By Lanie Rivera
The red doors of the historic Church of the Epiphany on G Street NW open wide, welcoming people of many faiths and walks of life.
Workers from nearby offices flock to lunchtime concerts in the sanctuary. Members of a local Muslim society meet on weekdays at Epiphany to pray. And on Sundays, Episcopal services draw worshippers from throughout the area as they have since before the Civil War.
The old church near Metro Center has also found some innovative ways to minister to its poor and homeless neighbors in downtown Washington. The congregation provides office space in its building for several nonprofit organizations that serve the homeless, including Street Sense.
And every Sunday morning at 7 am a vibrant ministry known as Gospel Art! attracts homeless and formerly homeless men and women with a unique blend of offerings: a hot breakfast, Bible study, worship and a celebration of creativity.
Participants say they have found friendship and healing through Gospel Art!
“Everyone’s got their own way of expressing themselves,” said David Godecki, who has been coming on Sunday mornings for six years.
The sessions provide a welcome break from life at Adams Shelter and on the streets, he says.
“I come here for companionship [and] community,” Godecki said. “It’s a safe place.”
Others say they find peace working with the art supplies, including paint, pencils and clay.
A military veteran named Wayne says he has attended the Gospel Art program for the past six months. Creating art has helped ease the burdens of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), he says.
“It’s a therapeutic environment,” he says.
Gospel Art! sells cards with images of the artists’ artwork and some artists donate their artwork to the church to be sold; all profits go to supporting the Sunday morning breakfasts, which usually feed 150-200 people. (for more information see www.epiphanygospelart.weebly.com.
“It’s the homeless feeding the homeless,” says Gospel Art! co-facilitator Marge McNaughton with pride. “The artists don’t keep any of the money.”
McNaughton, an Epiphany parishoner and retired associate dean at the Virginia Theological Seminary came up with the idea for the program in a conversation with another parishoner, artist and theological student Billie Abrahamson. Then McNaughton, Abrahamson and a third colleague, Lisa Kimball a professor at Virginia Theological Seminary got busy and applied for grants. Funding from the Evangelical Education Society of the Episcopal Church, helped get the program started in 2006. Now Gospel Art! is supported by Epiphany and proceeds from the sale of artwork.
These days, Kimball serves as co-facilitator of the program with McNaughton. But the whole thing has evolved into a community effort, with participants also deeply involved.
“Everyone takes responsibility for the program,” McNaughton says, “It’s not like the leaders come in and take over everything. It’s a team effort. When we make decisions … it’s a part of the gospel artists’ mission that we figure things out together.”
By Mary Otto
On May 7, as Street Sense went to press, city officials and homeless advocates continued to weigh the future of three significant and controversial amendments to the city law that governs the District’s homeless services system.
The amendments proposed by District Mayor Vincent Gray and contained in the city’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget Support Act would help ease shelter crowding and move homeless individuals and families toward self-sufficiency, city human services officials say.
But the potential changes to the city’s Homeless Services Reform Act have raised concerns among homeless advocates, who say that because of their possible impact upon vulnerable individuals and families, more time is needed to consider them.
Under the amendments:
Families refusing to accept two offers of rapid-rehousing assistance could be terminated from shelter or supportive housing programs; and
Shelter placements for families would be offered on a “provisional” basis only to those with no alternative, such as relatives or friends. Parents would work with city human services staff to find alternatives to a long term stay in a hotel or in the city’s overwhelmed family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital.
“We’ve got 600 kids still over at DC General and hundreds more at hotels,” said DC Department of Human Services (DHS) Director David Berns. “That is no way to grow up.”
If passed, the amendments would save $5.3 million that DHS could divert to other homeless programs, according to department documents. If the amendments do not pass, however, DHS warned it would have no choice but to close three emergency shelters – New York Avenue mens’ shelter and John Young and Nativity women’s shelters – during all but the coldest months of the year.
Berns acknowledged the provisions could be seen as “somewhat controversial.” But he defended them as making good sense and good use of limited resources.
Many homeless families residing in shelters are also beneficiaries of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF. Under the mandatory escrow amendment they would be required to put 30 percent of their income into savings for the day when they leave the shelter system so “one flat tire or one broken window” does not begin a downward spiral back into homelessness, Berns said.
As for the requirement that families accept offers of rapid-rehousing or face the loss of shelter, Berns said that under the current system, “we have a terrible time getting people to accept” short-term rental assistance under the city’s rapid rehousing program. They are hoping instead for a permanent housing subsidy, Berns said. Seeking to allay fears, he noted that more than 90 percent of District families served by rapid-rehousing have not returned to the homeless system.
Berns also defended the provisional placement approach to offering shelter. Housing a family at DC General costs the city $50,000 a year, he said. At that rate, we can put three or four in their own apartments.”
But homeless advocates who spoke out at a May 3 city council hearing on the Budget Support Act expressed deep worries about the changes.
Marta Beresin, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, praised goals such as moving families out of shelter and into housing.
But she said the amendments, as currently drafted, run afoul of laws protecting the homeless and disabled because they remove the right of clients to appeal the appropriateness of rapid rehousing placements, allow the city to terminate family shelter placements on short notice and legalize termination from housing due to institutionalization or incarceration.
She asked the city council to withdraw the amendments from the Budget Support Act “due to serious concerns about the lack of community input and the high risk of serious and unintended consequences to both providers and participants in shelter and supportive housing programs.”
Another witness, Kate Coventry, a policy analyst at the DC Fiscal Policy, joined Beresin in commending the goal “to move to a homeless services system that serves families with children year round and that minimizes the the length of stay in emergency shelter.”
But she also agreed with Beresin that the amendments should be removed from the Budget Support Act.
“The changes deserve careful consideration and stakeholder input through the normal legislative process,” Coventry said.
City Council member Jim Graham, chair of the council’s human services committee also expressed concerns about the potential impact of the changes and the need for more time to consider them.
