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Homeless and Affordable Housing Require Urgent Attention Immediately, Not Later

Recently, one of Dupont Circle’s ANC commissioners had allegedly accosted one of the two homeless men who have taken up long-term sidewalk residence in the 1600 block of 17th Street, NW. According to the police report, the commissioner — who was led away in handcuffs — roughed up the man & threw his accumulated stuff into the street. Apparently, he was fed up with seeing both of these men seemingly living perpetually in front of the Safeway and across the street in front of the True Value for well over a year.

We know he is not alone but we also know that what he was charged with having done is way out of line (especially for an ANC commissioner). His action, however, does spotlight what is truly an intractable problem in our city –- the lack of any apparent effort to solve the problem, whether by the mayor or the city council or through a concerted commitment by the citizenry to do more than trying to help, on an ad hoc basis, individuals or by the more common simply ignoring the presence of homeless people in our midst altogether.

We have been told that one or two Dupont Circle ANC commissioners say that there is an initiative underway with MPD to tackle the problem, but there does not seem to be any evidence of any lasting solution; furthermore, police intervention can’t amount to much more than the removal of a homeless person for a day or two and they then return.

We would be dishonest if we pretend to know the answer; this is a seriously endemic problem that requires solutions far beyond quick fixes that make politicians or civic associations temporarily satisfied with having “done something.”

What we do know is that a gargantuan homeless family shelter like the one that DC has hired contractors to operate in the former, rundown mid-1920s DC General Hospital building is not the answer. In fact it is an abomination.

As reported in the July 12th Washington Post, headlined “D.C. family homeless shelter beset by dysfunction, decay,” the situation is far beyond dire; it is sickening. Not only is the facility a danger, but staffing is suspect and a danger to children and young women in particular. Criminal background checks are not routinely performed, among many other enumerated hazards facing the residents.

Among the findings reported in this thoroughly researched, in-depth exposé by reporters Justin Jouvenal, Robert Samuels and DeNeen L. Brown, “an unprecedented spike in homelessness caused in large part by a lack of affordable housing” seems to be the root cause. From extensive interviews with residents, employees, homeless advocates and others, the consensus is that the shelter “has grown so large that it is unmanageable, a city within a city.”

One newly arrived resident, upon being assigned to a room was given an electric space heater because there was no other working heat source. Even worse, when it would have been nice to open the window for fresh air it was not something at all pleasant for, as she said, “You opened your windows, and everything smelled like feces.” Seems that management never does anything about the residents who toss their trash and used diapers out the windows where they land below her room! Even if the tossers cannot be identified and dealt with, why won’t management do anything to clean up the mess?

The city’s family services official, Michelle Williams, contacted by the Post gave the reporter the lame excuse That “maintenance issues are hard to prevent, given the size of the facility and the constant churn of residents.” Typical DC bureaucratic response: excuses, excuses, excuses but no solution or apparent willingness to take charge.

Another finding reported by the Post was that “[d]espite a dramatic 13 percent rise in homelessness in the District this past winter, the city said it reduced the number of case managers working at the shelter from 14 to 12. That makes a caseload of about 24 families per manager. Given the complicated web of services in the District, some advocates say the number of case managers is too small. By comparison, Darryl L. Leedom, the national social services secretary for the Salvation Army, said it strives for a ratio of one case manager to 15 residents at its shelters.”

That finding did at least get the attention of the city council which appropriated $600,000 so that an additional 10 social workers could be hired. Unfortunately, this is a mere band-aid at best.

More unfortunate, however, is that, according to this article, “City officials have said they are concerned about investing too much in the shelter. They don’t want to create a sense of permanence.”

We agree that a shelter should not be a permanent solution, but to take this callous approach when the government has no other solution is beyond the pale.

We urge our readers to take some time and visit to read this superb investigative report and be as horrified as are we.