Back to Bathrooms for Homeless DC Residents

January 11, 2016

The People for Fairness Coalition, an advocacy organization for homeless District of Columbia residents, is campaigning for public restrooms in the downtown area.

A spokesperson says they’re not only for the homeless. True enough. Tourists, shoppers, street vendors and people betwixt business meetings could benefit too. But there’s a difference.

I recall a time when I was near a small park where homeless people hang out and felt an urgent need to relieve myself. So I walked into a hotel and strolled through the lobby to the women’s room. Nobody said boo.

I’ve also on occasion ducked into a restaurant. Again, no one working there looked at me askance. This would hardly have been the case if I’d been wearing a tattered sweater and lugging bundles of all the belongings I still had.

Having clean, conveniently located public bathrooms anyone can use at any time seems to me merely the mark of a civilized city.

Those of us fortunate enough to have traveled abroad know they’re easy to find in Paris and in at least parts of other cities American tourists are likely to visit. Several U.S. cities now have them too, though not necessarily enough or open long enough.

Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human — an international advocacy group cleverly named to produce the acronym PHLUSH — argues that “toilet availability is a human right,” citing the broad right to sanitation the United Nations formally declared in 2010.

PHLUSH cites practical benefits too — and not only for health. Public toilets, it says, support downtown revitalization because people will stroll, window shop, etc. when they know they can find them. And businesses gain a positive imagine when they’re in neighborhoods that make a good first impression.

Such talking points could interest the downtown BID, which has invested in efforts to move homeless people off the streets — one of those cases where self-interest and public interest mesh.

The talking points (or something like) seem already to have influenced Councilmember Vincent Orange, since he’s introduced a bill to launch and evaluate a “mobile hygiene unit” — a bus converted to a bathroom with showers, as well as toilets.

We know he’s live to local business interests — his business, so to speak, as chair of the Business, Consumer Affairs and Regulatory Committee.

PFFC doesn’t seem much concerned about the motives. Nor should it be, if buses traveling around the city would meet the need they’re concerned with.

They wouldn’t, so far as I can see, do anything for homeless people — or for tourists, shoppers, etc. — who just need a toilet PDQ. And the pilot Councilmember Orange proposes would fund only one bus. No prospects of more until the two-year pilot ends.

Honolulu, which perhaps inspired the mobile unit solution, will soon have a fleet, including some buses with sleeping quarters. San Francisco, another model, also apparently has multiple buses.

PFFC members have thus far delivered mixed messages about the Orange bill. One says it’s “a great idea” — at least in part because of the showers. Another would prefer a restroom with a permanent location.

We shouldn’t let the forest get lost in these trees. The fact that PFFC is advocating for public restrooms speaks to a larger problem homeless people have in the District — and most other cities, I gather.

Shelters for those who don’t have children with them — those commonly termed single individuals, though they may be family members — generally insist that residents leave first thing in the morning and won’t let them back in before dinnertime or thereabouts.

So they wander the streets or take refuge in a McDonald’s, until they’re kicked out, or in a public library, if District rules don’t exclude them, e.g., by banning large bags. One way or the other, they’re on the streets a goodly part of the day — if for no other reason than to get to a shelter and stand in line because otherwise they’ll have no bed for the night.

No place then to pee, except in an alley or behind a bush, assuming they can persuade another homeless person to let them back in line afterwards. But we’ve got laws against heeding the call of nature in a public place — as indeed do a great many cities.

They don’t affect only homeless singles who rely on shelters, of course. Some, as I (and others) have written before, won’t go to a shelter. Last January’s one-night count found 544 on the streets or some other place “not meant for human habitation.”

Both they and the sheltered singles have no assured, 24-hour home base. This poses high risks to their mental and/or physical health, even if they’re not (yet) officially disabled. It makes finding — and keeping — a job extraordinarily difficult, as the story I recently recounted shows.

Kurt Runge, the Advocacy Director at Miriam’s Kitchen, says the mobile unit plan “could help address some very important basic needs in the short term.” But “[p]eople need a home of their own to take care of their personal needs.”

Housing surely is, as he says, “the solution to homelessness.” And it’s one the District should make a top priority in the upcoming budget cycle and beyond. But as the Executive Director of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness has said, “we will always need shelter.”

So I would hope that this upsurge of interest in public bathrooms doesn’t divert attention from policies that make them a more pressing need than for anyone else in our community.

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DC Winter Plan Meeting Exposes Affordable Housing Problems

August 21, 2012

I thought a second public meeting to discuss the District’s Winter Plan would be a calm, even dull affair.

