DC Mayor Muriel Bowser: Improve ICH Communication (an open letter)

Dearest Mayor Muriel Bowser:

In my previous post I visited the matters of how DC's Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) grades its performance vs how the public perceives what the media says about homelessness and of what this could mean for your 2018 re-election bid (especially if the DC primary comes AFTER the mid-May article about the homeless census). To be sure, you know a thing or two about the way in which the general public understands what it is told by politicians and the media -- how that, no matter how accurately a politician, reporter (in some cases) or subject matter expert explains a matter, the truth is lost through several communication turnovers as people try to remember and regurgitate what they heard or read. Even so, Aristotle and others have written about the "wisdom of the crowd" -- the principle whereby numerous incorrect guesses (of things like the weight of an ox at a country fair) average out within a percentage point of the correct answer.  Granted, these are not mutually exclusive conclusions; as, one has to do with guessing a fixed fact; while, the other has to do with understanding circumstances and truths that are constantly changing and multi-layered. That said, you'll be counting on the wisdom of the crowd in 2018 while hoping that they don't buy into any negative critiques of you by the media.

Now that I've impressed upon you (and all of the readers of this blog post) the utter importance of effective communication and gotten you to consider the wisdom of the crowd, I'll explain other matters of communication which, if not rectified immediately, will amount to your political suicide in early 2018 -- with the DC Democratic primary (which occurred in April of 2014 and June of 2016) being DC's de facto general election. Though I won't belabor the topic as I did in the previous post, I'll say that your political promise to address homelessness (mainly for families) is extremely tangential. Concern over the abduction of eight-year old Relisha Rudd has blossomed into the following concerns: safety at the DC General Family Shelter, maintenance at the same, NIMBY-ism and elitist attitudes of most wards, employment (mainly for heads of households), stress on the social services system, the failures of the system since 2004 to end DC homelessness, steering contracts for replacement shelters to developer-donor friends, a possible under-priced disposition of DC General Hospital to developers in early 2019 and the furtherance of gentrification. Five of the nine listed concerns fall within the ICH's purview -- the other four having to do with developers, gentrification and public attitudes toward the poor. As it turns out, the outcome of this pivotal political issue of homelessness rests -- for the most part -- on the shoulders of KRISTY GREENWALT.

The best and worst news here is that improving the communication techniques of the ICH in early 2017 can serve as a springboard for other improvements and for a second Bowser term. (I arrived in DC in 2005; and, no DC mayor has been re-elected since 2002, though the sitting mayor has always tried.) Mayor Bowser, my personal interactions with Kristy Greenwalt and the ICH concerning the matter of communication can be traced back to an October 2015 phone conversation in which she asked me to edit a blog post which I re-posted with edits on November 10th, though there were teachable moments on March 9th and May 10th of 2016. Then there is this e-mail thread which began in mid-September 2016. Over the past 14 months we've moved from me being censored by Kristy in October 2015 to me being incensed by her ways seven months later (via phone) to me now writing about various ICH communication matters at the conclusion of this 14-month period. In any instance, it can be said that communication has been an issue in both directions -- Kristy to me and vice versa. It's also been an issue for the ICH as a whole. One of the most telling signs that they have communication issues is the oft-stated fact that the ICH fails to get the word out about what it has succeeded at -- when it has followed through on the stated concerns of its member agencies and of the homeless themselves. It stands to reason that those who can't get the word out about what they've done well have issues with all forms of communication.

I'm happy to report that a solution to this matter is in the works. On December 13th, 2016 I reminded Laura Zeilinger of something that she used to do as assistant director of DHS which needs to be done again. She would attend the then bi-monthly meetings of the ICH. If the homeless mentioned concerns at the April meeting, Laura would return in June with a report of what had been done to address those concerns. Laura promised to assign that duty to someone. I trust that she'll follow through.

