Monday, March 20, 2017

What is work???

What is "work"???

It's a simple but profound question. Some might even say it's a stupid question. However, with 2017 marking 30 years since Ronald Reagan was forced by Homeless Advocate Mitch Snyder and others to begin "working" on ending and preventing homelessness, it's a very relevant question. Let's add to our list of considerations the fact that DC Government began "working" on ending homelessness in 2004 and that various advocates -- including but not limited to Yours Truly -- have been "working" on getting the local government officials who are charged with ending homelessness to implement a plan that actually "works".

Before I address the definitions for "work" or the justifications for describing what any of the aforementioned groups do as "work", I'll lay out a few goals for my "work" as a homeless advocate.

GOAL 1: With there being a strong possibly that the May 10th-15th publication of results from Washington, DC's January 2017 Homeless Point-in-Time Enumeration will reveal that we had over 9,000 homeless people, it is my goal to inject this fact and the conceivable possibility of us reaching 10,000 homeless people in 2018 (in a city of 680,000 people) into the public's and the advocacy community's discourse around homelessness, poverty, social services and affordability -- to get folk talking, not only about the small percentage of homeless people who were housed, but also about the ever-increasing number of homeless people who likely won't be housed by the current five-year plan called "Homeward DC". We can then hold this over Mayor Muriel Bowser's head as something she'd better address since she wants to be re-elected in September 2018.

GOAL 2: With large advocacy events and protests being planned between now and the end of May 2017, it is my goal to get the advocacy and activism communities to define or redefine success (past, present and future) -- for ourselves, for elected officials and for the various departments and agencies of government (especially those whose job it is to serve the poor and reduce poverty).

GOAL 3: At the DC ICH's (inter-agency Council on Homelessness') next quarterly meeting in June it is my goal to ensure that, unlike the June 2014 meeting (which followed a May announcement of a 13%, 889-person, one-year increase to 7,748 homeless people), we actually discuss the reasons for the (yet-to-be-determined but highly-likely) increase -- that we force a new culture upon the ICH and that this culture includes having the hard conversations about the decades-long failures of six-figure earners who live off of taxpayer dollars even more so than the poor whom they are appointed to serve.

GOAL 4: With DC Mayor Muriel Bowser having justifiably blamed the 1,052-person increase from January 2015 (when she took office) to January 2016 on her predecessor's draconian shelter policies versus her own policies bringing needy people out of the woodwork; and, with it being highly unlikely that Ms. Bowser will break the pattern of the last three sitting mayors losing their re-election bids (in 2006, 2010 and 2014), it is my goal to get all who advocate locally for the city's poor and dispossessed to develop a narrative that forces results WITHIN and DURING an administration -- as opposed to merely expressing our displeasure at the ballot box in the September 2018 DC primary (our de facto election in this Democratic town) and thereby puts immense pressure of the current administration to perform.

GOAL 5: With me having seen 75-85 homeless people at a time attend advocacy events in late-2006 (right before we counted 5,757 homeless people) and it being hard to get even five homeless people to any such event now (after an adjusted 2016 census of 8,680 homeless people); and, with other homeless advocates sharing my sense that the DC ICH has become very top-down and elitist, it is my goal to create a space and/or set of circumstances that encourage the poor and homeless to come out and speak truth to power -- no matter how much those in power don't want to hear that truth.

You might say that those are lofty goals. I prefer to think of them as "Gansta Goals" that resurrect the aggressive edge that advocacy once had and needs again. After all, we've known for a long time that "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will". This much is clear: I've got my "work" cut out for me. I don't think it's as hard as it might seem. After all, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come; and, the opposition to Trump's policies -- some of which hurt the poor -- is on the upswing. Furthermore, I've made many connections during my advocacy which began in mid-June 2006. In many instances, it's just a matter of building on the relationships I already have and the work we've already done. That said, the aforementioned goals are not out of reach.