Not so. David Berns, Director of the Department of Human Services, got an earful of anger and anguish. More of the same at the meeting of the Interagency Council on Homelessness that followed.

Nothing much he could do — even if DHS had a reasonably ample budget for homeless services.

Because the frustration, outrage, tears even had nothing to do with shelter or related services the agency funds.

Nor with the short-shot homelessness prevention and temporary housing solutions the department still claims will significantly reduce pressures on DC General — the main shelter for homeless families.

They were mostly about the egregious shortage of affordable housing and/or long-term housing assistance here — and a perceived lack of concern on the part of the Gray administration and administrations that preceded it.

Delores, for example, told us that she’s 63 years old, disabled and receiving about $11,000 a year in Social Security benefits.

She’s visited one apartment complex after another and been told she’d need to prove an income of at least $19,000. “All these lists,” she said, waving them, “and nothin’.”

Several other participants remarked on all the multi-family housing construction they were seeing. Why didn’t the District require developers to make some portion of the units affordable for low-income people?

And why didn’t the District rehabilitate some vacant buildings as housing for homeless people instead of putting them into shelters?

“We’re just kicking the bucket down the road,” one homeless advocate said. And that’s surely true.

As I earlier remarked, the prevention and temporary housing solutions DHS plans to rely on won’t help families who can’t pay market-rate rents at the end of a year.

The casework improvements DHS promises are, as Berns admits, a longer-term solution. And I seriously doubt they’ll lead to jobs that pay enough to make housing affordable for more than a fraction of homeless adults.

A modest one-bedroom apartment, for example, would be affordable only for those earning more than three times the local minimum wage.

And what about people like Delores who can’t work and have only Social Security benefits, based on years of low-wage work, to cover all their daily living expenses?

Or the many hundreds of homeless individual men and women who’ll be out on the streets in April unless a future revenue forecast comes in at least $7 million more than the last — or Mayor Gray decides to make up for the shortfall?

Say the money materializes. That will only mean shelter on a night-to-night, first-come-first-served basis for men and women who want — and need — a secure, stable, reasonably decent place to live.

DHS does have some permanent supportive housing units now — enough for nearly 1,130 people, including children. I infer it’s planning to open more, though not until some time after October 2014.

But there will never be enough of these units to move everyone out of the shelters. And there won’t be vacancies unless people who’ve resolved the problems the supportive services are supposed to address can find another affordable place to live.

DHS may advocate behind closed doors, but there’s really nothing else it can do about this.

Our local government has allowed the stock of housing that’s affordable for low-income people to dwindle — arguably even facilitated its replacement with those high-end developments that meeting participants understandably resent.

It’s kept funding for the Local Rent Supplement Program — the District’s solution to the long-standing shortage of federal housing vouchers — below the level that would be needed to provide more residents with this sort of housing assistance.

True, the DC Council put funding for 250 or so new LRSP vouchers into the Fiscal Year 2013 budget. But they’ll all go to homeless families DHS is already housing, plus some who are — or will soon be — at DC General.

Good for them, but no help for the families that will fill in behind them. Or those who won’t because the doors will be closed to newly-homeless families when the winter season ends.

Delores went to the ICH meeting hoping someone would help her. She ultimately stormed out, shouting, “This is asinine.”

And, in a way, it was.

Because the District has failed to come to grips with the reasons there are so many homeless people here — and an ever-increasing number of homeless parents with children.

But both she and many other community members there wanted the ICH to deliver what only the Mayor and Council can.

As we were repeatedly reminded, the Winter Plan is supposed to help ensure that the District meets an important, but narrow legal obligation, i.e., to protect people from literally freezing to death.

Presumably the District will. What it won’t do, barring some radical priority changes, is meet the basic human need for a home.


DC Human Services Director Ducks Responsibility For Family Shelter Crisis

April 5, 2010

Last Wednesday, the end of the District’s hypothermia season, the DC Council’s Human Services Committee revisited the vexed matter of the 2009-10 Winter Plan for homeless services.

The hearing went on for about seven hours. Though officially billed as a review of how the winter plan had been implemented, most of it was devoted to testimony by parents housed or formerly housed at DC General–the only facility dedicated solely to winter-only space for homeless families.

Thanks to persistent investigative reporting by Jason Cherkis at Washington City Paper, the rest of us already knew a good bit about major problems there–mold, leaks, peeling paint (maybe lead-based), pest infestations, food that apparently sickened some children, workers who propositioned residents and/or sold drugs, caseworkers who failed to screen incoming residents for potential mental health problems or to help residents get the heck out of the place.

