By Brandon Caudill and Mary Otto
In the days before the city council vote on the District’s budget for fiscal year 2013, advocates for the poor and homeless mobilized to make their voices heard.
Escorted by police, armed with signs, a bullhorn and plenty of passion, dozens of them trekked for over a mile along E Street on May 10, carrying the message that lives depended upon the affordable housing, welfare and shelter programs slated for cuts under the budget proposed by Mayor Vincent Gray.
“People will die,” warned one of the marchers Claudette Bethea.
When they reached the John A. Wilson Building, they were joined by additional advocates. Together, they thronged the halls outside city council offices, confronted council members and demanded the restoration of funds for anti-poverty initiatives.
“We are working as hard as we can,” council chair Kwame Brown assured them
“It’s going to be a little tougher this year, but we’re going to try to find the money again.”
The advocates kept up the pressure.
On May 15, as Brown and other members of the council gathered to vote on the Budget Request Act of Fiscal Year 2013, they faced a hearing room crowded with men and women wearing bright yellow “Housing for All” t-shirts, and carrying pink “Support Our Safety Net” signs.
When the voting was done, the advocates had reason to celebrate.
The council had restored $18 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, most of the money cut by the mayor. The fund has been credited with creating over 7,000 units of affordable housing over the past decade, yet not nearly enough to make up for the loss of an estimated 20,000 low-cost units to re-development and gentrification, advocates argued. Steering money into the Housing Production Trust Fund was essential to keeping the city livable, they claimed.
And council members ultimately agreed, redirecting money from the sale of city-owned property to help sustain the fund for another year.
The council also added $4 million to the city’s Local Rent Supplement Program. The money would help 250 families transition out of homeless shelters and into affordable apartments, according to council member Michael A Brown.
Yet in the days leading up to the council’s final June 5 vote on the Fiscal Year 2013 Budget Support Act, battles over two key pieces of social spending remain.
Advocates have pledged to continue to fight for $7 million they say is needed to make up for the loss of federal funding used to run city homeless programs.
Without the money, city officials have warned that emergency shelters for men and women might be shuttered during the warmer months of the year.
“If homeless services funding is not restored, it will be catastrophic,” homeless advocate Eric Sheptock warned. “There will be hundreds more homeless people in the streets.”
City council member Jim Graham, who chairs the council’s human services committee, has made similar predictions. He said he has had “very strong assurances” the money will ultimately be found.
However, the council member said he continues to worry about cuts to the city’s welfare program.
Graham has so far failed to find the votes he needs to amend the city’s current policy of sanctioning families who have remained on the city’s welfare rolls beyond a 60-month time limit.
Additional benefit cuts are scheduled to go into place this fall, saving the city $5.65 million. But Graham predicts that in the long term, the estimated 11,000 children living in the 7,000 families impacted by the sanctions will bear the burden of the cuts.
Graham said he will continue to press for legislation to restore and extend Temporary Assistance for Needy Family benefits to allow time for a new city initiative to help vulnerable families move from welfare to work.
Like the advocates who stormed city hall, Graham is now looking ahead to June 5.
“I’m going to persist if nothing else,” Graham said. “I’m going to raise it at the next meeting.”