Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Homelessness

Poverty


Topic of the week: Giving

The holiday season as well as the end of they year will soon be upon us and that gets lots of people thinking about giving to worthy organizations. We asked our contributors for their favorite organizations that they are donating to this year. Can you add your support?


Photo by Julie on Flickr.

David Alpert: The Coalition for Smarter Growth does the hard work, day in and day out, of advocating for the issues most of us support here at Greater Greater Washington. They mobilized a lot of people (including many of you) to show up in person to testify for the zoning update in DC, Bus Rapid Transit in Montgomery County, and better land use and transportation plans in Prince George's and Northern Virginia.

Online, we talk about these issues and help educate many people about what's going on in their communities, but success also requires on-the-ground organizing. Please support CSG's great work.

We also talk about bicycling a lot here on Greater Greater Washington, and no organization is doing more to push for safer streets, better bike infrastructure, trails, CaBi, bike racks, driver and cyclist education, and so much more than the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). They made a list of amazing projects that they'd like to do, and would help bicycling in DC, but can't do without money. Why not help pay for a "traffic garden" where kids can learn to ride safely, or a fellow to compile and analyze crash statistics? Donate to them here.

Ben Ross: The Action Committee for Transit is Montgomery County's grass-roots advocate for better transit and better communities. Please join us (or renew early for next year) and support our activism by choosing whatever dues level you can afford between $10 and $100.

Canaan Merchant: Two organizations that I've volunteered for and have grown to admire are Food and Friends and DC Central Kitchen. Food and Friends delivers meals to people with HIV/AIDS, cancer, and other illnesses. DC Central Kitchen provides meals for the homeless and is a culinary training program for them and others as well. Both the sick and the homeless are too often invisible parts of our urban landscape and these organizations have earned a lot of recognition for their ability to provide. I'd encourage anyone looking for ways to give locally to consider these two organizations.

Aimee Custis: Two organizations on my giving list this year are Smart Growth America and Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling. Smart Growth America advocates on the national level for people who want to live and work in great neighborhoods, but their office is here in DC, and their staff are an active part of our region's smart growth community. There are so many great local bike advocacy groups, but Fairfax Advocates for Better Bicycling is one of my favorites. A volunteer-run local affiliate of WABA, they're on the front lines of advancing cycling in Fairfax County, which certainly isn't easy.

Dan Reed: IMPACT Silver Spring is a great organization that embodies the adage "Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime." They ensure the long-term health of immigrant, minority, and low-income communities in Montgomery County through organizing, community engagement, and leadership training, empowering people to advocate for themselves both economically and politically. Montgomery Housing Partnership not only builds affordable housing, they help their residents build better lives and neighborhoods through job training and community-building events.

Both groups make Silver Spring and Montgomery County better places to live, and their staffs are some of the most talented, hardworking people I know. I've had the pleasure of working with both of them over the past year on the Flower Theatre Project, and they definitely deserve your support.

Michael Perkins: Bread for the City provides a wide variety of services - not just food and clothing, but also legal advice, dental care, and medical care. They get a regular donation from me. Also, Arlington Streetcar Now!, which is an advocacy organization that's organizing support to continue the plan to build a streetcar in Arlington.

Malcolm Kenton: Although I may not be working for them for much longer, I will add my endorsement for giving to the National Association of Railroad Passengers if you support an expanded and improved national passenger train network plus enhanced transit and commuter rail and multi-modal connectivity. I also give to two local water quality & conservation organizations: Rock Creek Conservancy and the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Elizabeth Falcon: The Diverse City Fund is a project to locally source money to fund grassroots projects in DC. All of the board members who determine grants are longtime DC organizers and activists, and the money goes to small projects that many larger foundations won't fund.

Jim Titus: And don't forget your local house of worship, which probably looks out for people in your neighborhood who have fallen on hard times and may well operate a food pantry.

Jacques Arsenault: A couple of other great organizations that touch on homeless and housing work are the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network (A-SPAN) and Central Union Mission, who just moved from 14th Street NW to near Union Station. And two organizations that provide critical services for under served or disconnected youth in the community are the Latin American Youth Center and DC Lawyers for Youth.

Veronica O. Davis: Food & Friends prepares and delivers healthy meals to terminally ill residents in the region.