Still, it was acutely distressing to hear residents speak of their personal experiences.

  • A pregnant mother in a room too hot to stay in because the window wouldn’t open and whose four-year-old couldn’t play on the floor because of the rats, droppings and roaches.
  • Another mother who couldn’t get food for her wheat-intolerant son or access a kitchen so she could prepare food for him.
  • A disabled woman who had to walk down four flights of stairs because the elevators were broken.
  • A woman who told her caseworker she wanted to get out and was asked, “How are you going to do that?”

Many viewed the hearing as a proceeding against Families Forward, the nonprofit contractor for managing the family shelter portion of DC General. Supporters showed up in tee shirts reading “Support Families Forward.”

Staff praised the leadership, spoke convincingly of how they cared for the residents and had guidance about what to do in cases of untoward events, like the deaths of two newborns in the last 12 months. Some clients also spoke favorably about operations at DC General, especially the kindness and helpfulness of caseworkers.

All for naught. The Families Forward contract expires at the end of the month. Mayor Fenty has announced it won’t be renewed–a belated effort at damage control.

It’s hard to argue that Families Forward should retain responsibility for the day-to-day operations at DC General. But the problems there didn’t originate with the contractor. Nor will they be resolved by bringing in another.

When the Interagency Council for Homelessness issued its draft winter plan last summer, advocates questioned its proposal for family shelter space. So did I. The numbers just didn’t add up. Nor did they seem realistic in light of the rising tide of family homelessness and dismal projections for the economy.

Yet Clarence Carter, head of the Human Services Department, insisted that all would be well–that DHS had “identified all the needed resources to meet the full demand for homeless services during the hypothermia season, as outlined in the District’s 2009-2010 Winter Plan.

Some ambiguity there. But notwithstanding the $12 million cut for homeless services, both he and the final winter plan itself repeatedly committed to opening additional facilities if needs exceeded projections.

Winter set in. The temperatures dropped–also record-setting amounts of snow. In mid-February, 170 families were crammed into a facility with 124 contracted units. Nine units were added. The snow melted. And, in mid-March, there were 75 more families than units–some on cots lined up in activity rooms, some bedded down in hallways.

Yet apparently no one from DHS went out to look at the situation. Indeed, Carter testified that the prime contractor for homeless services, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, was responsible for monitoring homeless shelters, not DHS.

And who was monitoring to make sure the that Partnership had the resources for the task? Who was checking on whether the agencies responsible for the physical conditions at DC General were doing their job? Apparently no one.

The District is legally responsible for the safety and well-being of its most vulnerable residents–not the Partnership nor its subcontractors. It shouldn’t take a public relations disaster and the threat of a lawsuit to trigger action on problems that anyone could have identified some months ago.

Contract monitoring is a basic agency function. If DHS didn’t have the resources for it, then someone should have come forth and said so.


Should We Have a Right To Housing?

January 30, 2010

Blogger Shannon Moriarty has come up with five reasons to feel hopeful about homelessness in 2010. Number two on her list is that homelessness will be discussed as a human rights issue.

She’s looking forward to the UN Special Rappoteur’s final report on her investigation into the housing situation here in the U.S. She expects the findings to be critical, as indeed the preliminary findings were.

But that’s not what’s got her so hopeful. It’s rather that the very fact of the report will provide an opportunity to re-frame homelessness as a human rights violation.

Echoing an earlier posting, she asserts that framing homelessness as a human right will place “a moral obligation on lawmakers and members of the community to see that all individuals are given access to something [in this case, housing] as a basic necessity.” Moreover, she says, it will “remove housing from the pool of issues fighting for priority.”

Dream on.

As Shannon notes, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which the U.S. voted for in 1948, includes a sweeping right to “a standard of living adequate for … health and well-being,” including food, clothing housing, medical care, necessary social services and security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond an individual’s control.”

Have our lawmakers felt morally obliged to provide any of this to “everyone … and his family?” What about “the right of every family to a decent home” that FDR said we’d accepted, “so to speak,” as part of a second Bill of Rights?

Surely there’s a place for appeals to morality–or moral values like compassion. But to believe that arguing from a human rights foundation will elevate housing above other issues seems to me naive. Nor am I at all sure we should want it out of the pool of related issues.

Why, after all, are people homeless? For the most part, because they can’t afford housing. Major reasons include lack of good health insurance, unemployment or under-employment, low wages and gaping holes in our safety net. Add to these community development policies that deplete the stock of low-cost housing.

