Government Accountability and Action: Get There in a GOOD Way
If we're going to get there anyway, we may as well get there in a GOOD way.
All of us can relate to this scenario: Someone asks that another do something for them; gets turned down; gets upset and gets what they originally asked for.
It's enough to make you wonder: Why didn't the latter person grant the request BEFORE the temper tantrum???
Sadly, this scenario plays itself out time and time again in the relationship between government and the public they are supposed to be serving. Advocates for various causes have, in times past, developed detailed agendas that included stepping up the pressure on government if and when government failed to make good on the requests of the people immediately following the first time that a request was made. They then transition from making a request at a calm meeting with a few advocates and politicians present into staging large rallies or protests at which the advocates make demands to the politicians and might create bad press for said politicians. Even so, government seems to always try to ignore the requests of their constituents who don't contribute financially to political campaigns. That is, until the people become rancorous enough.
Truth be told, government might be all the smarter for making this choice, being as the crowds often give up and go away if they get ignored long enough by government. After September 2007, the Iraq War protesters went away. By the beginning of 2012, the Occupy Wall Street Movement had disbanded, though some of its participants involved themselves in advocacy and activism in other ways. Shortly after DC's Franklin School Shelter was closed, the hundreds of concerned citizens who fought to keep it open rode off into the sunset, never to be seen or heard from again.
Beginning in 2010, non-profits began to invite homeless parents to the annual performance oversight hearings that the City Council holds for the various departments of DC Government; and, these parents would talk about the deplorable conditions at the shelter. The groups of homeless parents would then go away from June of one year until March of the following year when they'd complain again. It wasn't until an eight-year old girl was abducted from the family shelter in early 2014 (and is now presumed dead) that the public stepped up pressure of DC Government to improve conditions for the one-fifth of DC's homeless families that reside at the DC General Shelter, the city's development and gentrification plans notwithstanding. It stands to reason that, if enough children die from poverty-related circumstances, then the city government will effectively address the issues that we've known about for many decades.
The silver lining is that one-fifth or less of an ever-increasing number of homeless families in the city will move into better shelters by early 2019. The dark cloud is that these 270 families might be one-seventh of the total number of homeless families by then and -- you guessed it -- they'll still be homeless. So, speaking truth to power will have improved the situations of 270 families, though not in the way that one might hope. Had the deplorable conditions at the family shelter been adequately addressed beginning in 2010, we might already have seven smaller shelters; Relisha Rudd might still be alive; Vince Gray might still be mayor (not that I liked him); and, the DC General campus might have already been built over as a subdivision or an Olympic Village. In light of the shelter replacement plan, we can rightly say, "[Since] we're going to get there anyway, we [should have gotten] there in a GOOD way".
Now to go from considering a family shelter to considering a singles shelter. In mid-October I was called by the director of the DC Inter-agency Council on Homelessness. She was concerned about a blog post of mine in which I'd juxtaposed various facts that seemed to be pointing to an impending closure of the CCNV Shelter. I listed more than a half dozen reasons for believing that the Bowser administration was going to wait until less than six months before the closure to alert its homeless residents -- as was the case with Franklin School Shelter during the Fenty administration. Kristy said to me, "Eric, if you're going to be on the ICH, you have to be careful what you say about the mayor". I complied with her request by changing a couple of phrases to reflect the fact that I was merely speculating. (I had to delete the original post after pasting it into a new frame, as that's the only way to change the title. It now appears as my November 10, 2015 post.) I'm not a homeless representative on the ICH, in spite of this compliance. Long story.
As government began to tell me that my guess was wrong, I began to tell the homeless and my other associates the same. Their response was always, "If the government is saying that your prediction is NOT the truth, then what IS the truth???" I prodded government for answers for several more months. Then, on February 3rd, 2016 I attended a meeting of one of the ICH committees. A certain woman explained how she and the non-profit for which she works get inundated with questions from the public every time that the DC budget is released. I used her story to then explain how the homeless are inundating ME with questions about the future of the CCNV Shelter. Kristy promised to hold a meeting at the shelter. I prodded her every couple of weeks -- like I did with then-Councilman Jim Graham from March 13th, 2013 until June 27th, 2013 when he held the CCNV hearing that he'd promised me. The meeting took place on April 27th, 2016. When she called me in October 2015, she could have promised THEN to have a meeting at the shelter. We might have had the shelter meeting four months sooner; there might have been less tension between her and myself; I might have seen that I could get answers from the administration without going rogue; and, I might be on the ICH where I can be reined in to some degree. If we're going to get there anyway, we may as well get there in a GOOD way.