As this newspaper was being prepared for press Graham said he was asking to have the amendments removed from the Budget Support Act. “I’m quite confident the (human services) committee will take them out. That would be our recommendation,” he said. “Where they go from there: that will be up to the majority of the (city) council.”
Late in the fourth quarter of the Washington Wizards’ April 7 matchup against the Boston Celtics, shooting forward Martell Webster fielded a pass, pulled up from just beyond the 3-point line, and fired a shot toward the basket. The high-arcing ball dropped effortlessly through the hoop, cutting the Celtic lead to 98-88 with just under four minutes to play.
Within the context of the game, the shot was obsolete. Ten points was as close as the Wizards would get, eventually falling 107-96.
But Webster’s shot was far from meaningless — with the flick of his right wrist he had provided support and funding to a segment of the District’s homeless children.
Thanks to Community 3’s, a community service initiative that rewards donations for every 3-pointer knocked down by the Wizards, the outside shooting resurgence Webster has helped lead in D.C. is having a very direct effect on local homeless families.
Through the initiative, every 3-point shot made by the Wizards this season, $100 dollars is donated to first-year beneficiary Bright Beginnings, a child development center for homeless infants, toddlers and preschoolers and their families in the D.C. area.
The charitable program is the result of a partnership between the Wizards and the not-for-profit health insurer CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. Now in its eighth season, the program has resulted in a total of $240,000 in donations to community services since 2005.
This year, donations will go towards improving the chances of young children whose homelessness puts them at increased risks of falling behind in school.
“Research shows that homeless children are more likely to have some type of developmental delay,” said Latoyia Allen, Development Manager at Bright Beginnings. “They go to kindergarten behind their peers and sometimes never catch up.”
Bright Beginnings combats these risks through early intervention centered on an individually tailored, child directed curriculum Allen said has proven effective with kids that come from “chaotic environments.” All of the roughly 150 children the program serves year-round are officially documented as homeless, and mainly come from transitional housing and shelters in Wards 7 and 8.
Thanks to the Wizards’ improved 3-point shooting, Bright Beginnings is on pace to receive substantially more in donations than previous beneficiaries. Last year the team hit 344 shots from beyond the 3-point arc, resulting in $34,400 worth of donations. This season they have already downed 514.
While the team’s attempts from downtown have not significantly increased between the two years (ranked 20th in the league both seasons), their efficiency has improved dramatically, going from 28th in the league in 3-point shooting percentage in the 2011-12 season to 11th in 2012-13.
Webster has been a major catalyst for the improvement. He is currently shooting 42 percent from 3-point land, good for 11th among NBA sharpshooters. He has been particularly effective at home, pouring in 2.7 threes per game in the Verizon Center.
With nine games remaining in the season at the time of this article’s writing, the Wizards’ average of 5.2 made threes per game puts them on pace to make a $21,000 increase to this year’s Community 3’s recipient.
Unfortunately, the Wizards’ outside shooting efficiency hasn’t been the only percentage increasing in the District. While preliminary results of the District 2013 homeless count reflects a slight decline in family homelessness, the number of homeless persons in families rose steadily from 2008 to 2012.
“Family homelessness is something that is growing and continues to grow, especially in D.C.” Allen said. “There are a lot of factors coming together that makes it difficult for our homeless families to survive.“
While kids are of particular interest, Bright Beginnings’s services are directed toward combating family homelessness as a whole.
“We don’t like to say that we’re just childcare. We provide family care,” said Allen, who explained the center provides services to children and parents alike in an attempt to create an all-encompassing family development program. “We try to be very comprehensive and holistic in our approach.”
With just over half of their funding coming from private sources, corporate donations like those provided by CareFirst through Community 3’s are critical in Bright Beginnings’s ability to combat these rising rates. However, while Allen says the financial support is important, it is the visibility that joining Community 3’s brings that is of particular importance.
“Our partnership [with the Wizards] is putting us in front of people that may have never heard of us or didn’t know there was even a need for us,” she said.
Jeffery McNeil and Kate Sheppard
Vendor and Volunteer
Seven candidates are on the ballot for an April 23 special election to fill an at-large seat on the city council. What are their positions on poverty and homelessness? Jeffery McNeil and Kate Sheppard from the Street Sense Writers Group decided to find out.They developed a set of questions and heard from six of the seven candidates: Democrats Anita Bonds, Matthew Frumin, Elissa Silverman, and Patrick Zuckerberg; Statehood Green Party contender Perry Redd and Republican Patrick Mara. Only Democrat Michael A. Brown did not respond to their requests for answers to the questions.
As a council member, what would you to address the issue of homelessness in DC, particularly the growing number of homeless families?
Anita Bonds: We should increase the number of permanent supportive housing (units) available for the homeless and streamline the process of getting the homeless from the streets into the available housing. The permanent supportive housing application process should be more efficient and faster. I co-sponsored the bill 20-150 to do just that.
Matthew Frumin: We need to find a way to serve homeless families. The DC General situation is unacceptable, which is obvious to anyone. We can do better in meeting the needs of people who are homeless. But then we also really need to commit to serving those people in as thorough a way as possible, to bring them out of homelessness and give them a path to a more stable life. In a time of a $417 million surplus and in a time of strengthening economy and strengthening fiscal picture, we have the ability and the obligation to do that.
Patrick Mara: Part of my answer goes back to job-training and economic development. But here are some other issues that need to be taken into consideration. First, when women are battered and abused, often along with their children as well, they often become victims of homelessness, too. The District must always be available to support, intervene, temporarily house and protect victims of domestic abuse.
Second, many homeless people struggle with mental health issues. This is a challenge that has vexed society for ages. Again, we need to support non-profit organizations who have proven their ability to do good work in assisting people with mental-health issues. Third, there are an increasing number of (formerly incarcerated) returning-citizens at risk of homelessness due to the challenges they face finding jobs. The District government needs to put its money where its mouth is. We are not hiring enough local residents. We also need to prepare returning-citizens for work while they are incarcerated.
