Protesters to Bowser: Reform the Department of Human Services
Activists marched to the home of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on a recent Saturday to protest the quality of services provided to homeless people in the District. Protesters singled out the District’s Department of Human Services and a contractor it has used for nearly three decades as the sources of their dissatisfaction.
The Aug. 15 event was organized by a coalition of groups, including Grassroots CUA, Ward 5 Mutual Aid, and Black Lives Matter D.C. They first gathered at Shepherd Elementary School and were followed from there by members of the Metropolitan Police Department, which monitored the demonstration for over three hours.
The protest in the northern tip of Ward 4 was organized in part to bring attention to the poor experiences of families who have been sheltered by D.C.’s Department of Human Services in motels and hotels, especially the Quality Inn and Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.
Activists say they fear that DHS’s withdrawal from these hotels as of this month will put an end to investigations into conditions faced by people staying there. While the shift away from the use of hotels to shelter families experiencing homelessness has been planned for more than a year, projections of homelessness increasing by as much as 45% in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic also have advocates worried the city will not be providing enough shelter space.
Protest organizers specifically called attention to the death in February of a baby who had been staying at the Quality Inn. Makenzie Anderson was taken to the hospital suffering trauma to her head, according to The Washington Post. She succumbed to her injuries and her death was ruled a homicide, with police continuing their investigation. Makenzie was just under 1 year old.
Advocates also provided photos of rats and collapsed ceilings, which they said they took at DHS rapid rehousing units this summer. Rapid rehousing is a type of subsidized housing the District offers, in which people experiencing homelessness are placed in market-rate apartments and receive rental assistance for several months to a year. After that time, they are responsible for taking over the full payment of rent. In 2016, the DHS rapid rehousing program paid for 170 families and 235 individuals to live in properties managed by Sanford Capital, according to The Washington Post. Due to the poor conditions of many of its 1,300 housing units, Sanford was later forced to divest ownership of its D.C. properties, repay $1.1 million to former tenants and cease operating in the District.
D.C.’s contract with Quality Inn ended in July, and its contract with Days Inn is slated to end on Aug. 31. There were 43 families residing at the Days Inn as of Aug. 25, and the District government is working to help them transition into permanent housing or transfer to other placements within the city’s network of services, according a D.C. government spokesperson.
The spokesperson said some of the families remaining at Days Inn will be transferred to rapid rehousing units. Families in the District primarily exit shelter through this program “and are assessed for long-term housing support,” they said.
When asked about the activists’ claims regarding rats and a collapsed ceiling in rapid rehousing units, the spokesperson said the D.C. government cannot comment on a specific case but that it works to ensure families are residing in safe housing. Units must receive and pass an inspection conducted by the D.C. Housing Authority before a family signs their lease agreement. And families can initiate a “complaint inspection,” also conducted by DCHA, by sharing concerns about the unit with their case manager.
“DHS works closely with families, [rapid rehousing] providers and DCHA to resolve unit concerns as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said.
If a unit is deemed uninhabitable, the city offers temporary shelter while the landlord works on repairs. If a permanent relocation is required, a case manager helps the family search for housing, according to the District government.
Astrid Lundberg, one of the founders of Grassroots CUA, said she used social media to get the word out about the demonstration. She said that Grassroots CUA, which was founded at Catholic University but has no formal ties to the school, first attracted attention when the group’s leaders planned what ended up as one of the first among the major protests that swept D.C. in early June.
“We basically lucked out into doing some of the earliest protests,” said Kim Sims, another of Grassroots CUA’s founders.
Although Grassroots CUA was founded primarily to aid people experiencing homelessness in the District, its involvement in the George Floyd protests is one of the major reasons for the group’s prominence.
“We knew we were providing the community with an outlet for its fear and concerns,” Lundberg added. “We didn’t know how strong those feelings were.”
At this month’s protest, MPD squad cars arrived as protesters gathered at Shepherd Elementary School, about a 15-minute walk from the mayor’s house in Colonial Village. An officer approached a group of protesters congregating on the sidewalk near the school, working on signs and distributing fliers with demands. The officer told the protesters that MPD would escort their march. While some protesters refused to speak with the police, others said they did not want an escort. Police responded that they would receive one all the same.
