Black and white photo of man speaking into bullhorn
Photo courtesy of Rodney Choice / Choice Photography / choicephotography.com

This column was first published by The D.C. Line on July 7.

The recent surge in public attention to police violence against Black communities — not to mention the ongoing pandemic that has disproportionately harmed Black and brown people — has prompted a moral call to action in DC and across the nation. In the District, we have a chance to partially answer this call by passing a just fiscal year 2021 budget that asks those with the greatest means to pay more of their fair share in taxes.

As Christians, we believe in living out what the Bible calls the greatest commandment: “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Both of us strive to do so in our daily work: Father John ministers to hundreds of our neighbors at Catholic Charities who have been experiencing homelessness for years because there is not enough affordable housing, and Pastor Lamar has been building relationships with our neighbors in public housing who are living in deplorable conditions. A budget that shows our love for our neighbors would include big investments in ending homelessness, building and preserving affordable housing and repairing public housing. 

During her tenure, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has made important investments in short-term family housing, shelters for individuals and housing programs. These efforts have led to improved services and helped many residents out of homelessness, but the reduced investments included in her proposed fiscal year 2021 budget aren’t enough to meet the human needs of our residents. Housing vouchers for individuals experiencing homelessness, for example, would be cut by roughly 85%. And some essential programs, like homeless street outreach and homeless prevention services, would suffer devastating cuts. The DC Council should address these shortcomings while finalizing the budget. A fair budget also would fund more public housing repairs so those sheltering at home are doing so in an environment that is safe and healthy.

Health and safety are particular concerns given the pandemic. While even one COVID-19 case is too many, we have been encouraged by the positive effect of public health practices and policies in limiting the cases in DC’s homeless shelters. However, many individuals experiencing homelessness are particularly susceptible to COVID-19 because of their age, vulnerability, exposure to many people and inability to keep clean while living outside. The presence of underlying health conditions means that nationally people who are homeless are twice as likely to need to be hospitalized and two to three times as likely to die from COVID-19. To date, 20 people experiencing homelessness have lost their lives in DC due to the disease.

All of us are beloved children of God, and these completely preventable deaths are a failure of moral leadership. Had District policymakers moved faster to secure safe housing, invested more heavily in recent years to end homelessness, or prioritized the health and economic well-being of Black and brown residents over the past decade, the devastation of COVID-19 might tell a different story.

Now is the time to write a new chapter for the District. We urgently need to create a just recovery not only from this pandemic but also from years of systematic under-investment in the least among us. Our tax policies play a key role in recovery solutions. Taxing people earning $60,000 in taxable income at the same rate as those earning $350,000, as DC currently does, is unjust and diminishes our ability to care for those most in need. And most residents agree: A recent poll found that 83% of DC voters support raising taxes on the District’s wealthiest residents to address budget challenges, put people first, and create a just recovery. This is putting love for our neighbors into action.

Moving forward without meeting critical human needs would be another shortsighted moral failure for our District. We stand with the Fair Budget Coalition in its call for our legislators to make better choices this time around by raising revenue. 

Father John Enzler, a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington for 47 years, is the president and CEO of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese, and the Rev. William H. Lamar IV is pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church.