So it seems to me to make more sense to integrate housing into a broad anti-poverty strategy like what Half in Ten proposes. A strategy of this sort can bring together advocates and service providers who come at the issues from various angles.

And it’s likely to win more friends in high places than a rhetoric based on rights, which after all are either empty words or enforceable by litigation. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which also champions a human rights approach, seems to envision the latter.

Can you imagine any legislative body agreeing to a right that might allow anyone who didn’t have a decent home to sue the government?

Shannon acknowledges that it may be impractical for homelessness advocates to adopt a human rights paradigm. If by impractical she means forfeiting results, then I think she’s right on target. And why advocate if not to get results?


Another Homeless Person Dies In DC

December 22, 2009

Shortly after the District’s memorial vigil for homeless persons ended, a woman died when a fire broke out in a boarded-up row house. She’d apparently taken shelter there. And that’s all we know for sure. No name. Just “an adult female in her mid-30’s” or maybe her 40’s, depending on which news report you read.

Was she there because she’d been turned away from a shelter that was full or because she preferred to hole up in an unheated building rather than try to get admitted?

In two recent local surveys, homeless people said they hadn’t gone to a shelter the night before because shelters were over-crowded, unsanitary and/or unsafe. Was she one of those? Or was she one of the people who didn’t go to a shelter because of problems with transportation? We’ll probably never know.

What we do know is that there is something dreadfully wrong when anyone in our community doesn’t have a safe, secure place to stay. How many more needless deaths will we have to mourn before we end this situation once and for all?


National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day in Washington, DC

December 18, 2009

It’s almost December 21. The first day of winter. The longest night of the year. And for 19 years, National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day.

As in the past, local and state-level organizations across the country will sponsor events to commemorate members of their communities who died during the year because of our collective failure to end homeless.

Here in the District, the two nationwide sponsors–the National Coalition on Homelessness and the National Health Care for the Homeless Council–have joined with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and other partners to organize a candlelight vigil.

This is more than your usual memorial event. Three and a half months into the fiscal year, the D.C. government still hasn’t found the funds–or the political will–to ensure funding for homeless services after March 31.

Nor has it come to grips with the rising tide of family homelessness. As of December 6, there were 275 homeless families on the waiting list for shelter. There would have been more than 400 had an unusually large number not found friends or relatives to double up with for awhile. Still homeless, but off the list of families awaiting help.

Looking beyond the District, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that communities need more federal funding for the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Program that was created by the economic recovery act. This because the projected need was based on an expectation that the unemployment rate would peak, long about now, at 9.2%.

Yet the DC Council is poised to give away an estimated $700,000 a year in property tax revenues to a large corporation that plans to move downtown. Congress has punted jobs legislation–a potential vehicle for the HPRP funding and surely a way to prevent homelessness–into the new year.

The vigil is a way to demonstrate our concern–and our support for more enlightened priorities. You can join just by showing up at 6:00 p.m. near the bell outside the front of Union Station.


Thoughts On Home and Homelessness

November 24, 2009

Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a long time know that my husband and I became homeless, in a manner of speaking, in mid-February. I say “in a manner of speaking” because we weren’t evicted but displaced by a fire. So, thanks to insurance, we’ve had a place to stay.

After countless complications, permits and inspections, we’re finally going home. Which has got me thinking again about what it means to not have a home–no place to live that you feel is your own, a center you can come back to for as long as you want.

The definition here captures what I’ve learned first-hand. Being homeless means having no rock-bottom sense of safety and stability. And this is a basic human need.

A new brief by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reminds us of the many lasting effects homelessness has on children. It leads off with the profound destabilizing experience of becoming homeless–the impact of “loss of community, routines, possessions, privacy, and security.”

The report goes on to detail the additional trauma children and their parents can suffer due to shelter living, the stresses of needing to reestablish a home and problems that could have precipitated their homelessness, e.g., acute poverty, parental illness.

Many studies indicate that these have serious, lifelong impacts on children. But another recent report suggests that residential instability itself plays a role, whether children spend time in a shelter or just moving from one temporary housing situation to another. The effects are greatest on very young children.

I wonder whether this doesn’t have something to do with the fact that frequent moves are more destabilizing for them. A young child, after all, doesn’t really understand what’s happening or have an adult grasp of the temporary or the future. It’s just one sudden loss after another. Consider too that the losses can include caregivers and parental attention–even loss of parents themselves.

All of which makes me doubly aware of how fortunate I’ve been–and how skewed our national priorities are when we’ve got a $3 trillion budget and well over 500,000 homeless families.