“I guess that’s their protocol,” said Pchas (pronounced Peaches), a woman who biked over to Shepherd to join the demonstration after hearing about it through the Black Lives Matter D.C. Instagram page. “To make sure things go smoothly. Hopefully that’s what they’re here for.”
Once signs were completed and the list of demands distributed, an activist spoke through a megaphone, identifying herself as a member of Until Freedom.
“We are a small but mighty group,” she said, addressing around 20 protesters. She demonstrated several chants that participants would repeat on their march to Bowser’s house, including “Safe housing is a human right” and “Safe housing saves lives.” A TV crew from the local NBC affiliate arrived to film the demonstration.
Around 3:45 p.m., the march began. Protesters walked down the middle of Kalmia Road NW, shutting down traffic. Leaders of Black Lives Matter D.C. followed the marchers in a black van.
“We protect the rest. We stay at the back,” said Black Lives Matter D.C.’s Anthony Lorenzo Green, a Ward 7 advisory neighborhood commissioner.
Black Lives Matter D.C. has been supporting demonstrations like this one because of the stark racial demographics of homelessness in the District. Ninety-five percent of D.C. families experiencing homelessness identify as Black or African American, according to the 2020 point-in-time count. Green said the city’s leaders have been “missing in action” for Black communities, funding policing and incentivizing developments without investing adequately in homes in wards 4, 5, 7, and 8. He said deeply affordable housing in units large enough for a whole family must be a priority for the city’s $8.5 billion local budget.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re taking stabs at this system from every access point possible to try to tear down white supremacy and to make sure that we’re treating housing as a human right,” Green said. “And we’re holding our leaders accountable for the conditions that they’re allowing their citizens to survive in.”
A 2017 analysis by Georgetown University professor Maurice Jackson, who chaired the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs, found the area median income for the District’s Black residents was $41,000 but $120,000 for white residents.
MPD snaked behind the march in a caravan of at least half a dozen squad cars. When the protesters arrived at Bowser’s home, more police officers were standing watch. At times participants addressed individual police officers directly.
“It could happen to you,” one protester told a cop. “It could be you, officer. That pension could go away.”
Protesters stood outside Bowser’s home chanting and giving speeches for several hours. When the mayor received a package from Amazon, protesters jeered at the delivery. “Amazon was the last company trying to gentrify D.C. even more,” said Green, referring to the internet shipping giant’s interest in setting up a new headquarters in the District prior to deciding on Arlington instead. Bowser did not exit her home or interact with the protesters. Her office did not respond to requests for comment or to confirm whether she was home during the demonstration. The government spokesperson did confirm DHS had received the list of demands and said the department responded directly to advocates.
According to Green, lack of affordable, quality housing affects everything from public health to the murder rate.
“All of this is a chain reaction to bad policies,” Green said. “So it’s on our mayor to be bold and progressive. Not fake progressive. … We’re the nation’s capital. Why can’t we lead the way on how we care for our own people?”
He specifically called out the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), the nonprofit DHS has used to run its shelters since 1993, often through “sole source” non-competitive contracts. District officials do not provide the level of oversight appropriate for an entity operating a key government program, Green said.
“We give them our money to operate even though they’re a ‘nonprofit entity,’” he said. “So you can’t say that, ‘Oh, because they’re this separate entity from the government there’s not much that we can do, other than give them our tax dollars.’ It doesn’t make sense. They’re not working in the best interest of the city.”
In recent years, D.C. has spent $5 million annually for each motel used for sheltering families through subcontracts overseen by TCP.
In 2015, the Office of the D.C. Auditor found that TCP had overbilled the District by $5 million the previous year. According to tax documents, TCP received over $96 million in contributions and grants in 2014. That same year, Sue Marshall, TCP’s executive director, made over $200,000 working for the nonprofit.