It would seem that the Reverend David Bowers agrees with my sense of what's possible, though he might be adverse to the more aggressive goals of mine. He was one of several speakers at the March 18th, 2017 Housing For All Rally which is held annually and where an address is given by the DC mayor. Having "worked" for over 20 years thus far to create and preserve affordable housing even as the city loses it at an alarming rate, Rev. Bowers gave an impassioned mini-sermon in which he railed against the $200M that an advocacy community which is both too polite toward government and too conservative in their ask, in my personal opinion, is requesting of the local administration for Fiscal Year 2018. He insisted that we need $5B to end homelessness. (DC has a $13B annual budget with $3B of that coming from Congress.) He spoke of the DC Council's "rainy day fund" as he poured water on himself and exclaimed that the city's poor are experiencing a lot of rainy days while city officials fail to dip into the rainy day fund. He made it clear that, while the "work" of himself and others has definitely helped many, the problems of homelessness and of being rent-burdened are swallowing more victims at a faster rate than they can be helped. It's safe to assume that he believes that our efforts aren't "working" quickly enough. I agree.

When I was honored by the DC Council on November 18th, 2014 and they declared December 31st, 2014 (which is the date by which the failed 10-year plan should have ended homelessness in the city) to be Eric Jonathan Sheptock Day in the District of Columbia, I thought about the accomplishments of myself and my colleagues. With us having gotten city officials to convene a nine-month task force from October 2013 to July 2014 during which we discussed the future of the CCNV Homeless Shelter and then to pass a law that all but guarantees that its residents will receive adequate service in the foreseeable future and in the event of a closure, I had a sense of accomplishment. Then there was the passive-aggressiveness of the ICH when I began to inquire in late 2015 about the mayor's plans for the shelter. After much pestering by me, four staffers from DC Government's Department of Human Services (DHS) came out to CCNV on April 27th, 2016 and spoke to some residents about current needs and the absence of a plan to close the shelter. (Residents firmly believe that, when a nearby 2.2M sq. ft., $1.3B construction project is completed as early as 2023, the shelter will be history.) As I now approach my eleventh anniversary as a homeless advocate, I spend much time thinking about what little has been accomplished by us pro bono advocates during the Bowser administration and how the wheels of gentrification are turning with ever-increasing speed. I'm hungry for measurable and collective success and smarting over ways for those of us who are "working" to cure various social ills can change our tactics and force results -- thus the list of goals.

Speaking of goals, it would seem that, while homelessness is said to be going down nationally and DC homelessness is on the rise, that one would conclude that the local government's plan is not "working" while the federal government's is. But both conclusions have been called into question -- the feds' because their policies often discourage the needy from seeking assistance, thereby creating a false sense of accomplishment, and DC's because they are likely doing exactly what they intend to do by gentrifying the poor out at a faster rate than they create supports for them. While the local administration as a whole is geared toward attracting the well-to-do, the fact remains that they are living a farce by maintaining a contingent of personnel who purport to be "working" on ending homelessness. I've listened to ICH member agencies across multiple mayoral administrations say that they lacked the authority to create the affordable housing that is needed in order to solve the problem that they are hired to solve -- most recently ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt during the March 15th, 2017 DHS hearing before Councilwoman Brianne Nadeau. None has earned my respect like Leslie Steen who was given the impossible mandate by former mayor Adrian Fenty to direct an affordable housing task force without having any subpoena power whereby to bring all pertinent agencies together. She resigned a year later. She knew that the circumstances under which she was expected to function wouldn't "work".

Still, there's much to be said for those who remain and stick it out, even though they know that the odds are stacked against them. If we didn't have people like DHS Director Laura Zeilinger to stay the course, then we might have considerably more than the 9,000 homeless people than we presumably have at this juncture. In like manner, if we didn't have the many paid advocates and especially the few pro bono advocates, then we might have fewer rights or services for the city's poor and homeless community than we currently have. So, while it sometimes seems like we're just spinning our wheels and go nowhere fast, I don't want to even imagine where we'd be without those of us who refuse to quit. Even so, there's a big difference between persevering and succeeding. We actually want our efforts to "work" and to render results.