Perry Redd: Investing in homeless services means not only people who are on the streets as we see them, but people who have to couch surf. Homeless services need to be extended to people who are in those precarious living arrangements. Those are homeles people we don’t count, folks who have an address but are truly homeless. I’m the first candidate in the race to call for a living wage ordinance in the city. I’m opposed to the Walmarts that are coming into the city. Some residents are blinded by the history of Walmart, and belief that jobs are a good thing. But Walmart treats its employees terribly. It’s sort of like slavery … That’s unacceptable.
Elissa Silverman: I think we need to have adequate resources, number one, to house families. I think that putting people at DC General is just wrong in so many ways. From an economic point of view, it’s expensive. From a human point of view, it’s a terrible place to live. From an investment point of view, it’s a bad investment because you have kids who don’t have a place to study, aren’t getting a good night’s sleep, and therefore when they’re showing up at school the next day, they’re not going to be productive learners. We need to put families into permanent supportive housing, into apartments, so they can stabilize their lives. We need to make sure those families have access to the resources they need. If they’re not on TANF but are eligible, they should get on TANF. The moms and dads should be assessed so we know why they’re in those circumstances, why they’re not working perhaps or why they lost their housing and how we can get them back into a more stable environment and stable conditions.
Paul Zukerberg: We need to have a cabinet level position of Director of Homeless Services. Each case of homelessness needs the attention of a wrap-around social services specialist. Money needs to be invested. If there are no affordable units, the causes of homelessness are beside the point. Right now we need affordable housing units and we need to add them quickly using part of the surplus.
The issue of cutting Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) by 25 percent for those who have been on the program for more than five years has been hotly debated in the Council. Do you support this TANF reduction? How would you change the TANF program as a council member? What programs or policy changes do you support that you believe would help move current recipients of public assistance who can work into jobs?
Anita Bonds: We should do everything we can to incentivize people to get off TANF, although recognize that a small percentage of families and individuals may not have the ability to find work. I do agree with the policy, and I think individuals should come before the government and provide a plan to get off TANF and we should move these people into job assistance programs when appropriate. We need to foster a better relationship between job training programs and community colleges. We should support community colleges; provide assistance to students who want to attend them and bridge the gaps among these training programs and the workforce. This will be a relative small cost with great economic benefits, in the form of increased tax revenue.
Matthew Frumin: I think we need to work to make sure that people are prepared to get off of TANF, and until we’ve sorted out and provided the kind of engagement we need with TANF recipients, we have to be very careful about taking people off of TANF without an alternative for them to get by. I am for having TANF be temporary, but I think we need to commit to helping people to have the skills and access to jobs, to address where it can’t be temporary, to follow through on the plans that have been put in place to improve TANF, and to make sure that we’re providing all the opportunities necessary. I think that we need to focus on creating jobs for our unemployed. There is high unemployment in parts of the city. We need to press for increased job training programs that will give them the skills necessary to fill the various jobs, and we need to approach our education system as a berth to workforce and actual life-long-learning system.
Patrick Mara: In 2010, Mayor Fenty and the D.C. Council worked together to pass legislation that would bring the District into compliance with federal welfare reform laws dating back to 1996. The District planned to gradually reduce benefits for recipients who have been receiving TANF for longer than five years. Shortly after Mayor Gray took office, the District reduced TANF benefits by about 20 percent. Mayors Gray and Fenty as well as the Council were right to pass TANF reform laws; I support them, too. We need to make sure that TANF recipients are aware that the benefits they are receiving are not permanent. 3,300 District residents have moved from welfare to work, but we need to increase that number dramatically. As a councilmember I will be dedicated to bringing more jobs to the District. We need to cut through the red tape and bureaucratic barriers that make the District unattractive to employers.
Perry Redd: I’m for an increase in TANF benefits, and the reason being that in order to move someone out of poverty, you cannot further impoverish them. Simply put, we have a great wealth disparity in this city. My role on council is to speak to those issues and to speak for those people who are the most vulnerable, the most disenfranchised in the city. Raising TANF monthly benefits is important to sustaining life in this city. We live in the fourth most expensive city in the country, and so to reduce TANF benefits is criminal. What I would do to change it is to strengthen our job training programs. I have a job training structure in my proposal for returning citizens, those whohave been previously convicted. I call it RECAP – Returning Citizens Assimilation Program. We train specifically for jobs that employers tell us are open. That same structure would be used in other areas, like TANF recipients.
Elissa Silverman: I don’t support cutting people off right now because I don’t believe the program has done a good job in assessing families and assessing moms and dads in their barriers to employment. Right now, the Department of Human Services is implementing a new assessment process, and I think until all the folks who are on TANF are properly assessed, we shouldn’t take punitive measures. Obviously we want to encourage those who can work to work, but we need to be realistic that the TANF program hasn’t had a good jobs component. It’s improving, and we need to give it time. Part of the assessment process is to determine who is employable and can get into jobs quickly, and who needs some barriers to be removed. I think that, for example, Mayor Gray’s “One City, One Hire” is a good program to help match people who have the skills to work with employers. But there also might be other barriers. Obviously if you’re on TANF, you have kids, so we need to make sure that things like childcare are funded, that people have good access to transportation.
Paul Zukerberg: I don’t support the TANF reduction because the effects will be felt most sharply by children, who are already, even with TANF, living below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent less support means kids will go hungry, and I would never support any policy that harms kids. Barriers to employment need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. What has worked to date in getting people off public assistance? Can we multiply what has worked to include more people? What are the barriers facing those still on public assistance? Is it child care? Is it literacy? Is it homelessness? We have made progress, but much more needs to be done.
What would you do to improve access to affordable housing in DC?
Anita Bonds: Establish a permanent oversight committee to deal with the issue of affordable housing and allow experts to determine the best method to address the issue. There are a few solutions floating and we should study these ideas closely before enacting, but I would consider extending rent control policies more aggressively. We should also do targeted outreach to categories of the workforce who do critical city work but don’t make enough money to afford living in the city.
