Does the District Really Want to End Homelessness?
The D.C. City Council has declared December 31st to be Eric Jonathan Sheptock Day, acknowledging his eight and a half years of homeless advocacy work to date, as well as his leadership in a group effort to address the future of the 1,350-bed Federal City Shelter.
December 31, 2014 also happens to be the day Homeless No More, the 2004 10-year plan to end homelessness in D.C., would have concluded. But as affordable housing plummeted and homelessness increased, Williams’ plan continued to miss its benchmarks.
Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser wants to create her own 10-year plan that ends family homelessness by 2018—two years ahead of the feds’ plan, Opening Doors, to end youth and family homelessness by 2020—and all homelessness by 2025. She’s made no mention thus far of the failed 10-year plan and might be doomed to make the same mistakes. That’s not to mention that intentions and practical application always seem to differ when it comes to how our government handles homelessness.
If we assumed the government is doing exactly what it intends to, it would appear D.C. Government intends to fail to end homelessness; it would appear that mayors Fenty and Gray each pulled together affordable housing task forces to create a facade of wanting to enable low-income workers to live in D.C. If that is not the case, then our government’s track record on these issues looks grossly incompetent: spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars without ending homelessness. Either option is cause for concern.
You don’t have to look far to understand why homelessness in the District has increased by at least 50 percent since Homeless No More was adopted. Gentrification is alive and well in the nation’s capital. Average rents for a one bedroom apartment hover around $1,500 per month. Conservative estimates put a living wage for a single adult with no children at $14 per hour—the minimum wage sits at $9.50. Many people who labor in the city can’t afford to live here without sharing a household between multiple full-time workers.
Getting even a minimum-wage job can be quite challenging. Employers often discriminate against poor and homeless people who are actively seeking employment. A 2010 study by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 60 percent of employers nationwide use credit checks for some or all job openings. Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN9) introduced the Equal Employment for All Act in 2011 to combat such discrimination, and Senator Elizabeth Warren [D-MA] introduced a similar bill to the Senate in 2013, they are still up for debate. Many D.C. advocates have fervently asked the government to assist the homeless with their employment challenges – cries that have fallen on deaf ears until very recently.
There is much to be said for personal responsibility, but those who’ve fallen on hard times often need government supports to become productive citizens again. Over one-third of Washingtonians are functionally illiterate, and we boast the lowest graduation rate in the country — more than half of students have dropped out in recent years.
But D.C. government has gone so far as to withdraw such supports. In February 2013 the plug was pulled on a sweat equity program open to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients, even though the majority of homeless parents in the job-training program were on track to be housed and employed. The $2.6 million spent renovating two buildings on Wayne Place in Southeast is cited as the reason for shuttering the pilot program. Yet city officials heralded it’s proof that many welfare recipients want to work.
Two months later, in direct contrast, Deputy Mayor Beatriz “BB” Otero implied benefit recipients would rather game the system.
“Once placed in shelter or in a hotel, the City currently has limited authority to require families to take alternatives to shelter. And, because families in shelter today pay no rent, no utilities, receive most of their meals for free, keep the full amount of their income, including TANF and food stamps, and receive many other supportive services, such as transportation and child care, there is a significant incentive for families to stay in shelter,” Otero argued in an April 2013 email.
The previous year, Mayor Gray said that he needed to draw high-earners into the city to support social services. Matched against the city’s aggressive efforts to wean people off of these very services, his statement looks more like cover for a plan that hands the city to the wealthy and forces middle to low-income people out.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has drawn districts across the country for which it determines the Area Median Income (AMI). Our AMI district encompasses seven of the 10 wealthiest counties in the country, resulting in an AMI of approximately $110,000 per year for a family of four. D.C. Government will subsidize rents and mandate the creation of “affordable” housing for those making up to 80% of AMI, or $88,000 in our case. What about those earning $30,000 or less? This means some landlords are guaranteed $2,200 per month from high earners and might still receive subsidies from the government; while full-time minimum-wage workers who can only afford to pay $475 per month are left without adequate support. Some low-wage workers live in public housing – much of which is being declared unfit for human habitation.
D.C. was declared a Human Rights City by the American Friends Service Committee on December 10, 2008 to “make it a model for communities around the world to witness practical ways the human rights framework can make every citizen a partner of sustainable change.” This is impossible to live up to as long as our homeless and low-income residents remain disenfranchised. But the framework does afford us a mechanism to structure our arguments. The National Coalition for the Homeless is already campaigning for city council to adopt a Homeless Bill of Rights, which among other things would combat housing and employment discrimination. Let’s promote these issues relentlessly during the Bowser administration.
This document is the result of a Dec. 17th meeting held by Eric Sheptock. The next meeting will be December 31st, 2014 from 1 to 4 PM in Room A-5 of MLK, Jr. Library.