DC Mayor Muriel Bowser: Further Improve the Inter-agency Council on Homelessness' Math (an open letter)
"I know people are working hard; but, sometimes we work hard at the wrong things."
[such as manipulating numbers and definitions]
DC ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt [minus bracketed words] in early 2014
(I wonder if she recalls saying that.)
Dearest Mayor Muriel Bowser:
In my previous blog post I commended the fact that you, unlike any other politician that I'm aware of, have made addressing homelessness into your pet project -- a truth that means that what you do as mayor and what I do as a homeless advocate are quite inextricably connected. But the fact remains that you can't devote all of your time to your pet project; nor can you possibly keep up with every single happening of the DC Inter-agency Council on Homelessness. Additionally, it stands to reason that your administration will always paint a positive picture of their efforts -- a picture that gets turned on its head if and when the media blitz that always follows the mid-May release of the results of the January Point-in-Time Homeless Enumeration indicate that there was an astronomical increase in the number of homeless people in Washington, DC over the last year. Such was the case in 2014 (up by 889) and in 2016 (up by 1,052). I understand that the media doesn't always report matters accurately; as, they must, by their very nature, be jack of all trades and master of none -- reporting on countless issues that they may have spent an hour a piece learning about. (I've been burned by the media too.) The inherent value of the media is that it informs a pragmatic public with short attention spans about what matters to the public, even if a report only scratches the surface of a multi-layered issue -- with some of us then digging deeper by way of Google.
It is this same public that votes politicians like yourself into office (and that will find this blog post via Google). It is this same public that will critique your administration in 2018 as you run for re-election. With DC having supposedly had 8,350 homeless people in January 2016; with there having been two recent counts that revealed increases of almost 900 and over 1,000 homeless people; and with there being two more counts during your first term, it is conceivable that the mid-May articles in 2017 or 2018 will read: "Mayor Who Will Make Homelessness 'Rare, Brief and Non-recurring' Sees it Rise Past 10,000 People on Her Watch" -- a point I made in an updated open letter to ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt in September 2016. (I'm not sure if she's read it.)
I also pointed out in my previous post that, during the December 2016 quarterly full council meeting, the ICH said that there were at least 330 homeless youth that were not counted in January. The adjusted total is more like 8,680. The news of this under-count came less than a week before news of various municipalities under-counting their homeless populations. Some of these uncounted homeless school kids may also be among those whose grades are being falsified by teachers so that the teachers themselves don't get failing grades and lose their jobs. (Some of the most pronounced indicators that our education system is failing: We are stupid enough to expect the police to police themselves, the homeless shelter staff to pass written grievances filed against them by homeless residents up the chain of command and for various failing agencies to self-report their failures to their higher ups.)
This raises some questions about transparency and accountability -- with even that of YOU and YOUR administration having been called into question earlier this year, Mayor Bowser. But that's a topic for another day (maybe two posts after this one). For now, let's just look at:
1 -- how the ICH grades itself,
2 -- how its grading and performance can be improved and
3 -- how the general public understands what it is fed concerning your progress on decreasing homelessness.
During a recent ICH committee meeting, Kristy Greenwalt thought hat I was taking her statement about her not wanting to count people who apply for but don't receive homeless services among the recipients of homeless services as me thinking that she sought to do away with homelessness prevention measures; and, she proceeded to stop me mid-sentence. That was not the case. I understood her to want to separate the homeless people with unmet needs from those who are actually cared for by the system (and to possibly count the former group in a different file). That portion of the conversation was essentially about deflating the figures so as to paint a picture of progress. It's ironic that, with your administration having denigrated the previous one for having created draconian policies that limited families' access to shelter and led to an explosion in those presenting at shelters during your term, that you and your administration would now choose to deflate the numbers and limit access to shelter. In any instance, Kristy and I don't agree about what numbers matter the most when talking about how many people are homeless and how the full scope of the problem.
Then there's the fact that the DC ICH, along with other government agencies and NGO's across the country, has spent countless hours defining and redefining the term "homeless" as well as other terms which Merriam-Webster and all people with a working knowledge of the English language figure to have very basic and easily understood meanings. Narrowing the definition allows state and local governments to subtract people who still don't have homes from the total number of homeless people that they report having in their respective jurisdictions. This, of course, makes these governments eligible for more federal dollars -- and as inclined to falsification of records as the failing schools are. (Maybe the former or present school chancellor has an idea as to how we might transfer the improvements in DC schools to the ICH.)
I'm not saying that DC has devolved to a place of intentional false reporting yet or that the under-count of homeless youth this year was on purpose. Fortunately, DC is conflicted in the matter of funding for homeless services. Whereas DC Government would lose federal dollars for not decreasing homelessness, the volunteers who canvass the city every January are instructed to encourage homeless people to stand up and be counted by telling them that the funding from the DC Council for homeless services will be proportionate to the number of homeless people we count. If that doesn't work, we offer them granola bars and McDonald's gift cards -- the latter helping to reduce the homeless population via clogged arteries. The conflict is, therefore, between hoping that we can report a high number and have our NGO's receive more local dollars or hoping we can report a low number and get more federal dollars. (The council is not conflicted. The NGO's are.) I'm not sure if the feds give more money per person housed or the city council gives more money per unhoused person.
