Homelessness activists demand more from city budget after brutal winter

by Zaid Shoorbajee | Assistant News Editor

Media Credit: Sam Klein | Senior Photo Editor
Demonstrators gathered outside Mayor Vincent Gray's office to demand more funding for homelessness initiatives in his fiscal year 2015 budget.

Dozens of advocates crowded the John A. Wilson Building last week to lobby for housing services that could change the way the city supports a growing homeless population.

As D.C. Council members marked up Mayor Vincent Gray’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2015, demonstrators gathered outside to demand more funding for homeless services after one of the region’s worst winters on record.

District law requires the government to house all homeless families during extreme weather. When shelters across the city maxed out this winter, the government was forced to house remaining families in motels in neighboring Maryland. Through public advocacy, activists are mobilizing to prevent future mishaps.

Gray’s proposed budget would increase funding for affordable housing programs to $145 million, an about 12 percent jump from 2014’s budget. But experts say the upswing is not enough, and advocates are pushing the Council to add millions of dollars in additional resources when it votes on the budget this month.

The vote comes as the number of homeless individuals and families has spiked in the city. The District’s homeless population rose 13 percent since last year to about 8,000 people, according to a report released last week by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

Last week’s demonstrators, who represented more than a dozen local advocacy organizations under the umbrella group Fair Budget Coalition, demanded more funding across the board for D.C.’s services, including rent subsidies, public housing and permanent housing.

Albert Townsend, a member of the People for Fairness Coalition, said the resources would allow the city to create more programs and tailor each one to individuals’ unique needs.

“There needs to multiple different solutions so people who fit all kinds of different categories have many options to pick from, creating a holistic effect,” said Townsend, who was homeless from 2008 to 2010.

Permanent Supportive Housing, a government program that's placed high on advocates’ agenda, provides permanent housing and supportive services to individuals or families who qualify as chronically homeless. Such people are without housing frequently, or for more than a year, and have a physical or mental disability that prevents them from working.

Gray’s proposal would add $4.7 million to the $22 million budget for Permanent Supportive Housing.

The increase is part of a plan to end chronic veteran homelessness by 2015. The city has already made progress toward that goal, with the number of homeless veterans dropping 41 percent since 2009. About 400 former military members still live in the city without homes.

But for people who don’t qualify as chronically homeless, they must turn to the city’s other services – which advocates warn are underfunded. The D.C. Housing Authority manages two housing programs, providing vouchers to 10,500 families and public housing to 20,000 other individuals.

The Housing Authority is inundated with more than 70,000 requests for assistance and has not taken new applications for a year. Gray’s budget would add $3 million to the Housing Authority’s current $40 million budget.

Janelle Treibitz, the campaign organizer for the Fair Budget Coalition, said affordable housing programs designed to help the homeless move off the streets are “wildly underfunded,” and that homelessness has gotten worse with rising property values in the city.

Treibitz led the crowd at this week’s demonstration chanting that it is “everyone’s job” to move families from homeless shelters to stable housing, promote affordable housing and end chronic homelessness.

“You have to find a way for the long term residents who have spent their lives here – who now can’t even afford to live in their own city – to make sure they can stay, too,” Treibitz said.

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