I often think about the words of former Councilman Jim Graham when I asked him to look into whether or not a then-two-year old day shelter for women was rendering any results (by assisting the women at exiting homelessness). He said to me, "Eric, if you make any investment, you're going to get SOME results. The question is how much". It is with that thought in mind that I've concluded that the slowly-increasing successes of those working to end homelessness are becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of the total group of needy people which is growing at lightning speed. If those in government who are part of the farce that supposedly aims to decrease homelessness or any of the advocates who are trying to do the same realize that we are getting further and further behind the ball, it is incumbent upon us to step back, regroup and change our tactics. If we fail to do that and continue with our failing tactics, there is a point at which we can no longer be said to be "working". After all, "work" is defined as:

  1. 1:  activity in which one exerts strength or faculties to do or perform something:a :  sustained physical or mental effort to overcome obstacles and achieve an objective or resultb :  the labor, task, or duty that is one's accustomed means of livelihoodc :  a specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity
  2. 2a :  energy expended by natural phenomenab :  the result of such energy sand dunes are the work of sea and windc :  the transference of energy that is produced by the motion of the point of application of a force and is measured by multiplying the force and the displacement of its point of application in the line of action
  3. 3a :  something that results from a particular manner or method of working, operating, or devising careful police work clever camera workb :  something that results from the use or fashioning of a particular material porcelain work
In closing, I want those who say that I should just "go to work" on a paying, full-time job to an example of work given in definition three: "police work". I've often thought of myself as being something in the way of a police officer -- someone who ensures that those who get paid by your tax dollars do right be the people they are charged with serving, with my presence alone presenting a threat to those who would otherwise do wrong. So, while I might soon "work" a bit more at improving my personal situation, I have no intention of completely eliminating or alleviating the threat that my presence creates for the capitalists and gentrifiers; because, creating that threat is "work".

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Homeless Advocates: A Tax Payer's Best Friends (Getting Government Right)

[P]ARCHING ORDERS: Homeless advocates should use DC Government's [foul] ups in terms of the homeless services that should have been provided before the MLK Jr. Library's 3/4/17 closing (due to a planned three-year renovation) as a springboard for demanding that DC Government hear, respect and act on the advice given by homeless and formerly homeless people -- and that they pay us stipends for our input as per this 2014 draft ICH document (a principled proposal that was quickly trashed), since the six-figure earners royally [fouled] up something they've been working on for three years. That'll really BURN THEM UP!!!

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In Washington, DC there is much talk of the "haves" and the "have-nots". Charles Dickens "Tale of Two Cities" is often invoked here. As a matter of fact, I've shot videos of tent cities in the shadows of DC's tower cranes and edifices. However, we also talk about how "We are more alike than we are different" and say that, "We have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, just permanent interests". I'll focus on this latter idea for the time being and show how the city government's failures to its poor community across multiple mayoral administrations also adversely affect the wealthy and well-to-do. Hopefully good people of means will stand up and demand better of their elected, mostly Democratic officials and the government that their tax dollars fund. It's also worth noting that, even if you utterly hate poor people, it's well worth your time to demand real solutions to homelessness and to push for the establishment of a downtown homeless service center; as, either would get those housed by these solutions and those served by the center out of sight and thereby make them easier to get out of mind. Lovers and haters alike are welcome to join the cause.

Washington, DC's Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library closed its doors on March 4th, 2017 for a three-year long renovation that has been talked about in earnest since as far back as June 2014 when I attended a meeting of a group called the "Friends of the Library" which was held at DC's Carnegie Library. Catholic Charities DC's CEO, Monsignor John Enzler spoke at the event, with Catholic Charities having contracts with DC Government's Department of Human Services to provide homeless services which include three male shelters (that have a combined winter census of about 970 beds) and two female shelters (that have a combined census of about 200 beds). Catholic Charities' office sits across the road from the MLK Library; and, from what I can tell, Catholic Charities has been grossly dissatisfied with DHS' lackluster response to the years-old announcement of the library's renovation.

In all fairness, I'll say here that Mayor Muriel Bowser's administration began on January 2nd, 2015 and that most of her administrators assumed their current positions on or after that date. Inter-agency Council on Homelessness (ICH) Director Kristy Greenwalt assumed her post on April 28th, 2014 (though she was meeting with her then-future coworkers and associates months earlier). She was then retained by Bowser in 2015 and should have been in the know. Other administrators like DHS Director Laura Zeilinger and Brenda Donald (who served as deputy mayor for health and human services until recently moving within the administration) worked for previous administrations that ended in 2011 or sooner and then returned to work for Mayor Bowser. In any instance, the Bowser administration has had over two years to prepare for the closure and has a "homeless czar(ina)" who has had almost three. To their credit, the ICH DID discuss the impending closure and the need for a downtown service center at the June 2015 ICH full-council meeting; but, the apparent lack of decisiveness or action is clearly indicative of government dysfunction and retardation. I'm often so kind as to assume that government failures are due to ignorance and incompetence; though, many whom I know insist that these failures are by design.

