Jake Maher

Approximately 15 representatives from the People For Fairness Coalition canvassed the Wilson Building on Dec. 21, seeking more funding and stronger legal protections to address homelessness. The effort was part of their commemoration of National Homeless Person’s Memorial Day. The group presented councilmembers with a list of 54 D.C. residents who died on the streets in 2018, as well as a list of the coalition’s recommendations.

The People for Fairness Coalition is a nonprofit organization focused on ending homelessness in D.C. The advocacy “walkaround” was part of the coalition’s sixth annual Homeless Memorial Vigil, which includes a candlelight procession and a sleep-out in front of the Wilson Building to further draw attention to the number of deaths due to homelessness each year.

The coalition called on Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. council to pledge $35.5 million for the Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) and Targeted Affordable Housing (TAH) programs in order to provide housing for 1,140 people and 177 families for the next year. The group argued that the money raised by D.C.’s recent ability to collect sales tax on internet purchases in the online sales tax could have been used to address homelessness, rather than lower the tax rate on commercial properties.

“The Mayor must fund these life-saving programs if she wants to live up to her promise of ending homelessness in the District,” they wrote in a statement delivered to councilmembers’ offices.

Evan Cash accepted the group’s statement on behalf of Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, but pushed back on its feasibility. Increasing funds for PSH and TAH would require decreasing funds for other programs according to Cash, who serves as legislative director for the Committee of the Whole.

Legislative Director Evan Cash reviews the People for Fairness Coalition’s statement for Council Chairman Phil Mendelson. Photo by Jake Maher

The group also called on councilmembers to support the Michael A. Stoops Anti-Discrimination Amendment Act. At-large Councilmember David Grosso first introduced the legislation  in 2017. It was referred to the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, chaired by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, but was never given a hearing for input from the public or fellow committee members. The bill would expand the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 to include people experiencing homelessness as a class protected from discrimination, similar to age, gender or race.

Grosso told the group he plans to introduce the anti-discrimination bill again in the next legislative session. He also noted the Office of Human Rights has been moved under the oversight of the Government Operations Committee, so the bill will face a new committee chair.

Activists from the People for Fairness Coalition address At-large Councilmember David Grosso. Photo by Jake Maher

While the coalition demanded more action from the D.C. government on homelessness going forward, they expressed gratitude for the government has already done. They used the canvassing to thank the council and the mayor’s office for supporting the Public Restroom Initiative, which encourages businesses to open their restrooms and looks at places to install the District’s own public restrooms, to be available 24 hours a day.

They also thanked the council and the mayor for providing the funding to create a downtown day services center and for dedicating $40 million for redeveloping the 801 East men’s shelter. Coalition members noted, however, that permanent housing ends homelessness, rather than temporary solutions such as shelters.

The advocacy walkaround was followed by a procession to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church  where an interfaith memorial service was held, followed by lunch for the community.