Jaime Fearer: I serve on the board of Fihankra Akoma Ntoaso, or FAN, a local nonprofit organization based in Anacostia that serves foster youth throughout the District. More specifically, FAN aims to support teens in foster care by filling the gaps in their social, emotional, and educational lives as they face aging out of the foster care system. Please watch our 7-minute video and join me in building a bridge for some of our most vulnerable youth.

Geoffrey Hatchard: I'll be one to add an ask for Casey Trees. Casey's mission is simple: to restore, enhance, and protect the tree canopy of the nation's capital. I've been volunteering for Casey Trees for 9 years now, and I've found every minute of it to be fulfilling and worthwhile. They've expanded their reach recently to include plantings in Prince George's County, Montgomery County, and Arlington County. With more funds, they'll be able to invest in more staff to help plan and lead more projects in the future.

Development


Fire deaths in abandominium raise call for action

Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.


Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.

"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he's going to get re-elected, if the Feds don't get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game," said community activist William Alston-El. "But it ain't a game, it's a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living."

Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood's extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.

What happened at 1704 R Street SE?

Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.


Front of 1704 R Street SE in Fairlawn, the scene of the deadly fire.

The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. "It smells like death out here," Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. "There aren't too many Toogoods around." We walk around to the alley to investigate.

A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. "Get away from here," yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, "We're reporters looking for the truth," Alston-El offers.


Rear of 1704 R Street SE.

At that the man who says he's been "standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours," begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.

"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission," he says. "The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.

"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it's really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees."

I ask if the cause of fire is known. "No, that's under investigation. So they didn't have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, 'How did it start?'"

Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist's details. "After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries."

According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. "No wonder she didn't make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind."

Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.

With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant

Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners' progress.

Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317" according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces "No Trespassing or Dumping."

City-owned abandominiums, 1700-1720 W Street SE.

In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted "FUCK" "CRuddy" just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy's growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising "spacious" 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes "coming soon."

The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:

SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District's PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several "speed bumps" those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:
  • Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
  • The District's Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
  • The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.
Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.
City needs help reporting abandominiums

Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.

"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do," said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair's Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.

Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.

"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at vacantbuildings@dc.gov or call 202-442-4332 to report a property," Pemberton said. DCRA's Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.

Poverty


MLK Library can help itself by helping the homeless

The days of metal detectors and risky bathrooms seem a thing of the past at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, but one thing has not changed. The library remains a destination for the homeless and lost souls of Washington.


Man at MLK Library with his possessions in a trash bag. Photo by the author.

In a city brimming with specialized research libraries, university libraries, and governmental libraries, the DC Public library is the people's library. 24 branches, many newly built or renovated, serve residents in neighborhoods throughout the city's quadrants, while the flagship MLK Library serves the whole.

With the Board of Library Trustees meeting on Wednesday to discuss the future of the MLK Library, now is the time to also think broadly about the building's immediate needs. One key issue is that the library must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: the homeless.

Library has little recourse against problem patrons

"There was some man outside of the children's section talking loudly about killing children," an unsettled mother with a young child in tow told a library police officer one Sunday earlier this year, as she hastened to make her exit. "There he is," she said, pointing out a diminutive bearded and disheveled man simultaneously making his way out of the building.

While the woman and her child exited the library, the officer quickly stopped and questioned the man. As with incidents of lewd sexual acts, drunkenness, drug use, threats against staff and even occurrences of patrons destroying and defacing books, the library police have but two options: 1) call the Metropolitan Police Department and 2) issue a subsequent ban on that patron from re-entering the library for a certain period of time.

A staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, looking out over a room with no less than a half dozen patrons sleeping, "There is literally nothing we can do. Don't get me wrong, we have people who have been coming here for years. They read, don't bother anyone. Some copy passages out of books. They might use the bathroom to clean up and that's it. Every day is the same. But then we have some people who really need help. This is not where they should be."

Other cities have social workers to help the homeless

DC is not unlike other cities whose downtown libraries serve homeless populations, but unlike other cities, the DC Public Library does nearly nothing to address the constant concerns of staff and patrons. According to administrative sources, the DC Library has a roving case manager on staff but he or she is rarely, if ever, seen at MLK, where there's a large homeless concentration.

The DC Library administration could follow the lead of the San Francisco Public Library system, which has "turned the page" on dealing with the homeless who patronize their main library. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in late January 2009 the San Francisco system became the first in the country to address its longstanding problems (no different than what goes on at MLK) with homeless patrons by bringing on a full-time psychiatric social worker.

