DC Mayor Muriel Bowser: Politics and Principle (An Open Letter)

Dearest DC Mayor Muriel Bowser:

First of all, I'd like to congratulate and thank you for taking the totally non-political step of making addressing homelessness your pet project. I've never heard of another politician at any level of government doing that. Others like Bush 43 and Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry (both Republicans) have addressed it; but, they've not made it their pet project by any means. You, on the other hand, have set the lofty goal of making the homeless experience in DC "rare, brief and non-recurring". You've arranged meetings that, unfortunately, were well-attended by NIMBY-ites while those who were supportive of your shelter replacement plan stayed home. You've embarked on a journey that three male mayors before you began but couldn't complete -- the first of them overseeing the creation of a 10-year plan in 2004 when DC counted 8,253 homeless people (a number that ROSE to 8,977 the following year) and the third issuing a statement about the difficulties that would be associated with creating the smaller family shelters. Despite the challenges, you and your administration just keep plugging along. You've allowed the issue of homelessness to define you. Thank you.

It is irrefutably a matter of good principle to care for the least, the last and the lost among us -- the "Obsoletes" of our society. Even so, there are those in our society who would argue with that assertion. To them let us tip our hats politely (or not) and pass on by. I've no doubt that you have a considerable comprehension of how abstract matters of principle must be transformed into concrete plans and of the safeguards that must be put in place to ensure that a tangential plan with tentacles that reach into so many aspects of life doesn't become so complicated that it veers off of the path of good principle. Too often, good-hearted people who entered their respective fields of work with strong desires to adequately address various social ills get sidetracked by bureaucracy, budgets, re-election aspirations and other peripheral matters that cause them to forgo the noble causes that inspired them to do the work they do in the first place. I trust and believe that this will not be the case with you.

That brings us to the matter at hand. In early 2014 an eight-year old girl named Relisha Rudd was kidnapped from the DC General Family Shelter. (In case you weren't aware, the Harriet Tubman Shelter which holds 100 single women is also on the grounds of DC General in the old morgue.) On April 30th, 2014, a few weeks after you'd won the Democratic Primary, I was one of about 75 people who testified in front of you as you chaired your Committee on Economic Development during a hearing about the DC Housing Authority. We pressured you to do more to improve the quality of Public Housing, in crease the number of Public Housing and other affordable housing units and to create a way out of extreme poverty. (This might be a good place to say that, if everyone who is below the middle class becomes middle class, then the middle class will have become the bottom class -- the new poor -- and the new middle will be somewhere between the $60,00 middle that you've moved people to and the multi-millions of DC's elite.)

In any instance, the public outcry at this hearing, the public outcry following the abduction of Relisha Rudd and the public outcry following the release of your shelter plan have forced you and your administration to look hard for that middle ground that, on the one hand allows you to care for the needy while, on the other hand, satisfying the elitist attitudes of the city's well-to-do (attitudes that are not always so well concealed and which some people exhibit rather unabashedly -- with government sometimes responding to and even pacifying such folk). The aforementioned events that occurred during your mayoral campaign and the first half of your term as well as other initiatives of yours serve to define you as more of a mayor for the poor than the late "Mayor for Life" Marion Barry. At the center of the circle of poor and dispossessed of DC is a concentric circle of homeless people. Unfortunately, that smaller circle grew within the larger one from 2015 to 2016 -- though you are committed to shrinking both of them.

You clearly understand that issues such as education, employment, housing-wage, homelessness, poverty, child development, budgets and social uplift are inextricably intertwined -- even if all of the parts of your administration that should be talking to each other are not and even if the conversations that are taking place are not robust enough. I can help.

Following the ward meetings of February 11th, 2016, much of the public outcry was around the fact that the initial plan would have enriched developers who have made political contributions. Now I'll say that I fully understand that it is developers who, in fact, build cities and that they have the same rights to make political contributions as anyone else. But, as you've probably already concluded, one of the concerns that people had was that the various decisions within the plan for homeless families were being guided by your desire to run again (which I heard you state at a WIN event on January 8th, 2015) and the need to obtain campaign funding -- not by a comprehension as to what is best for the homeless families or the communities that they'd be placed in. I need not belabor that matter here and now; as, the general public has done well enough.

As it turns out, there is another matter of principle that is very similar but which people have all but forgotten -- save ANC Commissioner Brian Flahaven. While people expressed concerns about contracts being steered to developers who would develop the new and smaller family shelters, these same people seemed to be completely oblivious to the fact that this plan would advance the vacating of a piece of prime real estate which developers would then have access to. These developers would get the contracts for the new shelters and then bid for the vacated DC General campus. Developers win all the way around. In and of itself, this double win for developers doesn't represent a lack of principle. I get that. Nonetheless, it becomes a matter of principle when the administration sets its timetable for closing the family shelter in such a way that it might lead to the services that are afforded to homeless families being less than the best. 

