Councilmember Janeese Lewis George speaks in front of the doors of the Church
Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George speaks to the crowd outside of Foundry United Methodist Church. Photo by Ben Gutman

Community leaders, neighbors, and advocates congregated outside of Foundry United Methodist Church on July 18 to honor the life of Jose Antonio Navarro and 42 other individuals  who have passed away on the streets of D.C. in 2021. 

About a month ago, Navarro was found dead on the stairs of Foundry by a concerned neighbor while the church staff was out of town. Navarro had experienced homelessness for over 20 years and slept outside the church for a little less than a year while working as a day laborer. That’s according to Reverend Ben Roberts, associate pastor and director of social justice ministries at Foundry United Methodist.  

Around 40 people attended the mid-year memorial to pay their respects and demand more funding from the city to end the kind of chronic homelessness that Navarro had experienced for decades. Attendees laid flowers at a vigil next to the spot where Navarro would sleep at night. 

A photo from behind the crowd gathered to pay respect to the lives lost

Around 40 people gathered outside of Foundry United Methodist Church on July 18 to honor the life of Jose Antonio Navarro. Photo by Ben Gutman

“Jose would decorate his space with flowers,” Reverend Roberts explained to the crowd. 

Before these neighbors and advocates could gather to remember Navarro, another D.C. resident passed away without housing. Robert Stephens became at least the forty-third person to have passed away without housing in the District this year. He was found July 14 by another unhoused resident at the E Street encampment in Foggy Bottom. Yannik Omictin, the ANC commissioner representing the area, was one of eight speakers, including Reverend Roberts, to address the crowd.

“[Stephens] deserved the simple dignity of not dying on the street,”Omictin said during his speech. 

Jesse Rabinowitz, an organizer with the local social service nonprofit Mariam’s Kitchen, also spoke. Miriam’s Kitchen along with other members of the Way Home Campaign it leads called on the D.C. Council to invest $66 million of the city’s fiscal year 2022 budget to end chronic homelessness with proven solutions such as Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH). 

[Disclaimer: Street Sense Media is a member of The Way Home Campaign but our newsroom is independent. Read more at streetsensemedia.org/ethics]

“According to our [D.C. Department of Human Services] data, only three people have died who are homeless from COVID in 2021, so 40 of those deaths were from non-COVID related things. Often manageable and treatable medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension,” Rabinowitz said. “So we’re calling on the city to fulfill their promise. They made a commitment to ending homelessness and ending homelessness is literally a matter of life or death for our neighbors who are living outside.”  

A photo of yellow flowers laying on the concrete

Community members placed flowers next to the spot where Navarro would sleep. Photo by Ben Gutman

In 2015, the newly elected Bowser administration published a strategic plan to end long-term homelessness called “Homeward D.C.” This plan included a pledge to end chronic homelessness among single adults and families by the end of 2017. After failing to meet this  goal three years ago, Mayor Bowser and the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness released an updated plan for the next five years at the beginning of this month.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis-George were in attendance to both honor the life of Navarro as well as voice support for boosting government funding for Permanent Supportive Housing by raising taxes on D.C. residents making more than $250,000 per year. The amendment supporting this tax was incorporated into the D.C. Council’s revised FY22 budget  in an 8-5 vote on July 20. 

[Read more: ‘Homeward DC 2.0 was about to be finalized in March 2020 when COVID-19 reached DC]

At the vigil the Sunday before, both councilmembers said the mayor’s proposed budget of $20.6 million for PSH in FY2022 — $4 million less than in 2021 — is not enough to end chronic homelessness.  Other speakers at the vigil included Kate Coventry of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, Rabbi Ilana Zeitman of Gather D.C., and advocacy director of the People for Fairness Coalition Reginald Black.  

Last December, the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) held their annual vigil to remember every individual who died without a home. According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, that number stood at least 180 deaths in 2020. This coming December, Black and PFFC will repeat the solemn annual ritual once again.    

“They [individuals experiencing homelessness] want to know when are they going to have housing,” Black said during his speech.