Less than three years later, a report from D.C.’s Office of the Inspector General said the existing arrangement — in which DHS managed Days Inn and Quality Inn through TCP — amounted to “vague oversight.”
“DHS personnel believe TCP is responsible for monitoring requirements defined in the hotel contracts but do not receive inspection reports, and assume both hotels are performing in accordance with contractual requirements,” the report says. “As a result of not clearly assigning inspection responsibilities, hotel accommodation inspections could go unfulfilled and result in conditions that jeopardize the health, safety, and well-being of families living at the hotels.”
The most recent tax records available for TCP are for the fiscal year ending September 2018. They show Marshall’s salary shooting up by over $50,000, to $256,147, plus an estimated $26,453 in “other compensation from the organization and other related organizations.” TCP’s $79 million annual contract with the city was passively approved by the D.C. Council on Feb. 6.
Green said that BLM got involved with the protest in part because of Jewel Stroman, a housing activist who has experienced homelessness directly.
Stroman, who also spoke at the protest, lived at the Days Inn shelter for a few days with her daughter after her house flooded in 2018. They also spent two months at a Motel 6 previously used by DHS to house people experiencing homelessness.
“Being there is what led to me advocating,” said Stroman, who also worked with Black Lives Matter on a June 18 protest at the Days Inn. “We have people who have been in here for two, three, four, five years, just languishing in the system.”
Several speakers invoked Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old girl who disappeared from a DHS-run shelter in 2014. Security footage showing Relisha with a janitor who worked at the shelter is the last known image of Relisha, who remains missing. The janitor, Kahlil Tatum, killed his wife and himself soon after Relisha was reported missing. His body was found in Kenilworth Park. The staff at D.C. General, the shelter Relisha disappeared from, knew Tatum had been showing an interest in Relisha but did not speak up about his unusual behavior, according to activists. D.C. General, previously the city’s only family shelter, closed in 2018 to be replaced by seven “short-term family housing” facilities, two of which are still being built.
Midway through the speeches, protesters faced off with police after an MPD official told the Black Lives Matter D.C. representatives in the van that they would get a ticket for having their vehicle parked in the middle of the street.
In response, protesters vented their anger at the police, accusing them of “escalating” and making “threats.” After demanding that one of the officers give his badge number, one protester screamed for him to repeat it several times. Another officer wore his mask under his nose and ignored demands from protesters to pull it up. The NBC affiliate filming the protest left as the police and protesters argued. Around 15 minutes later, BLM-DC moved its vehicle to the side of the road and the speeches resumed.
One of the final speakers was Chaand Ohri, who identified himself as a physician in D.C. Ohri told a story about an athsmatic patient who stayed in a D.C. shelter with low air quality. According to Ohri, the man eventually died of right-sided heart failure (also known as pulmonary heart disease) at the age of 32.
“This is what we mean,” Ohri said. “Housing is health.”
Around 6:20 p.m., the protesters marched back to Shepherd Elementary. Partway through the return march, they were joined by Perry Redd, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 4B. Redd shouted encouragement to the protesters and held up a sign of his own that read “If it ain’t legislation it ain’t sh**!” and “End police violence against Black americans.” Redd, the D.C. Statehood Green Party nominee for the Ward 4 D.C. Council seat, said he saw the protests on the news and decided to head out and join them.
Though Redd thinks that TCP needs reform, he said he’d prefer that DHS divest from the nonprofit and start from scratch.
“Reform often leaves remnants of the poisons that even brought about the need for a protest and resistance,” Redd said. “I’m more in favor of a total defunding and starting over from the ground. Now that does take some planning, and it takes a lot of implementation of moving folks so that they are safe in the meantime. But the structural elements right now are poison.”
Roughly 10 minutes later, Redd and the protesters arrived back at Shepherd. Jewel Stroman’s daughter picked up the megaphone for the last word of the night before the crowd dispersed.
“We’re not done, OK?” Stroman’s daughter said. “We’re gonna fight until Mayor Bowser decides to help these homeless people and stop these racist cops out here.”
This article was co-published with TheDCLine.org.