When you juxtapose the facts that:

1 --  this administration adopted a five-year plan for ending long-term homelessness by September 30th, 2020 with

2 -- the January 2nd, 2019 end of this mayoral term and with

3 -- the original plan to close DC General by the fall of 2018.....

 a couple of hidden messages are brought to light:

The same administration that devised a plan for ending homelessness which extends almost two years into the next term and whose success can't be guaranteed for that reason is extremely gung-ho about closing DC General DURING this term and thereby guaranteeing the success of the effort. Closing DC General before the beginning of FY 19 on October 1st, 2018 eliminates the need to budget that shelter's operation for that year while also avoiding a mid-winter shelter relocation process AND while allowing the incumbent mayor to please her developer-donor friends.

Enough about developers. As I stated in this web-published Google doc about homeless employment, even the plan around homeless employment is driven by a resolve to close DC General. The conversation about family homelessness revolves around the +/- 270 families in DC General which represent less than one-fourth of DC's homeless families. Additionally, the conversation around homeless employment revolves around the 1,945 homeless parents that DC had in January 2016 while almost nothing is being said about the employment issues of what might be 2,500 able-bodied homeless singles (without dependent children). This should cause people to wonder:

1 -- Why are we not talking more about ending homelessness for ALL 1,491 homeless families (containing 4,667 people) which the city had in January 2016???

2 -- Why are we not talking more about connecting ALL of the approximately 4,400 able-bodied homeless adults in DC to housing-wage jobs which the 5-year plan puts at $28.25/hr for a full-time worker without dependents (about $42/hr for those supporting families)???

3 -- With a regional report on "Trends in Workforce Demand" and the results of the "January 2016 Point-In-Time Homeless Enumeration" both having been published on May 11th by the same organization which DC Government belongs to, why have we not juxtaposed these two reports so as to tease out elements that can be used to address the employment challenges of ALL of our homeless residents???

The short answer is that DC Government is bringing all of its homeless resources o bear, not for the primary goal of making homelessness "rare, brief and non-recurring", but for the purpose of giving yet another valuable city-owned property to the developers whom the city has spoiled rotten. (Oops, I said, "Enough with developers". I guess I just can't resist the temptation to target them. So, I'll continue.)

All of this brings us to the final matter of principle that I'll address here and now which I'll pose as a question:

Should government be required to give the general public full and logically-explained assurances that any plan it develops which is ostensibly for the benefit of a group of constituents who are unable to make sizable campaign contributions is not, in fact, primarily for the benefit of a different set of constituents who ARE able to give sizable campaign contributions???

Don't think too hard about that question; as, the answer is woven throughout this open letter. In case you still don't know the answer, it's an emphatic "YES!!!".

There is a train of thought that takes us from the abduction of Relisha Rudd to the cries for improved family shelter to the plan that was rejected by NIMBY-ites and a few good people in Ward 5. To the untrained eye, the revised plan looks like a generous show of compassion by DC Government but which the aforementioned deeper analysis shows to be another instance of city officials kowtowing to developers. This train of thought, if not derailed by other matters of public displeasure, eventually pull into the station of your re-election in November 2018 -- a goal with a person and political spin to it.

There is another train of thought that follows the same track as far as the point of devising a plan for addressing the issues that made people homeless in the first place. At this point, the train approaches a track switch and gets on the right track by ensuring that plans for decreasing family homelessness will do so for ALL families -- not just those currently being sheltered on prime real estate. As this train of thought continues down the right track, it leads to a decision to address the employment issues of ALL able-bodied homeless people, not just those currently being sheltered on prime real estate.

The former train (of thought) is a freight train delivering more goods to the wealthy. The latter train is a passenger train that puts people over profit.

It is irrefutably a matter of good principle to connect ALL able-bodied people who depend on social services to housing-wage employment -- the "Obsoletes" of our society. Even so, there might be some in our society who would argue with that assertion -- namely the employers who want to stop their employees from complaining about low wages and unfavorable working conditions by pointing out of the window at the unsheltered homeless person and asking if said employee wants to join them there. To them let let us curse impolitely and pass on by.

The good news here is that ALL the city has to do is take what it is doing for a fraction of DC's homeless families and do those same things for ALL of our homeless ABAWDS. The bad news is that, having not done so thus far has given me occasion to write this open letter that articulates the not-so-well-hidden motives of you and your administration.

Before closing out, I'll point out that many people over the years have asked me why the city hasn't housed or employed me yet. I tout the fact that, until recently, they focused mainly on the disabled and then go on to say that city officials figure that employing and/or housing me after my 10-plus years of oft-aggressive advocacy might encourage others to advocate in much the same way. Some argue that DC Government should keep its friends close and its enemies closer. I concur. Your administration has yet to learn that.

The operative word for this open letter is, "ALL". That's it. That's "ALL".


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