It's quite true that libraries are not homeless service centers; however, as many as 150 homeless people have used the central library at one time. As a matter of fact, the library hired a full-time social worker in 2014 for that very reason. So, the homeless persons' transition during this closure should have been a bigger part of the conversation about renovations. For its part, the library did better than DHS at helping the homeless through this change and they moved more quickly to disseminate information to the homeless about interim services -- including bringing library services into the shelters and doing sensitivity trainings at the smaller libraries (with the library having become sensitive to homeless concerns some years ago).

Three days after the library's closure, the ICH held its quarterly meeting which is always preceded by a "pre-meeting" (a round-table discussion at which anyone can speak). The set topic for the March 7th pre-meeting was "how the homeless are transitioning since the library closure". As this WAMU article indicates, there was noticeable tension in the room as the homeless and formerly-homeless advocates essentially said, "We told you so" and the government apologized profusely -- while letting an administrator who's only been on the job for six months and upon whom I bestowed much forgiveness do most of the apologizing. (She insisted that she share as much blame as anyone else.)

The government's missteps were many. In much the same way that the February 11th, 2016 ward meetings about the seven planned family shelters that are to replace the DC General Family Shelter were advertised only two days in advance, the homeless were given information about interim services less than a week before the library's closure -- these systemic failures affecting the housed AND the homeless, respectively. The family shelter plan has been hotly contested; and, the information that the homeless were given about interim services during the renovation was both incomplete and incorrect -- subjecting the housed and the homeless to unsatisfactory planning by government. The information about the free shuttle that used to drop the homeless off in front of the library every morning and pick them up there to return them to shelter every evening was incorrect insomuch as the information post card said that it would operate six days per week. (It will actually continue to operate every day.) Men from the three Catholic Charities shelters for which there are three different shuttles were given shuttle schedules for the same male shelter, as were the women. Though the post card correctly stated that the Church of the Epiphany which is four blocks from the library (and my church) would allow the homeless to sit in the sanctuary during normal business hours, a newspaper article for which DHS was interviewed incorrectly stated that the church would allow the homeless to use its bathrooms while there.

Add to this the fact that well-paid people in and associated with government have looked in vain for at least two years for a location to replace the downtown homeless service center that used to be in the basement of a church that sits next door to the library. The church was torn down in 2007, rebuilt about five years later and forbidden in a contract to ever bring back the 400-person, six-day homeless program it used to host. It is highly unlikely that officials will find a replacement site in downtown, unless they make the minimal repairs that are needed in the vacant spaces at the Federal City Shelter from which two of six entities moved in 2016 and which a non-profit tenant of this government-owned building has asked the government not to place a downtown service center within.

In their defense, DC Government created the Adams Place homeless service center which is several miles from downtown in October 2015. Since the library closure, they are serving multiple meals during the five days per week that the center is open -- up from just serving lunch (though I've heard different sources say that it would be two and three meals -- truth sought). The center's distance from downtown makes it unattractive to many of its intended clients who might choose to remain in downtown parks and other public spaces once the weather warms up consistently -- DC having had a very warm winter, relatively speaking. On weekends the Adams Place location won't be an option. All of this means that, as of mid-April, the general public will see many more homeless people hanging out downtown -- which is their right, I might add. Lovers of the homeless will have more mouths to feed. Haters of the homeless will have a reason to push for a downtown service center. The homeless will love both groups -- even the haters.

Haters, if you really really hate the homeless and poor, fight for affordable housing. then the former group won't be visible or homeless and you'll have less reasons to hate them. What's more is that you will have proven yourselves to be good for something -- which will, in turn, give you a reason to look down on your local government which will have taken your place as the most useless people in the city. As a matter of fact, you can remind your elected officials that we've been here before. A year after haters of the homeless told DC Government (by way of Downtown BID) to close the Franklin School Shelter, a 2009 Examiner article explained that the homeless had become more visible -- not less. The well-educated business community had grossly flawed logic whereby they assumed that closing a shelter would cause homeless people to leave downtown. How they figured shutting down a shelter would keep the homeless indoors and out of sight is beyond me. They were dumb haters. Hopefully you're at least smart and demand the same of government.

