The Powerful And The Powerless: Homelessness In The Nation’s Capital

More than 7,000 homeless live in Washington, from the woman living in a cardboard and duct tape structure near the White House to the panhandlers working K Street.
By @CMRSluchansky |
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    John Gillis wakes up every morning at 5 a.m., showers, gets dressed and then shares breakfast with maybe 100 other men. He steps out of the old school building where he lives and heads for a local coffee shop for some caffeine.

    “That’s the real alarm clock,” Gillis said.

    Then he’ll head to the library and get to work. That means writing. Maybe today it’s the screenplay. Maybe it’s his latest short story. Maybe the sometime-composer will write a new song. He will also apply for a few part-time jobs as he looks for something to sustain him.

    “I’m not interested in a new career at this late age,” he explains.

    Someone standing next to Gillis at coffeeshop might easily guess this white, articulate, congenial, gray-haired man of 62 years, simply dressed in his clean slacks and polo shirt, is a professor at the nearby law school. Or maybe he’s a retired government worker or other professional.

    But he is none of these.

    Gillis is homeless, and the old school building is a shelter for men who – for one reason or another – do not have a place they can call their own. Gillis sleeps in a room with 16 or 20 bunk beds and a curfew. He’s up by 5 a.m. because that’s the rule.

    “We gotta do something about that,” he laments to the shelter chaplain. “I’m not a morning person.”

    People like Gillis are increasing in D.C., the center of power of the United States and – many would say – the world. In a way, he exemplifies the issue in the nation’s capital:  He’s never had a drug addiction, he has worked most of his life and received social security benefits – it’s just not enough to pay rent in the skyrocketing D.C. market. He adds that a legal dispute cost him much of his other retirement savings.

    More than 7,000 homeless live in Washington. The facts of their daily lives are easy to spot.  The woman who lives in a cardboard and duct tape structure just a block away from the White House. The panhandlers working K Street, the strip best known for its high-powered corporate lobby firms. The dozen people huddled together in blankets lying on any random subway vent, using the heat to stave off certain frostbite.

    The number of those living on the streets has actually dwindled in the last few years, even if they are more obvious during this season of polar vortexes and other winter anomalies making mid-Atlantic D.C. feel more like Boston. The total number of homeless, however, increased around 10 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which releases an annual report on the subject.


    Gentrification and homelessness

    The reason is easy to spot, say experts on the ground. Rapidly rising rents and a decrease in public housing and affordable housing units. The greatest impact has been on families who are more difficult to place in shelters.

    Earlier this month at a roundtable discussion on the subject, talking to homeless advocates, David Bern, director of the city’s Department of Human Services, estimated more than 1,000 new families will require shelter this winter. A situation some advocates have called “catastrophic.”

    “Over the last few years, there has been some decent success addressing chronic homelessness among single adults,” said Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director at Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center. But she says, “families are seeing reduced services in the city. There’s less temporary assistance to families who really need it.”

    The challenge becomes more complex for families looking for emergency shelter, Fugere added. Unlike adult individuals, the city requires families to be provided private space and 24-hour access, placing the bar too high for the city’s regular shelters that consist of dorm-style areas and recreation centers.

    “There are good reasons why families should have private space, but it makes it that much more difficult for families to find space,” Fugere said. “Families have to have far greater proof of need to be eligible and be assessed Priority 1, meaning showing they have absolutely no other options.”

    Both families and individuals share one stark reality for living in Washington. To quote the unlikely political candidate Jimmy McMillan, “The rent is too damn high.”

    According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition in its 2013 annual report “Out of Reach,” a family requires an income of $56,480 to afford a standard two-bedroom apartment at the Washington fair market rate of $1,412.

    Naturally, such apartments are well within reach of the lawyers, lobbyists, government workers and other professionals who have been flooding into the District over the last several years, raising the medium household income 25 percent since 2000 to nearly $67,000 inflation-adjusted, as calculated by the U.S. Census Bureau. The median income of just over $107,000 makes the greater area, which includes the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, the wealthiest in the nation.

    However, the NLIHC calculates that a family breadwinner making minimum wage would need to work 132 hours each week to afford the same apartment. And that takes into account Washington’s minimum wage that is set at $1 per hour more than the federal minimum wage.

    “We’re really going through a redevelopment boom that’s been going off about the last five years,” explained Michael Ferrell, executive director of the Washington-based Coalition for the Homeless. “You can see a very tangible difference in the landscape particularly in downtown D.C. More condominiums have been going up to cater to those with higher incomes who are moving here.”


    A long-term housing strategy

    On top of that, Ferrell explains, despite the constant development, there are fewer and fewer affordable units and less space in public housing. Renovating older public housing has meant the same building that used to have 100 units now only has 75, he says, and the boom hasn’t come along with new buildings.  The stock has decreased so much and the demand gotten so high, the D.C. Housing Authority cut off applications last April with 70,000 individuals and families on the list some for more than 20 years.

    Ferrell favors the creation of new affordable housing.

    “In regards to public housing, that horse already left the barn,” he said.

    Mayor Vincent Gray seemed to agree and last year committed $100 million to create 10,000 affordable units by 2020. However, that might not be of much help to the most vulnerable populations given how “affordable” is defined. The Department of Housing and Urban Development sets that at 60 percent of the area median income, that $107,000.

    Additionally, Fugere notes the difficulty in motivating developers to include affordable units.

    “There’s legislation and implementation,” she said. “There has been some effort to create more affordable units, but what we’ve seen happen and happen again is developers come back and say, ‘that’s going to be more expensive than we thought,’ and the government says, ‘oh, okay,” and then lets them off the hook.”

    Farrell also notes the challenges added by the federal government’s role in the District’s budget and its control over public housing stock and choice vouchers that allow the District to provide rent subsidies directly to individuals. He also recommends “set-asides,” individual units in new developments for lower-income individuals and families.

    “What the District needs is a long-term housing strategy,” he said. “It will have to work in partnership with the federal government to create housing opportunities at all income levels.”

    “We spend a lot of time talking about healthcare and that’s important, but the whole reason HUD was created in the first place was the housing agenda,” he added. It has to be part of the national agenda. You have think globally and act locally.”


    Finding home

    Gillis is hopeful that just may happen, and he can one day live on his own in a unit he can afford. Nothing fancy, just some privacy and maybe a place to write. Until then, he stays in the shelter run by a Central Union, a Christian charity that is fully funded by private donations.

    In some ways, Gillis is lucky. He doesn’t have a family to worry about, and the shelter he stays in is modern and exceptionally clean. They also have a visiting doctor, a dentist and a computerized classroom where volunteers teach job skills and help residents with their resumes. They also have strict rules that they read to everyone each night:  No leaving the building after checking in; everyone’s belongings are locked up during the night to avoid theft; no drugs; no alcohol; no smoking on the property.

    Gillis emphasized what’s most important to most residents in a simple statement: “It’s safe.”

    The same can’t be said for some other shelters, where residents might number a few hundred living in one big room, and where assaults often occur along with theft and even lice.

    Living in a room with a dozen other people is not easy, though.

    “There’s the lack of privacy, and there’s the noise,” Gillis said.

    “I call it ‘nuclear snorefare,’” he said, noting it takes him a few hours to finally get to sleep. “It’s exhaustion that finally gets me there, so thank god for caffeine,” he added.


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