Where Is Our Progressive Mayor?
Recent events suggest Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is of two minds when it comes to addressing homelessness. Upon taking office nearly a year ago, she brought a refreshingly progressive approach to the District’s longstanding, seemingly intractable homelessness problem. She embraced policies proven effective elsewhere, tapped respected leaders in the field for key administration posts and backed her ideas with more funding than her recent predecessors.
The mayor has been an outspoken proponent of the Housing First model. Proven to be a cost effective way of solving chronic homelessness, Housing First provides people experiencing homelessness with housing as quickly as possible, and then provides services as needed. It replaces a failed approach that made engagement in services, and extended periods of stability, prerequisites for housing. The policy works and saves taxpayer money.
Bowser’s choice of Laura Zeilinger as director of the Department of Human Services and Polly Donaldson as director of the Department of Housing and Community Development suggested that crafting long-term policies to address and end homelessness was a top priority. Both bring a track record of accountability, application of best practices, innovation and public-private collaboration to the task. And the mayor has shown a willingness to back her rhetoric with the funding needed to implement good ideas. One longtime critic of the District’s approach to homelessness described the mayor’s homeless assistance budget for fiscal year 2016 as the very best and most promising allocation of funding she had seen in 30 years.
All of this leads to our bewilderment about her decision to forcefully evict a community of persons from their encampment in the District’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood near the Watergate Building. By order of the mayor, city workers swept in, confiscated tents and personal effects and “cleaned up” the encampment last month, all in accordance with city law that forbids such “temporary places of abode.” The mayor has pledged to do the same anywhere else in the city people are living in similar encampments.
Let us be clear, we at Street Sense think it is outrageous that in a city of such wealth, some of our neighbors live outside. But we know they are there for a reason. For some, it means being able to stay with a supportive partner. (City shelters for single adults do not allow men and women to be sheltered together.) Others find the noise, violence and overcrowding of shelters unbearable. Others appreciate the sense of community and autonomy that they are able to build at these encampments. Still others found shelters full when they sought refuge there. All found the cost of housing in our city beyond their reach.
Whatever the reason, criminalizing the decision is shortsighted. At the implementation level, when it targets persons who are chronically homeless, Housing First begins with engagement and trust-building. The mayor will tell you that housing was offered to all of the encampment’s residents – a claim not substantiated by our interviews with those affected. Even if true, holding
a lease in one hand, while banishing the club of an eviction notice in the other, is no way to build trust.
Let’s be honest about what is behind these neighborhood “cleanups.” They are knee-jerk reactions to demands made by wealthy residents, business owners and developers in these neighborhoods. “We don’t care how, just get these unsightly people out of here!” Twenty-three years ago, on nearly the very same spot this now-evicted community found refuge, former D.C. Mayor Vince Gray, while director of the Department of Human Services, conducted a similar “cleanup” operation a few days before Thanksgiving when he forcibly shut down a shelter in answer to residents demands to “get these unsightly people out of here.”
The forcible eviction of the Foggy Bottom encampment, and plans to do the same elsewhere in the city, echo an old, outdated and failed style of leadership. They bring us no closer to the day we believe Mayor Bowser yearns for as much as we here at Street Sense do – a day when this city is beyond its decades of widespread chronic homelessness. We urge the mayor to embrace the progressive inclinations that characterized the first months of her administration. And we stand ready to support implementation of policies born from that brand of progressive leadership.
Brian Carome is the executive director of Street Sense.