Beginning two weeks before and extending until shortly after the September 26th, 2008 shelter closure, DHS placed 300 men into Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). They've since placed many more people in PSH. Congrats, DC Gov, even if the effort isn't keeping pace with the rise in homeless people -- 6,044 in 2008 and 8,680 in 2016 (after adjust for 330 that were initially missed). That said, only 60 of Franklin School Shelter's 300 men were house prior to the closing. Another 240 men were pulled from other shelters and housed -- those who had the most debilitating mental and physical of conditions. The other 240 men from Franklin then moved into the vacated beds at the other shelters. It stands to reason that it was many of these 240 men who began (or continued) to hang out in Franklin Park -- which is their right. The women came from elsewhere. In any instance, DC Government may very well be recreating the logic that caused the homeless to swarm to Franklin Park and other parts of downtown nine years ago. Go figure. Haters, help us fight for a downtown service center. Lovers should too.

I'd have you to know that the library closure is not the only thing that homeless advocates and others have rightly told DC Government for three years to be mindful of and prepare for. We advocates have for years asked government to heed our advice on a range of issues, to let us help and to pay us stipends as contributors or even full paychecks as government employees. This most recent [foul] up, because of the more-than-ample warning time, gives us unpaid advocates the space to say that we the advocates are more deserving of stipends or even $60,000/year/person (in some cases) than any of the six-figure earners in DC Government are of their checks. The 2014 draft document (the first hyperlink) wherein a budget for financially supporting the advocates was proposed also says that the ICH values input from us advocates. DC Government has yet to put its money where its mouth is. (The ICH lacks a budget; but, the DC Council can give them one.) It behooves the council to fund homeless advocacy; as, government would actually begin to operate like a well-oiled machine -- beginning with the ICH and fanning out to all parts of the local government.

With any treatise on government failures promising to be a lengthy one, I'll forgo mentioning anymore here and now and give a few predictions and warnings that are aimed at the government AND the advocates in an effort to show which group has more good sense. Chief among them is the fact that 2002 was the last year that DC re-elected a mayor and we should therefore plan around having a different mayor on January 2nd, 2019. This means that the five-year plan to make homelessness "rare, brief and non-recurring" (which runs from 10/1/2015 to 9/30/2020) might not be carried to term, fizzling out on January 2nd, 2019. If you hold out hope of another Bowser win, I might be saying I told you so.

With the DC Council's CCNV Shelter Task Force (October 2013 to July 2014) having only come up with 17 guiding principles and no concrete recommendations, we lack a sure plan for the shelter's future. (I said I wouldn't mention anymore government failures. oops, couldn't resist.) For a mixture of reasons, I'm guessing that the possibility of closing this 1,000-bed shelter won't be discussed again until 2020 and it will be closed by the fall of 2022. Residents ask me about this all the time, including this week. It would be wise for the advocates to start pushing government to improve its employment programs and other things that help able-bodied people even now. It would seem that a capitalistic and gentrifying government would try and get ahead of us advocates. Something tells me they'll wait until it's too late and the Left has mounted a vicious fight. That's fine with me.

As we wait until mid-May 2017 for the number of homeless people who were counted in January to be published, I'm guessing that we cleared 9,000 -- possibly by 300 or more. With DC having gained as many as 1,052 homeless people in a single year, I'm guessing that we'll clear 10,000 homeless people in 2018. The article about crossing that threshold will come out in May. The mayor will enter the September 2018 primary with a glaring failure on her pet project now in the public eye; and, voters who are all the wiser will elect a new mayor -- in the hopes that he or she can at least succeed at their pet project, if nothing else. I'm guessing that's an idea we all can get behind -- the housed and the homeless alike.

Tax payers, we homeless advocates are in fact the best friends you have insomuch as we can tell you much about government waste and dysfunction and help you move these public servants toward doing better by all of their constituents -- the housed and the homeless alike.

                                 Your friend,

                                         Eric Jonathan Sheptock