Matthew Frumin: One is strengthening the Housing Production Trust Fund. Another thing we can do is make it a line item in the budget. I’ve also proposed an approach to making housing in the city more accessible to teachers, firefighters, and police as a pilot program, to encourage more people to live in the city and make housing more affordable to them. If that works, maybe it can be broadened to others as well.
Patrick Mara: Money meant to support the Housing Production Trust Fund must protected. We cannot build affordable housing when politicians steer the money to other programs. We must also preserve and strengthen rent-control laws. Additionally, no developers should get a tax break if they aren’t setting aside units for low- and middle-income families.
Perry Redd: I think all of us as candidates say the same thing, in terms of the Housing Production Trust Fund. What we don’t agree on is the numbers. Mayor Gray proposed $100 million for affordable housing, but he didn’t say it would come from the surplus. I think that’s weak-kneed. I think the current council being silent on it is sorry at best, and so I would propose at least, of the $417 million surplus, at least $150 million into affordable housing. If I was elected to council I would shore up and protect, by legislation, the Housing Production Trust Fund. I would raise the ceiling on it for homeless services, in particular the shelter that’s on the brink of being closed at 2nd and D streets. The lease there, at the Mitch Snyder Shelter, expires in 2016 and nothing has been said about that. I would invest in that shelter – everything from retrofitting, upgrading, creating single units, family units, units for single mothers. I would move families out of DC General. I find that criminal as well.
Elissa Silverman: I think one way is to build more. We obviously need more supply. I would put more money into the Housing Production Trust Fund so that we can produce more affordable housing, so that we can maintain the affordable housing we have, and also provide rental assistance to renters who need it. When we’re doing development deals with developers who are building these nice condos, we also need to make sure that our inclusionary zoning law is being enforced. And if we need to improve it or tweak it, we should do that.
1. Help people stay in the homes they already have, by increasing the homestead tax deduction and denying rate increases for PEPCO, Washington Gas, Verizon and the rest.
2. Require developers to pay into the Affordable Housing Trust when they want exemptions from building restrictions.
3. Make sure that the money we are spending on affordable housing goes to the housing, and not to politically connected insiders with sweetheart contracts.
The District recently announced a $417 million budget surplus. How do you think the city should use that money?
Anita Bonds: I think the money should go directly back to the community with a particular emphasis on seniors. We should continue to provide tax incentives to seniors and endorse policies so that seniors can stay in their homes and live comfortably. Secondly our city’s schools will need more money. More children our going into our public schools and we will need to pay for more teachers and fund more programs to make sure our children get a proper education. We also have to fund the efforts to make sure housing in the city is affordable. We are still looking at the plans to make this happen but the Trust Fund for Affordable Housing should be funded.
Matthew Frumin: I think half of that money should go into the “rainy day fund.” The current call is that all of it go into the “rainy day fund.” That money is one-time spending. It’s not programmatic spending, you can’t commit it for programs, but you can make capital and one-time investments. I think we should make investments in affordable housing and the Housing Production Trust Fund. I think we should be making investments in things like parks, and libraries, and focusing on serving the homeless in this critical period.
Patrick Mara: My opponents have talked a lot about the $417 surplus. Here is the real talk: by law, the $417 surplus must be put into savings. That is the law. Anyone who tells you how it can be spent does not know what they are talking about. With regard to future surpluses, we need to do a better job projecting revenue. Surpluses aren’t a government slush fund. Surpluses are taxes and fees that were taken from residents and local businesses. When we “over tax,” we take money out of the economy that helps to create jobs. We also lose our competitive edge to Virginia, where many employers prefer to set up shop to avoid the high taxes and fees imposed on them by District government. We also burden middle-income families in the District with tax bills, fees, parking ticket fines and other penalties that are higher than they need to be.
Perry Redd: I’m never for outright spending an entire surplus. I do support Mayor Gray’s effort to shore up the general fund, and even by law we have to do it. But I am even more in favor, and if I were on council I would propose, spending $217 million of it on programs that support affordable housing, our homeless programs, programs that support seniors like home foreclosure tax relief, programs that support returning citizens—which 10 percent of Washington’s population are previously convicted people. The supportive services there are in dire need. I would invest in our city residents who are the most vulnerable, those who are being driven out of the city through gentrification, through economic development.
Elissa Silverman: Right now the law says that the money has to go into our savings account. I think the council should change that. I think it’s important to save for a rainy day, but I think it’s also important to make investments for the future. I think a great one-time use is putting half of the money into the Housing Production Trust Fund, [for] both new housing and also to maintain affordable housing through maintenance and repairs, as well as giving rental housing vouchers to residents. I also think it should go for capital needs—like if MPD needed new cars, or if the fire department needed to replace fire engines.
Paul Zukerberg: The D.C. council must amend the law to allow a portion of these funds to go to the neediest. While the most privileged have prospered, the neediest have grown more desperate. I know that some of this money must go into the “rainy day fund.” But for some, it’s already raining, and they need help now.
In the days leading up to the April 23 special election for an at-large seat on the DC City Council, candidates have been asked to weigh in on everything from bike lanes to marijuana legalization. But at one recent campaign event, poverty issues took center stage.
At a March 13 forum hosted by SOME, an interfaith nonprofit that provides food, housing, medical care and clothing to some of the city’s poorest residents, candidates explained their positions on challenging issues such as homelessness, joblessness, and the shortage of affordable housing.
Statehood Green Party candidate and army veteran Perry Redd explained that he had experienced homelessness himself after leaving the military.
He contended the city has not done enough to address family homelessness, which has risen steeply since the recession. The number of homeless families in DC increased by 46 percent between 2008 and 2011, and an additional 19 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to the results of annual homeless counts.
“Our city has a blind eye when it comes to it,” said Redd, one of seven contenders on the ballot to fill a seat vacated when member Phil Mendelson became council chair.
