Photo of two advocates holding signs saying "A #FAIRSHOT for DC residents includes housing for all residents" and "Housing is a human right."
Two mock hearing attendees. Photo by Reginald Black

While members of the D.C. Council gathered for their May 8 meeting to set the budget priorities for fiscal year 2020, advocates for the homeless community staged a poignant example of political theater before the steps of the Wilson Building. 

Arrayed around a folding table in the open air, representatives from several homeless advocacy groups and their allies held a mock council session and unanimously passed a resolution titled “Provide Everyone A Way Home.”  As the motion was passed, chants went up: “Housing is a human right!” “Fight! Fight! Fight!”   

The demonstration was organized by The Way Home Campaign, a coalition of more than 100 organizations dedicated to combating chronic homelessness in the District.  The mock-council was chaired by Jesse Rabinowitz of Miriam’s Kitchen. The speakers included members of three homeless aid and advocacy groups, an analyst from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, and a neighborhood commissioner representing Takoma Park. Dozens of advocates, housed and unhoused, turned out in support. 

The speakers said the D.C. government has a humanitarian responsibility to house its homeless residents and that doing so is less expensive than providing emergency services while people live on the street.   

Photo of a mock council session held by homelessness advocacy groups in front of the Wilson Building.

Advocacy groups holding a mock council session outside of the Wilson Building. Photo by Reginald Black

“Without the housing opportunities available now, I would not be alive,” said Waldon Adams. After receiving permanent supportive housing assistance to end his homelessness, Adams went on to become a marathon runner and work as an advocacy fellow for Miriam’s Kitchen, and is now a street outreach worker for Pathways to Housing DC. “It bothers me greatly that we have to determine who gets a chance and who doesn’t,” Adams said. “One to five percent reductions in homelessness is a goal that is very slight and slow reduction rather that bold change at this for solutions that we know work.” 

Robert Warren, director of the homeless advocacy group The People for Fairness Coalition, and Tamika Spellman, policy and advocacy associate of the harm reduction organization HIPS, both echoed Adams’ statements on how the housing assistance helped to turn their lives around 

“I’ve endured a lot during my time in D.C. since 1990,” Spellman said. “From discrimination from shelters to housing, to assaults, robberies, even sexual assault — things that would not have happened had I had a home.” 

Doni Crawford, an analyst with the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said the discrepancy between the percentage of all D.C. residents who are people of color versus the number of people of color experiencing homelessness in the District  makes this an issue of racial equity. The latest census data on demographics in the District show that 47 percent of residents identify as Black or African American; in contrast, 74 percent of homeless single adults in the D.C. metro area and 88 percent of adults in homeless families identify as Black or African American. Crawford also criticized the amount of funding in the proposed budget for the Housing Production Trust Fund, a crucial mechanism for developing more affordable housing in the District. Erin Palmer, a commissioner from neighborhood 4B02 in Takoma Park, asked the crowd, “Who are we as a city if we are not giving our fellow Washingtonians the respect and dignity we all deserve?” 

After each member had spoken, the resolution prepared by The Way Home Campaign was read to the assembled crowdMinutes before the council’s budget meeting began in earnest, the demonstrators funneled into the Wilson Building. Their objective was to present the people’s resolution to Chairman Mendelson with the hope of inspiring budgetary reconsideration at the eleventh hour. Demonstrators filled the hallway outside the chairman’s office, asking for only a moment of his time before the meeting.  Aides stepped out to intercede and were asked by the advocates to fetch their boss.  Eventually, two delegates from the chairman’s office came forth to hear the demonstrators demands and accept their resolution. Chairman Mendelson did not make time for the advocates. 

After pulling back to the council chamber entrance, the demonstrators formed a gauntlet, passing out copies of their resolution and budget recommendations to each official as they arrived for the meeting, which was closed to the public though broadcast and recorded online.   

The Way Home Campaign’s resolution demanded $18.8 million in funds, less than one half of 1 percent of the city’s $14.5 billion budget, to end chronic homelessness for 725 more individuals than the proposed budget will serve. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute provided recommendations for how the city could best allocate this funding: $16.72 million toward permanent supportive housing for 661 individuals, and  $2.6 million for Targeted Affordable Housing for an additional 124 individuals. Chronic homeless — which includes people who have been homeless for more than a year or during multiple episodes within a set time frame, and who also live with a physical or mental disability — is down 13.3 percent since the 2018 point-in-time count.  While these numbers show progress, the city is nowhere near Mayor Bowser’s goal of making homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring” in the city by 2020. “This success should rapidly propel us to do more and do more quickly,” Rabinowitz said at the May 8 demonstration.  

The resolution also called for the D.C. Council to invest $3.5 million in the Homeless Street Outreach Network. The outreach program has been successfully connecting chronically homeless individuals with housing and municipal service systems. But, with federal funding phasing out at the end of the 2019 fiscal year, the program faces severe cuts. At the time of the demonstration, the outreach program was set to lose more than half of its staff, dropping from 40 employees to 15.  Whereas the program currently serves the entire D.C. area, the reduced staff would only have been able to serve the city center and a portion of Northwest.   

However, thanks to an amendment introduced by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and backed by eight other councilmembers, the budget bill that initially passed on May 14 restored $2.4 million for the outreach program and included enough funding for an additional 200 units of permanent supportive housing. “We WON!” tweeted The Way Home Campaign, claiming the unfettered budget bill would end chronic homelessness for 600 individuals and 180 families in the District. 

The initial budget legislation also included $30 million for public housing repairs. While the D.C. Housing Authority estimates it needs more than $300 million to make critical repairs to its properties, the mayor’s budget proposal did not include any funding for this purpose. 

Councilmember Allen also included funding for the Office of the Attorney General to add a full-time attorney working on prosecuting housing code violations, including holding the District’s largest landlord, the District of Columbia’s Housing Authority, accountable for making repairs in a timely manner,” according to a press release from the Ward 6 councilmember’s office. 

A second vote is scheduled for May 28 before the final legislation is transmitted to Mayor Bowser for her signature and passed on for congressional approval.  

 Reginald Black contributed reporting.