Without walls in Washington

While the nation’s capital is home to more politicians, national monuments and museums than any other U.S. city, the District also has one the largest homeless populations in the nation.

D.C. has one of the highest concentration of homeless people in the country, topping even New York City.

According to research done by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, more than 15,000 people in the nation’s capital will sleep on the streets over the course of the year. On any given day, D.C. streets are filled with more than 7,000 people, half of which are women and children.

The causes of the social problem in the District are as varied as the types of people living on the streets.

The District’s homeless population is composed of many races: 41 percent are white, 40 percent are black and 11 percent are Hispanic. Nearly three-fourths of homeless women in the District’s shelter system are victims of domestic violence abuse. Veterans constitute 27 percent of the District’s homeless, according to the Clinic.

The Clinic also reports that 40 percent of D.C.’s homeless population has a history of chemical addiction and 28 percent has a history of mental illness.

Professor Greg Squires, chair of the sociology department, said while homelessness is often caused by human problems such as mental illness and addiction, there many structural factors that frequently get overlooked.

“Conventionally, we explain homelessness because of the defects of people, that something is wrong with the homeless person,” Squires said. “But it is more than that.”

Squires said the cost of living has increased substantially in the past few years and incomes have not kept pace.

The cost of living in the District is among the highest in the nation, Squires said.

A renter earning minimum wage would have to work 113 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the District, according to research done by the Clinic.

Although the government provides millions of dollars for housing subsidies, Squires said most of the funds go to people that own homes.

“More than 50 percent of the money of housing subsidies goes to the 7.8 percent of the population making over $100,000 per year,” Squires said.

Many cities, including D.C., have cut down on the number of single-room apartments and limited construction of low-income housing in the name of urban renewal, he said.

But others disagree on the factors contributing to a growing homelessness
problem in the District.

Professor Dorn McGrath, chairman of the geography department and director of the Institute for Urban Environmental Research, said urban renewal is not to blame for homelessness. He blames the private market.

McGrath said a requirement of any urban renewal project is that the people displaced by new construction must be provided with replacement housing.

“Homelessness is mainly caused because there is no room in the private market,” McGrath said. “Prices are too high.”

Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the District attracts many homeless people because of its stature as the nation’s political center.

Fungere said people come to the city with grievances they seek to address with the government. Many of them end up living on the street, she said.

“For example, if someone’s social security has been denied, they may come to Washington to try to fight for it,” Fungere said.

Once a person becomes homeless, Squires said, it is difficult for to return to a normal lifestyle.

“It is very difficult to apply for a job when you have no street address,” Squires said. “People are stigmatized. It is also hard to receive job applications with no mailing address, and P.O. boxes often raise questions in the minds of employers.”

Squires said homelessness is not simply a housing problem.

“We need to find jobs for people with low skills that pays a living wage,” he said.

English professor Angela Hewett teaches a cultural studies class about homelessness called “Homelessness and Home” at GW.

Hewett teaches students in the freshman seminar about housing deficits in the United States and abroad.

A self-proclaimed activist, Hewett is a member of Homes Not Jails, a group that coordinates housing takeovers all over the city. Hewett said there are more than 29,000 vacant houses in the District that could be used to house people living on the streets.

“We go to abandoned houses and take the boards off the windows and begin to fix up the house,” Hewett said.

The housing takeovers are illegal, but they are way to draw attention to the way the law is not working for homeless people, she said.

Hewett said many of her students have become interested in activism for the homeless through the class.

“I try to help them find out what kind of activist they want to be,” Hewett said.

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