Former Democratic councilmember Michael A. Brown, who was voted out of office last November and is running to regain a seat on the council, said that attention needs to be brought to the dilapidated conditions of some of the city’s shelters.
“If you go into a shelter like D.C. General, you can get first hand what goes on and what conditions are like,” Brown said at the forum, sponsored by SOME, together with the senior advocacy group AARP and the Coalition for Housing and Homeless Organizations or COHHO.
Fellow Democrat Matthew Frumin, an attorney and advisory neighborhood commissioner, agreed.
“We have to do better at addressing the shortcomings in our shelters,” Frumin said.
Statements made about homelessness led to the topic of the city’s scarcity of affordable housing. Frumin proposed a $500 monthly voucher for teachers, policemen, firemen and other city employees to be put towards rent or mortgage.
“We need to increase the stock of affordable housing,” he said. “We have to make this city a place where people who work here can live here too.”
Candidates also stressed the importance of the city’s Affordable Housing Production Trust Fund, which is credited with building or renovating nearly 7,000 units over the past 12 years. Funding for the program, which comes from deed recordation and real estate transfer taxes, faltered during the recession years. Redd said the city should be doing more to shore up the fund and build more housing for low and moderate income residents.
“We have an issue here that we have a $417 million dollar surplus,” said Redd. “We need to make affordable housing a priority issue”
Attorney Paul Zuckerberg (D) added that the city needs to be more meticulous in where the fund’s money is actually going.
“I want to see housing money going towards real housing units,” he said. “We need to make sure it’s going to housing and not the pockets of lobbyists and special interest groups.”
Former journalist Elissa Silverman, also a Democrat and a budget analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, said she had been advocating to increase city spending for affordable housing.
“I can show you a track record of fighting for things at the Wilson building,” she said. “I was down there fighting for dollars when the housing trust fund was cut.”
Zuckerberg also spoke about the residents who are struggling to stay in homes that they have lived in for years, proposing homestead exemptions and tax reductions for longtime residents. He also supported the implementation of a living wage.
“That’s how the economy will get a boost, people will have income to spend,” he said. “Minimum wage doesn’t cut it if you are trying to live in DC.”
Unemployment also dominated the conversation, with most of the candidates agreeing that the jobless rate goes hand in hand with poverty in the city.
“The key component to preventing homelessness is making sure folks have jobs,” said Silverman. “We need to look at who is employable and who is not.”
Silverman, who said her work at the fiscal policy institute has given her insights into the challenges of workforce development, also spoke in support of putting money into job training programs and adult literacy programs.
Zuckerberg spoke out about the city’s graduation and truancy problem, stating that training needs to begin in high school.
“I’m all for adult literacy but lets not graduate people in 12th grade who can’t go out and get a job,” he said. “We are not giving them marketable skills.”
In addition to providing job training for residents so that they can become employable, Redd said his platform also includes a placement component on the back end to help place people in jobs once they gain the needed skills.
Candidates also advocated for stronger enforcement of the city’s First Source Employment Agreement Act, a law passed in 1984 that requires employers that receive contract money from the District to give priority consideration to DC residents for jobs.
“We need to enforce DC first to meet hiring goals,” Zuckerberg said. “There’s no contract penalty.”
As former chairman of the Housing and Workforce Development Committee, Brown amended the law at the end of 2011, requiring that 51 percent of new hires be District residents.
“We have 50 non-compliance letters out for people that aren’t doing right by DC residents,” he said. “We rewrote the bill to make sure if you don’t hire DC residents you will lose money.”
The city’s 2011 decision to impose a 60-month lifetime limit on welfare benefits was also examined.
“If we cut people off, kids will be on the street starving,” said Zuckerberg. “Get rid of deadline; work it down day by day, person by person, look at the families and see what’s possible”
Silverman spoke of the importance of a city initiative geared toward assessing long term beneficiaries of the welfare program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in order to help them address the problems underlying their poverty.
“We need to properly assess families on the program and understand their barriers to work,” she said. “The city hasn’t been good partners to people on TANF.”
Redd proposed giving enhanced exemptions to corporations that hire TANF employees, as well as enrolling them at the University of the District of Columbia at no cost.
“Education is the key to empowerment,” he said. “We need to raise TANF benefits; it’s impossible to live in poverty when you’re trying to get out.”
By Jeff Gray
In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke of factory towns, where the jobs have disappeared, and communities where poverty is so entrenched work seems like a distant dream.
And he spoke about people who are working hard, and still not earning enough to live.
“Today a full-time worker making the minimum wage earns $14,500 a year. Even with the tax relief we put in place, a family with two kids that earns the minimum wage still lives below the poverty line,” the president said.
“Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9.00 an hour.”
Obama asked Congress to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 in stages by the end of 2015 and automatically adjust for inflation thereafter. The plan would help 15 million workers, according to the White House.
“It could mean the difference between groceries or the food bank; rent or eviction; scraping by or finally getting ahead,” said the president.
But if you ask T. Sanders, a formerly homeless woman working a low-wage job in Montgomery County, Md., struggling workers like herself will need a bigger raise to make ends meet. She contends that the president’s proposed $1.75 increase would do little to change the condition of the homeless and working poor in the D.C. region.
“I think we need to be clear on what its really going to do… Will it provide some extra dollars? Yes. Will it allow someone to move into a new place? No. Its not enough money to make that kind of change.”
Sanders, whose job as a residential counselor at the Jubilee Association provides her with an apartment, said she would not be able to afford her own housing on her $10.50 per hour wage, which is already $1.50 above the proposed increase.
“My wage still isn’t a living wage,” said Sanders, who despite holding a master’s degree from the University of Baltimore spent over a year unemployed and living out of shelters and a friend’s car. “If I hadn’t got an apartment with the job I would still be homeless.”
In the District, where the D.C. Minimum Wage Act Revision of 1992 sets the wage floor one dollar higher than the federal rate, the national increase would mean a jump from $8.25 to $10.
For many of District residents unable to afford their own housing, however, the increase is not enough.