While many in government and the non-profit community are debating definitions and how to count the homeless, other advocates and I sometimes remind government that they are paying attention to the wrong numbers. But it was a former director of DC Government's Department of Human Services (DHS) who put it best when, during a hearing, he stated that, "As we get five people out of the front door of the shelter, 10 more come in the back door". That simple but profound statement raises at least a couple of very complex questions:
1 -- How did these new shelter arrivals fall into homelessness???
2 -- How might we have foreseen the plight of these newly homeless people???
While the first of these two questions has many answers that can be grouped into a handful of categories that are not entirely the fault of government, the answers to the latter question point directly at the missteps of government -- more specifically the member agencies of the ICH (all of your well-paid bean counters). With 2009 having been the first full year of the economic downturn and many of the homeless not seeking shelter until the late fall, city officials can be forgiven for having insufficient and dilapidated family shelter during the winter of 2009-10. I forgive them for that. Then again, maybe I shouldn't, given the fact that local governments in and around Washington, DC knew as far back as January 2003 that a crisis of poverty that included dozens of DC families per month taking their federal vouchers and moving to Prince George's County for affordable housing. Furthermore, it's not hard to see why DC is approaching 10,000 homeless people when you consider that there are also:
-- some 20,000 people who experience homelessness annually in DC,
-- more than 40,000 people on the Housing Authority wait list and
-- more than 100,000 rent-burdened families in DC.
We the advocates have suggested that government look at these other larger pools of disadvantaged people who are currently on the brink. They've yet to do that. But, as is sometimes said by administrators when we advocates mention these larger problems that feed into the homeless issue, it is outside of the ICH's purview to create affordable housing. With Mayor Fenty having given Leslie Steen an impossible mandate to form an affordable housing coalition -- but to do it without having any subpoena power, I personally have suggested several times since June 2006 that the ICH go beyond merely stating that something falls outside of their purview and to explain to you -- or any sitting mayor -- as well as the council and other power brokers. (I'm doing it with this blog post.) Let's not forget that no housing is affordable to any able-bodied person unless you connect them to housing-wage (not just living wage) employment. But, I also acknowledge that the current five-year plan which is going to house more people than there were at the onset of the failed 10-year plan does make mention of the housing wage of $28.25 per hr.
What we have here (in addition to a failure to communicate effectively) is a situation where the unpaid advocates have, in some cases, been advocating longer than some of the government employees and other homeless service providers have been at their jobs. In spite of this truth, some of the most profound advice of the unpaid advocates has been ignored, even as homelessness continues to increase. Meanwhile, the well-paid people haggle over definitions and manipulate numbers in order to paint a picture of progress. It's also worth noting that, with each passing year, the annual homeless reports get longer, become more decorative and are given longer titles that are becoming paragraphs unto themselves. Government and its contractors are getting better at not doing their jobs (in spite of us giving them free advice) and at comprising novel-length reports that make professional-sounding excuses that present their failures as positives or themselves as victims of circumstance -- the circumstance which it is their job to understand and surmount.
Before leaving the topic of government failures, I should point out that DC Government is currently placing homeless families in a hospital that was built in 1846 (23 years before Franklin School which served as a shelter from 2002 to 2008 and was shut down for -- among other reasons -- being dilapidated). City officials knew that both buildings were over 125 years old when each was first used as a homeless shelter -- DC General having first been used as a family shelter in 2005. So, while it's easy to justify opening a dilapidated building in the spur of the moment to be used as emergency shelter, it is inexcusable not to have developed an adequate alternative over eight years later -- before Relisha Rudd was kidnapped from the family shelter in 2014. (I understand that was the year before you took office as mayor, though you'd spent seven years on the DC Council and oversaw some matters relating to poverty.)
This brings us to the final matter for this post: how the pragmatic public perceives what they are fed by the media concerning homelessness. Being as it's pretty much impossible to pass through downtown DC without encountering many people whom one would assume to be homeless, the public -- locals and tourists -- can help but be aware of the existence of homeless people in our nation's capital. Not all 9,000 homeless Washingtonians are located downtown; but, the sampling that IS seems to grow in proportion to the citywide homeless population -- giving locals a way in which to gauge government's progress at decreasing homelessness. I do an occasional radio show about homelessness and have been told by callers during the shows as well as by friends afterward that I explain the matter well and thereby afford them ample understanding of the matter. But there is always that mid-May media blitz following the release of the numbers from the January count. My guess is that the general public is moved by the total number of homeless people as well as the news that a shelter or housing for the homeless might be placed in their neighborhood -- you having learned the latter the hard way in early 2016.
This is where your pet project meets the public's pragmatism. You, Mayor Bowser, should hope that the 2018 primary occurs before May; because, a local homeless population in excess of 10,000 might register with the public as you having failed most miserably at the one thing that you worked on the most (even if it WAS for your developer-donors). This might, in turn, lead to them determining that you are not a capable leader. An April primary might keep the voting public from judging you by the May article, with the exception of those with long memories and those who work on poverty-related matters. In the event of a June primary, the most recent homeless figures would still be fresh in the minds of many. That wouldn't bid well for you -- unless you were to improve the function of the ICH.
"I know people are working hard; but, sometimes we work hard at the wrong things."
[such as manipulating numbers and definitions]