A photo of men standing in line on a red-stained wooden ramp in front of a blue-gray building. Most have coats, one hold an umbrella. The image is blurry.
A line of men waiting to enter the 801 East Men's Shelter in 2013. Photo courtesy of Daniel Woodard / YouTube

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he severe and chronic nature of homelessness in the District means that thousands of people experiencing homelessness face significantly higher risks of illness and death amidst the COVID-19 crisis. The best way to alleviate this risk is clear: vacate shelters and house all residents immediately. 

Homeless shelters for single people are communal by nature, characterized by barracks-style bunk beds, shared bathrooms and little space for personal belongings. Some homeless families have been placed in D.C.’s newly constructed family shelters, but hundreds remain in old hotels along New York Avenue, which lack cooking facilities to prepare healthy meals, have poor internet access that is inadequate for distance learning and have for years been reported to be unsanitary and unsafe. Tent encampments have grown throughout D.C., as there are no shelters for couples or families without children and because moving into shelter means sacrificing important possessions in order to abide by the common two-bag policy. Each of these environments limit opportunities for self-quarantine and sufficient sanitation, rendering members of this population vulnerable to worst-case-scenarios if the virus is contracted. Like other communal living spaces, such as nursing homes, jails/prisons and detention facilities, one positive case can spread rapidly through an entire community. While the Department of Human Services has taken some steps to reduce the spread, there is only one way to ensure the safety of thousands of our residents: shelters must be emptied immediately, and the District must use every resource at its disposal to get our homeless population into safe, stable housing.  

[Read more: While DHS works to shelter and quarantine homeless residents, housing referrals have been put on hold]

The COVID-19 pandemic may be a natural disaster, but the underlying housing crisis is entirely human-made. Unfortunately, D.C. government officials have consistently sacrificed working-class residents to homelessness. For decades, our government has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into private development projects that routinely renege on legal affordability thresholds, erase family-sized units and let affordability restrictions expire. In exchange, these developers fund re-election campaigns. Our tax dollars pay for this in the name of “affordable housing,” though the majority of D.C. residents cannot qualify for or afford these luxury units.  

As a long-time tenant attorney, I know firsthand that thousands of D.C. residents were facing the existential threat of this politically-created affordable housing crisis well before the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of my clients at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless worked full-time – many as “essential workers” – making a $15 minimum wage in a city that costs $33/hour to live in. D.C.’s emergent affordable housing shortage has inevitably boiled over into widespread homelessness and displacement, and, as always, Black residents face the most intense risk. Between 2000 and 2013, more than 20,000 Black residents were displaced from the District. Similarly, Black residents make up just under half of D.C.’s population yet 87% of adults who are experiencing homelessness. This vulnerability is reflected in COVID-19 mortality rates: Black residents make up a staggering 73% of deaths in DC. 

In order to prevent further clear and present harm, the District must act immediately to clear shelters and house residents in vacant units, beginning with any development that has received a government subsidy, including Tax Increment Financing. Many of the buildings that have been subsidized by the District are luxury buildings that have high vacancy rates. Developers routinely charge exorbitant rents and seek relief for vacant units in various ways, cutting off the so-called “invisible hand” at the wrist. Already paid for by our tax dollars, these units should be filled immediately at no cost to the District during this emergency. Furthermore, the District should use hotels, dorm rooms and other vacant rooms to house people experiencing homelessness in the interim so that they can self-quarantine until permanent units are secured. 

The dangerous plight of D.C.’s homeless population is part of a disturbing trend. Local politicians have demonstrated that their cost concerns are selective: human life has been proven less valuable than a dollar and a political connection. Even now, amid budget cuts that denied essential relief to thousands on the basis of cost, D.C. developers remain optimistic. And why shouldn’t they be? Their interests are well protected. The people of D.C. are not. This must change – lives are literally on the line. We can no longer accept a government that operates from a position of scarcity, selectively choosing who to protect when it should be acting to save lives, period. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is a better path forward.  

Last May, Mayor Bowser signed an order to create 36,000 new housing units by 2025. This constitutes yet another enormous infusion of public dollars into the same failed system that landed us in this dual crisis. Instead, 100% of the District’s investment post-COVID-19 should be reallocated to social housing, a permanently affordable public asset. Critically, this will keep rent money previously turned over to developers and investors in everyday people’s pockets, which they in turn will reinvest to jumpstart our local economy as we turn toward recovery. The District will also retain ownership of the land and the buildings on it, so the District, rather than private owners, will gain a permanent stream of revenue once the construction loans used to finance this investment are paid off. The days of turning over public land and tax dollars to private developers with a clear incentive to eradicate affordable housing are over. It’s time we started investing public money in the public good. 

William Merrifield is a lawyer and an at-large candidate for the D.C. Council. He previously worked as a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless for eight years.