By Monica Kamen
On a cold day in February, a group of advocacy leaders from Isaiah House gathered to discuss some of the biggest challenges they face in the city’s shelters for homeless singles. Isaiah House, a day program run by So Others Might Eat, provides a therapeutic space for people who have been impacted by homelessness. It is also a space for individuals to come together to learn how to best advocate for themselves and their communities.
Those gathered on that February morning shared stories about what life in shelters is really like. Bed bugs. Rodents. Moldy food. Being put out of shelter when it’s raining or only a few degrees above freezing. Absentee or abusive case managers. Staff who seem to not care for them and often abuse the power they have in their roles.
Whether old or young, male or female, the themes were the same. Residents of our city’s shelters feel they are not valued as human beings, that their concerns aren’t being appropriately addressed, and that they are living in unhealthy and inhumane conditions.
Much attention has been paid to the homelessness crisis among families, but homeless singles in the District often feel left out of the conversation about problems and their potential solutions. To help remedy this, on March 3rd, Fair Budget Coalition, So Others Might Eat, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and the People for Fairness Coalition hosted an issue briefing at the Wilson Building to bring these concerns to the attention of the city’s elected leadership.
Over 30 people gathered to hear a panel of experts both discuss conditions in DC’s shelters for homeless singles and explore potential solutions. Advocates Reggie Black and Carol Dostert shared their experiences living in shelter and navigating the homeless system for our city’s singles. Among the audience were Brenda Donald, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, as well as representatives from the Department of Human Services, the Community Partnership, the Department of General Services, and city council staff.
Panelists, along with 120 respondents of a survey circulated in local shelters, confirmed what Isaiah House advocates had initially expressed. The physical conditions are neither healthy nor safe, the institutions are not adequately supporting recovery, and staff are not offering solutions to residents’ dire economic situations. Most importantly, shelters aren’t effective at finding permanent, affordable housing for residents.
Samantha Davis (SOME) and Kristi Matthews (SOME & WLCH), offered their expertise, contributing stories they’ve been hearing over years of working with residents in shelter.
Luis Vasquez, a former social worker and current Director at Catholic Charities, one of the main operators of the single shelters, shared his perspective on the major issues. Vasquez said that because shelters are strapped for cash, residents can outnumber case managers 100 to 1. This makes it extremely difficult for residents to meet with a case manager even once, let alone on a consistent basis. As such, people can live in shelters for years before finding stable housing. Vasquez articulated a willingness to work with residents to address these concerns by creating a client council where residents can voice their concerns directly.
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