With the first concern having to do with publicizing ICH successes, the next has to do with having success in the first place. I've sat through countless ICH committee meetings during which attendees discussed the trouble that homeless service providers have finding homeless people whom they've had prior contact with and whose housing has become available. If we can't find people so as to get them into their housing, then there won't be any successes to report. This is a pivotal function of the ICH. I've offered a couple of solutions.

At a meeting a couple of months ago, as service providers discussed this long-standing problem, they mentioned how that some homeless people take as many as 200 days to find and house. Assuming that as much as $4,000 in caseworker pay goes into finding such people, I suggested that homeless people be offered $10 transit cards or McDonald's cards each time they visit the caseworker (maybe only using this idea when the person will likely be housed in less than six months). Kristy's words to me (verbatim) were, "Eric, those cards cost money". After that meeting, a Miriam's Kitchen employee flagged me down outside and said he'd follow up on that idea which he'd heard me mention in multiple meetings.

During an ICH committee meeting in early December 2016 we discussed the matter yet again. Someone suggested that housing reps attend the monthly town hall meetings that various shelters have and that they tell any shelter resident who wants to know whether or not their housing has become available. It was quickly determined that all 400 residents at some shelters would line up to find out about their housing and that idea was killed. I then suggested that the housing rep attend the town halls and call out the names of the five people whose housing has become available. Attendees stated their disagreement, stating concerns over privacy. I explained that simply saying in a group setting that someone's housing has become available doesn't amount to giving out their address. They persisted.

After the meeting was over I remembered that, during the last two weeks that Franklin School Shelter was open (9/12/08 to 9/26/08) there were people from DHS and Catholic Charities standing near the exit each morning. As the shelter residents exited in the morning, if a service provider saw someone whose housing had become available (having had photos with the paperwork), they called that person's name out and told him to remain and to enter the cafeteria to be signed up for housing. On December 21st, 2016 I explained the Franklin closing to another Miriam's Kitchen employee who first suggested that privacy laws might have changed. When I said that I wanted to learn about those laws, he mentioned trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care, from what I can tell, is a relatively new school of thought that I've heard very little about over the past year. This Miriam's employee said that "experts" have determined that someone having their named called out in a crowd can traumatize them. Upon further discussion, we determined that this new privacy policy is, in fact, a voluntary practice -- not a new law. That said, you as mayor might elect not to recognize this "TIC" practice and o instead do what will get the homeless housed most quickly. That's not to say that a female employee of Miriam's Kitchen shouldn't lean over the shoulder of a homeless man whom she knows to whisper in his ear that his housing has become available. She should feel free to do that.

As for the shelter town hall meetings, they aren't just good places to catch up with prospective housing recipients. On any given night, we know that the majority of shelter residents will not receive housing. They, therefore, are concerned with shelter conditions and might want to know about a wide range of issues that affect them. In 2014 the ICH discussed the possibility of paying stipends to the homeless advocates who regularly attend meetings and who correspond between the ICH and the shelter residents. That conversation died on the vine. (I'm fertilizing the vine by giving it a lot of **it.)

Finally, for this post, I'll say that the viability of the previous idea is called into question when one considers the tense and dysfunctional relationships that exist between the homeless and the ICH-affiliated homeless service providers. Some of the homeless and formerly homeless sense that we are being given short shrift by the service providers who seem to do all they can to dismiss our concerns -- unless we are so persistent that it forces them to respond. An advocate who made it onto the ICH told me that he feels that his position is just pro forma and it gives the ICH a token effort that can be used to say that the homeless are part of the process. Rather than enumerate the many underlying concerns in this area, suffice it to say that an ICH that can't develop meaningful relationships with the long-term advocates won't soon navigate he exceedingly more vast chasm between service providers and the non-advocating homeless. The homeless people who don't regularly advocate have not been pacified and assuaged by the repetitive excuses of government and thereby left in a state of silent dissatisfaction or with a feeling of having been defeated by the failing system that they once sought to help fix. The homeless who don't advocate are a much tougher crowd than us regular advocates. In any instance, I'll stop there for now on an issue that might take a novel to address.

Please fix. Thank you, Mayor Bowser.

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