“That $10, its nothing,” said Andre Colter, who has been chronically homeless in D.C. since high school and has worked a long list of low wage jobs. “You can’t live comfortably off that.”
Colter’s most recent employment came over a three-month period last summer, when he was contracted through a temp agency to do house cleaning and maintenance for George Washington University. During that span, he made an hourly rate of $9.25 working 40 hours a week plus optional overtime.
“I was already a dollar over the minimum, and that still wasn’t enough,” Colter said, contending that even had he sustained the work indefinitely he would never have been able to afford housing.
Colter was paid every two weeks, with checks generally amounting to around $700 for a total of roughly $1,400 per month after taxes. Subtracting a monthly food expenditure of $400 and a modest entertainment budget, Colter says he was left with about $900 per month, excluding any emergency costs.
“That’s not enough to rent anything in D.C.,” he said. “Maybe a closet or a storage shed.”
According to an annual report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the fair market value of a one-bedroom apartment in the District is $1,191 per month for the fiscal year of 2013.
In its Out of Reach 2013 report, the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimated that an individual living in D.C. must earn $56,472 to afford the market rate of a two-bedroom apartment. That equates to $27.15 per hour, nearly three times the proposed minimum wage rate.
A $1.75 raise would provide a 40-hour a week laborer with a yearly increase of only $3,640.
“We need something that’s compatible with the cost of living in this jurisdiction,” said Colter. “We need to get out of the mentality of saying there’s a minimum wage and start saying there’s a living wage.”
The District does have a living wage rate, set at $12.50, but applies only to employees of businesses receiving government contracts or assistance of $100,000 or more.
Though they insist the increase will do little for those trying to afford housing, both Sanders and Colton do agree that the plan is a step in the right direction.
“Every little bit helps,” said Sanders, who believes the additional $280 a full-time minimum wage laborer would see per month make a difference in paying a light bill or avoiding reliance on a food bank. “We’re talking about people that could be at the bottom of the working class. An increase of even a small amount may help those families.”
Colter believes the benefit would be more emotional than financial, with the increase serving to boost the morale of the working poor.
“It’s a start. It would give us hope that things are getting a little better.”
With economists divided over the effect of an increase on a struggling economy and Republicans concerned over potential harm to small business, it is unclear whether the proposal will be able to make it through Congress. Regardless of the fed’s decision, however, some have suggested that the District move forward on its own initiative.
When questioned by members of the press in February about the District increasing the minimum wage without federal prompting, Mayor Vincent Gray left the possibility open.
“We might,” Gray said. “We’ll consider that.”
Whether the District’s wage floor is raised or not, Colter and Sanders stress that for the homeless community, a minimum wage adjustment is ultimately a superficial fix, and that more expansive governmental initiatives are necessary to promote real change.
Colter contends that increasing the amount of affordable housing is a much more prominent issue.
“We have become a nation comfortable with the term ‘affordable housing,’ not realizing who it’s actually affordable to. We’ve phased out low income housing,” he said.
As an educator, Sanders believes the answer lies not in adding dollars to income but rather in the training and development of the working class.
“In most cases, these minimum wage jobs require fewer skills and less education. If you want to put money somewhere, put it into training people so they can go out and take care of themselves,” she said.
“People becoming more self-sufficient helps everyone in the long run.”
By Lanie Rivera
After nearly 10 years of offering counseling and educational programs to homeless men and women from the basement of a Columbia Heights church, the Hermano Pedro Day Shelter will close on March 31.
City officials have offered assurances that funding for the shelter will be shifted to other programs geared toward helping the mentally ill and homeless, but some clients of Hermano Pedro do not foresee an easy transition to other day programs.
David Jones, 61, has attended daily math and reading classes at the shelter that helped him to pursue his General Education Degree. The staff and programs at Hermano Pedro had become an important part of his life.
“These people really try to help you,” said Jones. “I’m hurting because it will close down.”
The Department of Mental Health (DMH) signed a five-year, $2 million contract with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington and Anchor Mental Health Services in 2007 to fund the shelter, located at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart.
The contract ended last November and the shelter was scheduled to close, but clients, joined by homeless advocate Eric Sheptock and other members of the grassroots group Shelter, Housing & Respectful Change (SHARC) spoke out against the termination.
Amid concerns about the potential impact of closing the shelter, particularly in winter, DMH Director Steve Baron granted the facility a four-month extension.
According to Phyllis Jones, a spokeswoman for DMH, Baron also agreed that a delay of the program’s termination would ensure a smooth transition for patients.
“We believe we have put a system in place to continue to provide needed supports while we aid individuals in transitioning to other nearby services,” she said.
To prepare for the closing, Hermano Pedro staff members have been meeting regularly with staff from DMH and two neighboring day shelters, Thrive DC and Neighbors Consejo, to discuss clients who need specific, hands-on assistance. The organizations are working to ensure that clients now receiving services at Hermano Pedro can make the transition to the other day shelters.
Despite the combined efforts of DMH and other shelters, some of Hermano Pedro’s patrons and friends are not at ease.
Cynthia Mewborn, a Street Sense vendor who speaks with familiarity about the programs at Hermano Pedro, said she does not think Thrive DC can successfully replace Hermano Pedro.
“Thrive DC just gives services to women, but men need it just as much as women do … these services need to be extended to men, and Hermano Pedro offered that,” she said. “They engage and work with you at your level.”
The shelter not only offered mental health counseling but it also served the community as a refuge in hypothermic conditions – the basement provided the homeless a place to sleep when temperatures or “wind chill” dropped below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It’s been a full house since the hypothermia [alerts] started,” said visitor Willis Anderson. “You can relax here, and you can’t on the street. We are all like family.”
DMH has also pledged to continue providing care for those individuals who need it.
“In addition to funding the Hermano Pedro day program, DMH supports eight full time employees on the Homeless Outreach Team who work with the chronically homeless on the streets and in the shelters to … help link them to treatment and other benefits,” Phyllis Jones commented.