On May 27th, 2015 I attended an ICH committee meeting at which Dallas Williams of DC Government's Dept. of Human Services said that the John L. Young and Open Door Women's Shelters on either end of the CCNV/Federal City Shelter building would be combined and relocate to DC's Chinatown by November 2015. The following day, women from Open Door told me that he'd visited the shelter the previous evening to "encourage" those who were 62 and older to enter into one of the city's housing programs. The affected women and I began to wonder why he didn't mention the impending closure to THEM hours after he'd mentioned it in a government meeting earlier that same day.
In early July 2015 I called the woman who ran both of these shelters so as to discuss the situation of a homeless woman who'd been unfairly ejected from John Young. During the call, the director accused me of accusing her of withholding information from the women under her care. (The women had drawn the conclusion, apart from anything that I personally said, that Director Johnson knew about the relocation plan and was holding out on them.) Director Johnson referenced an e-mail that I'd sent in which I wondered about the aforementioned matter of why Mr. Williams held out on them. After a brief back-and-forth in which she doubled down on her accusation, she said, "Mr. Sheptock, I'll read the e-mail again; and, if you're right, I'll call you with an apology". She got the woman back into the shelter that night. I got that apology two days later.
Director Johnson told me that she hadn't been told about the plans as of July 2015 and that she would call DHS for confirmation. She got it. The shelters relocated in April 2016. New Hope Ministries for which Ms. Johnson worked, didn't get the contract to run the new site. The homeless have countless reasons to believe that government is withholding information concerning the future of services until the last minute. Homeless people have an even more cynical view of government than the general public. If we're going to [find out about changes in service delivery] anyway, we may as well [find out] in a GOOD way.
The 2014 Point-in-Time count revealed that DC's homeless population had risen from 6,859 in 2013 to 7,748 in 2014. I attended the then-bi-monthly (now quarterly) Full ICH meeting in June 2014 -- with the numbers from the January count having been released in May. At the end of the meeting, I told the room how that I found it appalling that the group hadn't done its usual report-out about the PIT count following a 13% one-year increase in homeless people. Then I said, "You're failing at decreasing homelessness". Then-City Administrator Allen Lew replied, "We're not failing. We're working on it". I sat down. As indicated in my previous blog post, DC could have 10,000 by 2018 or 2019. All things considered, the city will need to eventually decrease its focus on the disabled homeless and focus more on those who are ready, willing and able to work. If we're going to [start addressing the need for living-wage jobs and affordable housing] anyway, we may as well [start doing that] in a GOOD way.....and BEFORE Mayor Bowser gets credit for bringing DC to the grim milestone of having 10,000 homeless people.
By now, you're probably wondering what more I have to say about SOLUTIONS to homeless such as employment and the creation of affordable housing. I'll forgo addressing affordable housing for now, in part because NOTHING is "affordable" if one lacks income. As far as employment is concerned, my colleagues and I have harped for almost 10 years about the need to connect able-bodied homeless people to living-wage jobs. In July 2014, Obama signed legislation that I hoped would FORCE DC Government to shift some of its resources toward satisfying this legislation by July 2016. I'm still hoping and working with the administration to reach this goal. Progress is being made, even if it's not as swift as one might hope.
I began to make videos whose intent was to ensure that DC Government continues to make progress on homeless employment. These videos were posted on-line and e-mailed to government. A government staffer contacted me about my much-publicized requests. She updated me concerning the process for addressing homeless employment. She "engaged" me in multiple phone calls, has e-mailed pertinent information to me and has opened up a strong line of communication by encouraging me to call her with any questions that I might have. She understands that I want answers and constant progress on a matter that I've spent 10 years pushing for. I understand HER concerns and have told her to call me with any of her needs or concerns. SHE got it right. She knows that if [the advocates are going to get answers and action on homeless employment] anyway, we may as well get [them] in a GOOD way.
"If we're going to get there anyway, we may as well get there in a GOOD way."