By Monica Kamen
Each year, The DC Fair Budget Coalition puts together a policy platform that calls on the city to both protect prior investments and substantially increase investments across a range of human services. While we craft this agenda, we always navigate a challenging philosophical problem: do we ask for what we think we can win, or do we demand what is truly needed to address poverty in the District? On one hand, it’s important to recognize the political and fiscal realities of our city in order to actually secure investments in critical programs. But on the other, a politically realistic ask will never do the job of bringing justice to the people of our city.
The FY17 Budget Campaign was no different; we crafted an ambitious yet reasonable policy agenda. And now that the FY17 budget has been finalized, it is clear that we were able to secure undeniably critical funding for programs that will help thousands of DC residents.
Collectively, our coalition and its members won funding for programs that will provide housing for 569 individuals and 304 families. Our advocacy helped secure $15 million to repair dilapidated and decaying public housing, protected and expanded programs that provide access to healthy and affordable food, protected funding for services for survivors of domestic violence, and extended TANF benefits for another year for families who would have otherwise been cut off from all cash assistance and services. If we compare this year’s budget to that from even two or three years ago, it is clear that we are slowly forcing the city to grapple with some of its biggest problems and start prioritizing investments in affordable housing, adult education, jobs, and health.
And yet, when we take a step back, these victories seem to pale in comparison to the sobering reality of poverty in the District. In this city, there are almost 8,000 people experiencing homelessness on a given night and over 38,000 people waiting on a closed waitlist for housing. One in three children live in a household struggling with hunger, and over 33,000 domestic-violence-related calls are made to the police in a given year. Roughly 60,000 adults lack a high school credential, and one in four adults with a high school credential are unemployed. These statistics go on and on. This gross lack of access to economic, housing, and food security is highly concentrated in communities of color, making the budget an issue of basic racial justice when the city prioritizes the needs of its White residents over Black and Brown citizens.
We may have scored a few touchdowns this budget season, but it is clear that we have a lot of work to do to win the game. We look forward to crafting a policy agenda and running a budget campaign that makes the work of justice an inevitable political reality.
By Monica Kamen
On Monday, June 13, Mayor Bowser signed a bill that will allow the city to finally close DC General and replace it with smaller, more dignified shelters throughout the city. The plan, which was brought to the Council in February, underwent substantial changes as the bill made its way through the legislative process, but ultimately was passed unanimously.
Due in large part by the efforts of Chairman Phil Mendelson, ward councilmembers, and the Council budget office, the Council identified three alternative sites for the proposed shelters in Wards 3, 5, and 6. The bill provides the required finances and allows the city to use eminent domain to purchase these new sites, meaning they will be District-owned. This will help save the city approximately $165 million, ensure that the shelters will remain in the District’s inventory indefinitely, and address community concerns, particularly in Ward 5, with regard to the environmental safety of the site and proximity to transportation and grocery stores.
The $50 million identified to purchase these new sites will come out of the District’s capital budget, rather than the operating budget. Because it is often more difficult to identify operating dollars for many of the programs for which Fair Budget advocates year after year, there will hopefully be more operating dollars to invest in permanent housing solutions for families who are housing unstable.
The Fair Budget Coalition congratulates the Council and the Mayor for working quickly to identify the right plan to finally actualize the goal of closing DC General. We hope we will continue to work with both branches of government to ensure that these sites are developed as quickly as possible and that the designs of the shelters maximize safety and security for families.
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.
Contact us here to learn more about how to get involved in advocacy for real solutions to our affordable housing and homelessness crisis.
With a new mayor and several new councilmembers, we have an opportunity to make sure that the city’s budget works for all DC residents!Join members of the Fair Budget Coalition and Councilmembers David Grosso, Elissa Silverman, and Charles Allen for the release of our annual budget report. We’ll release our recommendations for how to make DC a more just and inclusive city by protecting workers, getting DC residents into affordable and dignified housing, and getting more DC residents the jobs and incomes they need to support themselves.