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SOME (So Others Might Eat)

In the  days leading up to the April 23 special election for an at-large seat on the DC City Council, candidates have been asked to weigh in on everything from bike lanes to marijuana legalization. But at one recent campaign event, poverty issues took center stage.

At a March 13 forum hosted by SOME, an interfaith nonprofit that provides food, housing, medical care and clothing to some of the city’s poorest residents, candidates explained their positions on challenging issues such as homelessness, joblessness, and the shortage of affordable housing.

Statehood Green Party candidate and army veteran  Perry Redd explained that he had experienced homelessness himself after leaving the military.

He contended the city has not done enough to address family homelessness, which has risen steeply since the recession. The number of homeless families in DC increased by 46 percent between 2008 and 2011, and an additional 19 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the results of annual homeless counts.

“Our city has a blind eye when it comes to it,” said Redd, one of seven contenders on the ballot to fill a seat vacated when member Phil Mendelson became council chair.

Former Democratic councilmember Michael A. Brown, who was voted out of office last November and is running to regain a seat on the council, said that attention needs to be brought to the dilapidated conditions of some of the city’s shelters.

“If you go into a shelter like D.C. General, you can get first hand what goes on and what conditions are like,” Brown said at the forum, sponsored by SOME, together with the senior advocacy group AARP and the Coalition for Housing and Homeless Organizations or COHHO.

Fellow Democrat  Matthew Frumin, an attorney and advisory neighborhood commissioner, agreed.

“We have to do better at addressing the shortcomings in our shelters,” Frumin said.

Statements made about homelessness led to the topic of the city’s scarcity of affordable housing. Frumin proposed a $500 monthly voucher for teachers, policemen, firemen and other city employees to be put towards rent or mortgage.

“We need to increase the stock of affordable housing,” he said. “We have to make this city a place where people who work here can live here too.”

Candidates also stressed the importance of the city’s Affordable Housing  Production Trust Fund, which is credited with building or renovating nearly 7,000 units over the past 12 years.  Funding for the program, which comes from deed recordation and real estate transfer taxes, faltered during the recession years. Redd said the city should be doing more to shore up the fund and build more housing for low and moderate income residents.

“We have an issue here that we have a $417 million dollar surplus,” said Redd.  “We need to make affordable housing a priority issue”

Attorney Paul Zuckerberg (D) added that the city needs to be more meticulous in where the fund’s money is actually going.

“I want to see housing money going towards real housing units,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s going to housing and not the pockets of lobbyists and special interest groups.”

Former journalist Elissa Silverman, also a Democrat and a budget analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said she had been advocating to increase city spending for affordable housing.

“I can show you a track record of fighting for things at the Wilson building,” she said.  “I was down there fighting for dollars when the housing trust fund was cut.”

Zuckerberg also spoke about the residents who are struggling to stay in homes that they have lived in for years, proposing homestead exemptions and tax reductions for longtime residents.  He also supported the implementation of a living wage.

“That’s how the economy will get a boost, people will have income to spend,” he said.  “Minimum wage doesn’t cut it if you are trying to live in DC.”

Unemployment also dominated the conversation, with most of the candidates agreeing that the jobless rate goes hand in hand with poverty in the city.

“The key component to preventing homelessness is making sure folks have jobs,” said Silverman.  “We need to look at who is employable and who is not.”

Silverman, who said her work at the fiscal policy institute has given her insights into the challenges of  workforce development, also spoke in support of putting money into job training programs and adult literacy programs.

Zuckerberg spoke out about the city’s graduation and truancy problem, stating that training needs to begin in high school.

“I’m all for adult literacy but lets not graduate people in 12th grade who can’t go out and get a job,” he said.  “We are not giving them marketable skills.”

In addition to providing job training for residents so that they can become employable, Redd said his platform also includes a placement component on the back end to help place people in jobs once they gain the needed skills.

Candidates also advocated for stronger enforcement of the city’s First Source Employment Agreement Act, a law passed in 1984 that requires employers that receive contract money from the District to give priority consideration to DC residents for jobs.

“We need to enforce DC first to meet hiring goals,” Zuckerberg said.  “There’s no contract penalty.”

As former chairman of the Housing and Workforce Development Committee, Brown amended the law at the end of 2011, requiring that 51 percent of new hires be District residents.

“We have 50 non-compliance letters out for people that aren’t doing right by DC residents,” he said.  “We rewrote the bill to make sure if you don’t hire DC residents you will lose money.”

The city’s 2011 decision to impose a 60-month lifetime limit on welfare benefits was also examined.

“If we cut people off, kids will be on the street starving,” said Zuckerberg.  “Get rid of deadline; work it down day by day, person by person, look at the families and see what’s possible”

Silverman spoke of the importance of a city initiative geared toward assessing long term beneficiaries of the welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in order to help them address the problems underlying their poverty.

“We need to properly assess families on the program and understand their barriers to work,” she said.  “The city hasn’t been good partners to people on TANF.”

Redd proposed giving enhanced exemptions to corporations that hire TANF employees, as well as enrolling them at the University of the District of Columbia at no cost.

“Education is the key to empowerment,” he said. “We need to raise TANF benefits; it’s impossible to live in poverty when you’re trying to get out.”