Through an inter-governmental partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the library hired the social worker to be "on hand five days a week handling complaints from staff and patrons about people's behavior, and calling in security only if things get really ugly."

Along with helping homeless patrons to find other services in the city, including housing and food assistance, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and literacy tutoring, library workers received training in responding to unpleasant behavior.

Not stopping there, the San Francisco system instituted a 12-week "vocational rehabilitation" program for the library's homeless and formerly homeless population. Upon completion, graduates are hired to work in the system. The DC Library already has a similar program in place, Teens of Distinction, which trains city youth to work in low-level administrative support positions, often the teenagers' first job experience.


UPO van on its daily pick-up outside the MLK Library. Photo by the author.
San Francisco's approach could be easily replicated in DC. Like clockwork vans from the United Planning Organization (UPO) come every evening to return the homeless to their respective shelter. UPO, the city's official Community Action Agency is already well aware of MLK Library's homeless population and their needs. Through a partnership with other city agencies case management and direct services could begin to be tracked and better delivered.

Without an organized city effort local universities, non-profits and church groups regularly perform service outreach projects at the library. For example, on many evenings hot meals and backpacks stuffed with personal hygiene products and new socks are distributed at the corner of 9th & G Street underneath the shelter of the library's Mies Van Der Rohe designed arcade.

While the American Library Association has released information on how to serve homeless patrons, the DC library administration appears uninterested. By not addressing this need, the current library administration enables a culture of dependency among its homeless instead of a culture of self-improvement, and turns away other potential patrons who are intimidated by the homeless presence.

Budget


Restoring funds for homeless services makes fiscal sense

Yesterday, dozens of homeless families came to the John A. Wilson Building to take part in the budget process. They asked the DC Council to restore money for homeless services that was cut in Mayor Gray's proposed budget for next year.


Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

Their argument was simple: There are more and more kids and parents in our city who have no place to sleep, and without a safe place to rest, our civic ambitions of improving education, getting jobs, and making DC a better city simply can't happen.

Maintaining homeless services is also better for the District's bottom line: While homeless cuts balance the budget now, when winter comes and DC has a legal obligation to house families, we will likely end up spending a lot more.

Since 2008, family homelessness has increased by 75 percent. According to the city's Department of Human Services, 3,187 DC residents in families with children have no home right now. That is up from 2,688 in 2011. This is the fourth year of significant increases.

Demand is up, but our supply of housing and available resources is going down. Mayor Gray's proposed budget has a $7 million gap in funding for homeless services, due to federal funds that will not be available in fiscal year 2013. These funds are needed simply to maintain the status quo from this past year and won't allow the family shelters to remain open year-round. It is in our best interestboth fiscally and as a cityto fund homeless services.

As a city, we can choose to tackle this difficult issue or we can wish that the problem will go away and these families will just find a place to stay. In the end, it's sort of counterintuitive, but "the hope the problem goes away" approach is the more expensive option.

Here's why. The District does not have a legal obligation to house families in warm weather, but when it is hypothermia seasonwhen the temperature dips below 32 degreesthe city is required under law to house families. Last winter, hundreds of families came to the city in need of shelter. DHS expanded capacity at its DC General shelter, bringing total capacity up to 273 families. Yet, that was not enough. The District ended up placing 200 more families in motel rooms on New York Avenue NE, at a cost of roughly $3,000 a month per family.

You read right$3,000 a month. That's why the dozens of homeless families at the Wilson Building yesterday asked the DC Council to put money toward housing. It is the city's less expensive and better option to move these kids and parents toward stability.

As we look to next year, the problem is likely to be worse. Ten to 12 families request shelter each week, but DC will not shelter any newly homeless families until hypothermia season. It is likely that once the shelter opens to new families, the need will again overwhelm existing capacity. DCFPI estimates that if the need for shelter matches that of fiscal year 2012, DHS will need to house up to 296 families per night in motels, at a total cost of nearly $7.5 million.

DC needs a plan to move families out of the shelter and motels and into stable living arrangements. This will free up space to meet emergency need throughout the year and prevent our reliance on expensive motel rooms that do not meet the needs of families. We can improve the lives of these families and the city's pocketbook by making a strategic investment in homeless services. Mayor Gray and the DC Council should fully fund homeless services and move these families and our city forward.

Cross-posted at The District's Dime.

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