DC’s Family Homelessness Crisis

It can be argued that our economic troubles began long before the crisis of 2008. But let’s use that as a starting point anyway as we consider the causes of the family homelessness crisis that has arisen in in Washington, DC. I’d read about the failure of Bear Stearns and how it was purchased by JP Morgan Chase in the spring of 2008. Over the next seven months, I would read about other investment banks whose names I’d either never heard or that just didn’t mean anything to me previously – names such as Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch (whose bull-silhouette commercials were etched into my memory during childhood) and Morgan Stanley. But the depth of the crisis didn’t “hit home” for me until mid-October when I read an e-mail announcing a special meeting at DC’s City Hall to address immediate cuts to the Dept. of Human Services budget for FY 2009 with us being two weeks into that fiscal year.

DC council members were in a rush to make cuts to the DHS budget so as to avoid more hurtful “double cuts” in April. That is to say, for example, that a $20M cut to a $100M budget at the onset of the fiscal year forces a 20% reduction in services; whereas, the same $20M cut occuring halfway through the fiscal year with $50M remaining in the department’s budget would force a 40% reduction in services for the remaining six months. There is something fundamentally wrong with how the White House and Congress between October 2008 and February 2009 could find $1.3B to pump into corporations that had already gambled away billions of dollars and into the conomy respectively, while the city council which is situated between them can’t find enough money to maintain the social safety net which is needed more than ever in times like these.

In March 2009 it was reported that family homelessness in the DC Metro area had increased by 25% in one year. In June 2009 several advocates for the homeless completed a video campaign that aimed to convince the DC Council that we needed more shelter. A certain homeless woman died on June 7th, 2009 just three days after being interviewed for that project. The video was shown in the council chamber that July. Yet, in the spring of 2010, when grilled for crowding 200 families into a shelter for 135, the DC Council claimed that they hadn’t seen the sharp increase in homeless families coming.

Some time thereafter, 18 rooms were added to the family shelter. In the fall of 2011 another 118 rooms were added to the family shelter at the dilapidated and defunct DC General hospital bringing the total to 271 (times 4 people per family on average). Less than three years later the cry of DC Government and the homeless families is that the building is falling apart. (There are other instances in which DC Government has done shoddy repairs on homeless shelters, in effect wasting taxpayer dollars.)

The government is now in a rush to remove families from the deteriorating shelter and presenting itself as a hero which is “saving these families” when, it fact, it was the government that allowed the building to fall into disrepair in the first place. This is strikingly similar to how they remove poor families from public housing which is falling apart and promise to rebuild and allow people to return at the same rent levels – a promise that is often broken. In this case as well it is the government that allowed the buildings to fall into disrepair and then played the hero when removing people from the building.

Eric Jonathan Sheptock
(https://www.facebook.com/housing4thehomeless)