Another Harsh Winter for Many Homeless in Washington DC and Baltimore – Umar Farooq

Another Harsh Winter for Many Homeless in Washington DC and Baltimore – Umar Farooq

demonstartors block the streets in response to the closing of the Franklin Shelter in DC

Presented with one-year leases for unseen apartments east of the Anacostia river, often in the poorest, most drug-ridden parts of DC, shelter residents where told that if they rejected the housing, they would be denied a place at the shelter. --- The 300-bed Franklin shelter at 13th and K streets was opened by the District in 2003 as a temporary low-barrier overnight shelter for men. Since its beginning, however, it has been the target of repeated attempts at its closure. Recently, the campaign to close the site was met with strong public resistance after it became clear that Mayor Adrian Fenti's administration was working to move residents out of the shelter and had signed a lease with a developer to turn it into a high-class hotel. Advocates for the shelter claim that it is badly needed, as there is no other shelter in downtown with a similar all-inclusive policy and most working men cannot afford to stay anywhere further away from the area where they work during the day. “This is about getting poor people out of downtown,” says Peter Tucker, an advocate for the shelter, with the group Empower DC. According to Tucker, Fenti ordered to break down beds weeks before the shelter's closure, turning dozens of men away each night. The mayor had announced that the men from the shelter would be given free apartments in exchange for the lost shelter beds under the program known as Housing First, but many homeless service providers were skeptical, and pointed out that such plans are unsustainable without the necessary supportive services such as job placement and mental health treatment. “The Housing First program sounds like a really good program, but that’s not what this is about. This is about business first,” says Tucker. “This is about a high-priced piece of property going to a rich developer, so the only way to do that is to call it something nice, so how about Housing First?”. Presented with one-year leases for unseen apartments east of the Anacostia river, often in the poorest, most drug-ridden parts of DC, shelter residents where told that if they rejected the housing, they would be denied a place at the shelter. In addition, the leases are between the individual and the landowner, leaving ambiguity as to who exactly is responsible for the rent. Critics point out that if current economic trends continue, deficits in DC's budget - such as the projected $130 million shortfall for 2009 - may force cuts in programs such as Housing First, even as more and more people require emergency housing. The District's City Council took note of the mayor's intention to close the shelter after his administration began moving shelter residents into these apartments. It passed legislation on September 16th, 2008, requiring certification that all 300 residents had been moved into adequate housing in order to close the shelter. Despite this action, the mayor ordered the shelter closed on September 26th without any such report, further straining the already rocky relationship he had with the Council. According to witnesses, dozens of police officers began moving residents out of the shelter early that morning (on the 26th) while other administration staff began asking residents to sign leases. Concerned groups, including One DC, Empower DC, and the National Coalition for the Homeless, have organized several rallies and acts of civil disobedience, demanding the reopening of the shelter. These groups have even forced Mayor Fenti to meet with them twice by appearing in large numbers at his home. Lawsuits have also been filed in response to the closure, including one asking to uphold a law requiring emergency shelter when the temperature is below freezing. A number of City Council members, including Council Member Marion Barry, whose district is now housing many of the displaced residents of the shelter, are working on new legislation to address the issue. The DC Department of Human Services did eventually provide the City Council with documentation on the movement of residents, but critics point out that it is plagued with the Fenti Administration's usual ambiguity and does not provide the names or addresses of those that have been placed into housing, as required by Council legislation. The report claims to have placed 87 men from the Franklin Shelter into some form of housing, with 83% of them being placed in Wards 7 and 8, but does not name any of the men. Nor does it provide the addresses of their new housing units, making it impossible to verify their current status. At the center of the conflict between Fenti's administration and the homeless advocates is the competition for public financing of emergency shelter and housing. While programs such as Housing First are able to provide a place to stay for those requiring housing, critics point to the need to first identify those people that require such assistance so that they can be provided with safe housing and transitional services. Such services can ensure the person is able to live on their own for a significant period of time. A similar conflict occurred in Baltimore in the winter of 2007 concerning the closing of the city-run Oasis shelter and the loss of hundreds of beds in the downtown area. As temperatures dropped, dozens of homeless people began camping out under I-83 near City Hall, prompting area police to demand they disperse. After a public outcry, the City announced it would be placing about a dozen of the homeless into housing, drawing from the 500 Housing First units it plans to provide in the next 10 years. Under continued pressure from advocates for the homeless, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration opened a 275-bed shelter a few miles north of downtown, closing it after neighborhood opposition, and then opened another shelter near downtown and the Little Italy area. This second shelter was also closed after three months and replaced by two smaller shelters, each several miles to the east and west of downtown, with chartered school buses providing transportation to and from the night-time shelters. Finally, in early October, 2008, a 275-bed, 24-hour shelter was opened at 210 Guliford Ave. The City says it plans to keep this shelter, located on two floors of a Department of Health office building, open for a year, at which time it hopes to have a permanent shelter ready. The proposed site, however, at 620 Fallsway, near the Baltimore City Jail complex, Catholic Charities' Our Daily Bread Employment Center and soup kitchen, and the future headquarters of Health-Care for the Homeless, continues to face opposition from some area businesses and neighborhood associations. Advocates for the homeless point out that while neighborhoods often express opposition to shelters, most downtown businesses tend to recognize the need for emergency shelter, preferring them to having people sleeping in the streets. The Downtown Partnership, a tax-funded coalition of businesses in Baltimore that often employs the homeless to clean and secure the area, has expressed an understanding of the need for emergency shelters, and DC’s Downtown Business Improvement District has asked the District to open a smaller facility for the 200 or so people it counts sleeping in the street every night. According to city estimates, more than 3,000 people in Baltimore and 9,000 in the nation's capital are left with nowhere to sleep but the street every night.