointless for us to attend meetings. I'm inclined to believe that this is their intent, seeing that there have been recent ICH committee meetings where I was the only "homeless homeless advocate" who was present. Others have gotten fed up with college-educated people talking over their heads. Kristy needs to make it a common practice to "translate" what's being said, as opposed to the one-off occasion of September 13th. (Maybe we the advocates should invite numerous Spanish-speaking homeless people to meetings, talk out of turn and say, "No ingles" when told to be quiet.)

In light of the three bullet points, it would seem that fostering better communication between the homeless and the ICH (bullet three) is an idea that can be implemented swiftly (bullet two) and might even lead to a more comprehensive plan for decreasing homelessness -- making it "rare, brief and non-recurring" (bullet one). Apart from what the ICH already did before April 28th, 2014, the added quality that its first and only director has brought is a more disparate way of thinking that is so maligned with the organized thinking of the homeless that it is pushing the advocates away -- apparently the desired outcome of certain key players. Let's not give them what they want.

In closing, it's worth noting that one administration staffer got it right. Knowing of my interest in employment for able-bodied homeless people, she has made herself available so that I can get all of the information that I need on this issue straight from the source. Furthermore, I've developed a working relationship with DC Government's Dept. of Employment Services and hope to have some good news to divulge to the homeless community beginning in six to 12 months. Patience is not one of my virtues; but, I'll "wait reluctantly" so long as there is a realistic hope of success in the short term (a year or less). After all, when DOES begins to roll out programs that it is currently designing, this department might end up leading the charge on ending homelessness. A January point-in-time count of 9,000+ homeless people would likely put the mayor on edge and cause her to invest a higher percentage of the city's homelessness-ending dollars into ABAWDS and a lower percentage into PSH and related programs. One can only hope. But, while waiting and hoping, let's work on that communication, Kristy.

Kristy, I'll say it again like I did in a text that you didn't respond to: "I'd like to treat you to lunch in October when I have more good news to convey concerning homeless employment. Then, we can mend fences, talk openly and honestly about past and present points of disagreement, foster better communication between the homeless and the ICH and discuss an all-around better way of confronting homelessness. (I've noticed how you acknowledge your insurmountable challenges like low wages and expensive housing. I see some progress and the chance to work things out.) I'll be contacting you one-on-one soon.

P.S. -- Thousands have seen this.



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