Homeless in the Capitol of America

by | Jan 4, 2012 | Uncategorized

Eric Sheptock, the media-savvy “Homeless Homeless Advocate,” has posted a 14-minute video detailing the events of 2011 in Washington, D.C. He gives a little of the back-story of homeless activism in the nation’s capitol, especially the years-long battle for the Franklin School Shelter which was finally closed. (Recently, an attempt was made to re-occupy it, which is a whole separate story.)

Yes, Washington has initiated a permanent housing program, but when the last count was made (January 2011), the capitol city of the greatest country in the world still contained at least 6,546 people experiencing homelessness.

Sheptock makes a conclusion and offers a solution:

In spite of the programs that are being created, we can’t seem to house people more quickly than they become homeless… We need to figure out how people are becoming homeless, and we need to capture them before they enter shelters

The analogy he makes is a leaky water supply in a house. Sure, you mop the floor — but first, you shut off the water. “You stop the flow into homelessness and then you clean up what you already have,” says Sheptock. Hopes were raised when Washington acquired a mayor who came to the position via the Department of Human Services. Unfortunately, the effect of that coincidence was negligible, because in April the mayor’s budget proposal indicated a $20.5 million shortfall for homeless services because of a reduction in federal funding.

Somehow, D.C. shelters had been managing to operate year-round. But the budget cuts would mean that they would scale back to only being open during the five coldest months of the year, which is the bare minimum required by the city’s law. It looked for a while as if all the shelters in Washington were fated to close in April of 2012, not to reopen again until November.

After the mayor’s announcement, 250 activists showed up at City Hall urging the government to find the money somewhere. A sub-group from Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations started meeting even more often at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, where Sheptock lives. The upshot, as described in one of his website reports, was:

After we put enough public pressure on them, they found $17 million for shelter (while taking $18.4 million from the fund that creates affordable housing — an asinine move, to say the least). We thought that the shelters were saved (and lamented the loss of funding for affordable housing).

This same blog entry also critiques a couple of other federal institutions, starting with the president, who visited what is probably the country’s largest shelter without saying anything about what he planned to do about ending homelessness:

It only took him 2 years and 8 months of being in office to ride the 1 mile or so from the White House to the shelter which sits right on the edge of Capitol Hill… Still, that’s more than I can say for the U.S. Department of Labor. Their building is right across the road from this ginormous shelter and they’ve yet to walk over and see what they can do to employ its residents.

Of course, there are more problems. Federal funding for Section 8 housing vouchers in Washington was threatened with a 50% cut, and then the cut was changed to a smaller proportion. That’s the kind of thing that passes for good news these days.

As we know, it takes time for the gathering and collation of statistics to catch up with reality. Sheptock gives the figures from the Washington metro area between January 2008 and January 2009, during which time the number of homeless families grew by 25%. He goes on to say:

All over the country, the fastest-growing segment of the homeless population is families… You see, when individuals become homeless, folks tend to blame that individual for their own missteps, whether it was drug addiction, or alcoholism, or not paying the rent, or some other personal vice. But when families become homeless, people tend to blame the economy. They’re more sympathetic to families that become homeless. But that sympathy doesn’t house people.

But hey — at least we’re not in Hungary! Last month, BBC News reported that Hungary has outlawed homelessness. Not only that, but its capitol city beats Washington, because Budapest has about 10,000 people experiencing homelessness. And the government has decided to solve that by making their very existence illegal, punishable by either a fine (money they obviously don’t have) or jail (which just costs the taxpayers even more money). Way to go, Hungary! The fact that America hasn’t quite reached such a point yet is, again, what passes for good news these days.


Source: “2011 State of Homelessness Address inour Nations Capital,” YouTube.com, 12/24/11
Source: “Obama Fails To Address Homeless Crisis While at Kitchen,” streatstv.blogspot.com/, 09/15/11
Source: “Hungary outlaws homeless in move condemned by charities,” bbc.co.uk, 12/01/11
Image by Daquella Manera (Daniel Lobo), used under its Creative Commons license.