Furthermore, the money that was used to fund Hermano Pedro will be allocated to strengthen other services, according to Jones. These services include financing housing subsidies, providing aid for individuals who have recently left jail, and funding Assertive Community Treatment to serve the needs of the Latino homeless population.
By Mary Otto
Kandis Jacobs, her husband Omar Martin and their three children moved to their apartment in December. On Christmas morning, the kids flew out of their beds to open the presents under the Christmas tree. After the days of joblessness, the homeless shelter and the transitional program, everything about that morning was stunning, magical, blessed.
“God is good,” says Jacobs, summing it up.
Now they are starting a new year and a new life. They cherish everything about their three-bedroom apartment on Wayne Place in Southeast Washington: the comfy couch and beds; the bathroom they have all to themselves; the washer and dryer and the refrigerator decorated with a portrait of President Obama colored by their oldest son, Kamari, 6; the new stove where Jacobs cooks her tasty dinners.
And beyond the apartment’s fresh white walls, they cherish their neighbors who also live in the small neat brick building. They have developed strong bonds participating in a sweat-equity program that has given homeless families the chance to renovate a once-rundown property and make it home.
They are working toward a future they had trouble imagining when things seemed to be at their worst. For Jacobs and Martin, the troubles started back in 2009 when Martin lost his job as a security guard. The family eventually ended up at DC General, the old hospital the city uses as its homeless shelter, sleeping in a former hospital room and struggling to take care of other necessities with a monthly Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) check.
“It felt like the world was coming to an end,” Martin admits.
Yet it was there at the shelter that they found about the sweat equity pilot project, part of a larger effort by the city to move families out of homelessness and rethink a welfare program where some beneficiaries have languished for years. Central to the push is intensive casework geared toward getting poor parents the skills and work experience they need to move off of welfare and support their families.
But when Martin originally looked into the sweat equity pilot program he was wary.
It was the pay that worried him most, only about $12.50 an hour. At his old job, as a guard, he had earned twice that much. This seemed like a step down in the world. But his wife told him they should give it a try.
“Baby we’re in the shelter,” Jacobs told him. “Something is better than nothing.”
And the program turned out to offer other benefits as well. Once the sweat equity team had finished the work on the old city-owned apartment building, participants would have a chance to live there for three years. They would pay 30 percent of their incomes as rent. The money would be placed into an escrow account, to be matched three to one by the city. After three years, they would have a nest egg they could use to buy a home of their own, to go back to school or start a business.
“My beautiful wife is the reason that we are in the program,” says Martin, with a smile that takes in Jacobs on the couch, and their two younger children, Omar, 2, and Samarje, 3, who clamber and play about the living room and kitchen. “If I hadn’t listened to her we wouldn’t be here now.”
It took months of very hard work to get the place into shape, however. The building was in a sorry state. Martin and the rest of the crew, nine other men plus two women, had to gut the building and reconstruct it from the sewer pipes up. They regularly prayed to keep their courage up.
Now that they are in their homes, the members of the sweat equity crew have moved on to renovate a city-owned women’s shelter. They are continuing to hone their construction skills. They are taking courses. And they are steadily saving for the future.
Martin says he is looking forward to the day when he doesn’t need the $602 monthly TANF check anymore. But he won’t forget the lessons he and his family learned surviving on welfare.
“You put yourself last, put God first and the children second,” sums up Martin. “They eat before you eat because that’s what it’s really for.”
What will he and his family do when the three years with the sweat equity program come to an end?o How do they plan to invest their nest egg?
“The American Dream is to purchase a home,” says Martin carefully. “My dream is to purchase a home and a business.”
He and a friend and neighbor from the sweat equity project, Michael Jackson, talk a lot about pooling their resources and perhaps buying and renovating another small apartment building, making homes for other families who need a new start in life.
Jackson, who, as if on cue, pops his head through Martin’s front door on this snowy morning, agrees.
They will have their own company.
“This is the CEO,” he says, pointing to Martin. “And I am the CFO.”
They are quite the pair when they get together, working and dreaming, and making one another laugh.
“My brother and I: We shared the same visions,” says Jackson. “We’re too much alike.”
Or as Martin sees it, different but compatible.
“We’re like peanut butter and jelly.”
They share a deep faith but beyond that, Martin admires the way Jackson is raising his kids by himself. Jackson and his son and his daughter slept in a van for a while before they ended up at DC General. They all made the best of it. But the thing the children, Erin, 9 and Michael Jr. missed most during their sojourn through homelessness was their dad’s wonderful cooking.
When they got moved in upstairs here on Wayne Place, the kids wanted a gingerbread house for Christmas, so Jackson built one for them.
“That man is Betty Crocker!” brags Martin, grateful to have a friend like Jackson, a fellow traveller taking the journey alongside him step by step. That’s how to rebuild your life, he says.
“It’s just like a home,” says Martin. “You’ve got to have the foundation first. Then everything else comes into place.”
Also read our vendors’ Letters to the President.
By Jeffery McNeil
As we see President Obama inaugurated for a second term on Jan. 20th, I wonder what lies ahead. Will he draw inspiration from FDR’s New Deal? From LBJ’s Great Society? Bring the troops home from Afghanistan? Will he be the president to bring peace to the Middle East? Will he stand his ground or submit to the Republicans and make cuts in Social Security and Medicare in the name of compromise?
The next four years won’t be easy.
First, I am concerned about human rights, both here and abroad. The military detention and interrogation facility at Guantanamo Bay remains open. Government surveillance under the Patriot Act has been expanded. Drone attacks are also a source of worry. I would like to see a non-partisan committee investigate his justification of them.
Then there is real gun control. Achieving it would present challenges to the second and fourth amendments. Gun owners are not going to give up their guns without a fight. I don’t think the anti-gun crowd is interested in the guerrilla tactics that would be needed: searches and seizures and violations of civil liberties. Americans love their Constitution and are not willing to give up certain freedoms. I think we need to strengthen the laws we have and bolster funding for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
A ban on assault weapons will take a strong hand. It’s useless to try to use logic in dealing with special interests who put profit over public safety. These people have no conscience and no decency. Obama should just impose new laws and let them go through the courts.
Maybe he will get lucky. If pro-gun judges retire he can appoint more liberal judges who will ban assault weapons.
Lastly, I would like Obama to look at the existing laws to see how we can curb offensive language, mainly from the far-right on public airwaves.
There are many reasons political discourse has become polarized but I believe this started with the abolition of the fairness doctrine back in the 1980s.
That ended unbiased journalism and created industrialized extremism, allowing large corporations to buy up public airspace. Now they say anything they want and are not accountable for the consequences. Mentally ill people hear their hateful propaganda as a call to arms, resulting in the killings sprees we are witnessing.
And the culprits are not only the far-right commentators. Corporations, movie directors and others who are more concerned with profit than ethics share the blame. I think we need to consider placing restrictions on people saying things that could jeopardize others.
There should be more balance, in news, in government, and in society itself. Fairness does not impose on free speech. It allows people to make rational decisions.
There are more things I would like to see but these I feel are top priority.
By Jeff Gray
Dele Akerejah sits in his small studio, snippets of construction paper and newsprint flying off his scissors in a constant flurry of confetti as he assembles the latest installment in his series of espionage-themed graphic novels, L’Escroc.
As he narrates the tale of a man struggling to escape a seedy underworld of crime and corruption, Akerejah is in some ways telling his own story. The aspiring artist and businessman’s journey from shady hustler to legitimate entrepreneur has wandered through a maze of international drug smuggling syndicates, homeless shelters, college classrooms, cyber prostitution rings and failed sandwich shops in a twisting tale even more incredible than the fiction he writes.
The graphic novels, created as a promotional release for Akerajah’s fledgling arts and leisure company, follow the adventures of Toussant, a masked protagonist who, after unwittingly selling his soul to an evil crime organization in exchange for fast cash, must do their dark bidding in an attempt to break from his own mistakes.
Each episode is encapsulated in a handmade collage booklet, a medium Akerejah describes as “collage artistry.” Toussant dashes through a world of construction paper and magazine clippings, dueling rival spies enlisted from underwear ads or Soviet storm troopers recruited out of Newsweek.
“I was looking for a way to harness both my skills as a writer and my sense of aesthetic in one synergy, and this was the medium I found,” says the 28 year-old New Jersey native.
The plot of L’Escroc, whose title is a French word roughly translated to hustler or trickster, is similarly cut and pasted out of the pages of the artist’s own life.
“[Toussant] is sent on missions that are not dissimilar to things that I’ve heard of or may have been involved in,” says Akerejah, who adds that describing the series as a highly fictionalized autobiography “would not be inappropriate.”
Akerejah claims, for example, that the novels’ fictional Honey Lab Syndicate is based on a drug smuggling cartel he was involved with during the late 2000s. After a failed business venture and subsequent bout of depression in ’06, Akerejah says he “went underground in a deep way,” signing on to help transport narcotics from South America to the East Coast. Initially a low-level mule, he claims to have moved quickly up the ranks to become a “supervisor.”
“I was handling other people, picking up money, acting as a financial consultant, things like that.”
The business side of the organization especially fascinated Akerejah, whose dream of starting his own company has been plagued by disappointment and setbacks. In 2006 he dropped out of college after his sophomore year to focus on launching a sandwich truck business, but the company quickly went under.
After leaving the drug syndicate, Akerejah continued pursuing his business aspirations, though in shadowy ways. In 2008 he says he began operating an online escort service. Serving as a liaison, he would place advertisements on the internet, then arrange rendezvous between clients and prostitutes. He claims the women could get “ten times the price through the internet then what they could get on the street,” a profit he would take a 50 percent share of.
It was during this time that Akerejah first experienced homelessness. Still owing investors from his sandwich business and the university for unpaid tuition, he found himself in a mounting pile of debt and unable to pay rent. In some ways, however, Akerejah says being homeless was a liberating experience.
“Being homeless allows a person a certain freedom. There’s a certain ability to go without, an ability to not need, that allows you to live aristocratically, in a sense,” he explains. “It let me focus on what I really wanted to do.”
The result of Akerejah’s re-prioritized focus has been the founding of his most recent business venture, a vaguely defined online retailer called The Dopamine Clinic. The company is still in the early development stages, but Akerejah says he intends for it to become “an arbiter of pleasure through art, taste, fashion, lifestyle events, and writing.”
The identity of the company is hard to pinpoint even for Akerejah, who compares its “vaporous nature” to the sitcom Seinfeld, the show about nothing. Revenue will theoretically come from a combination of art and clothing retail and the provision of service components like emcee and bartending rentals.
Akerejah envisions a core group of artists and designers working out of a Warholian studio to create everything from paintings and novels to films and music albums.
The nature of the Dopamine Clinic may be enigmatic, but legally it is quite tangible. Akerejah has filed it as an LLC and accumulated all of the documentation essential to any business, including cash flow statements, market analysis and a tax identification number.
“Its an actual company,” he asserts.
Notably absent from the wide variety of products and services The Dopamine Clinic plans to offer are the illicit activities that were a focus of Akerejah’s past ventures. Contrary to the dubious connotation of the company’s title, Akerejah says he has phased out all of the gray areas of his business, a transition he likens to hip-hop legend Jay-Z’s evolution from inner-city drug dealer to platinum selling musician and millionaire business mogul.
With three of the proposed seven novels completed, the L’Escroc series remains unfinished, and Toussant’s fate undetermined. Akerejah’s fate also hangs in the balance. Like his main character, he continues his struggle to escape the consequences of crime and greed.
Perhaps not as dramatic as Toussant’s deal with the devil, the author’s illegal activities have had similarly binding consequences.
“I think my homelessness is me paying for that fast money. Like my karma.”