Updated May 24, 2021 at 1:49 p.m.
A local governing body invited city officials and experts to discuss homelessness in the District, its causes and potential solutions during its monthly meeting Wednesday.
The Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commission hosted the director of the D.C. Department of Human Services and three advocates for homeless people who said systemic issues like a lack of affordable housing have exacerbated homelessness in D.C., while housing reforms will be necessary in getting people off the streets. The ANC also heard updates about the University’s fall planning progress, passed a resolution to promote sections of a police reform report and approved outdoor renovations at The Shops at 2000 Penn.
Here are some of the meeting’s highlights:
Experts talk homelessness
District officials and experts spoke for more than an hour about homelessness in D.C. and potential solutions as part of a discussion organized by Commissioner Yannik Omictin, a recent graduate from GW.
“We are seeking sustainable solutions to the crisis of homelessness, which really entails helping people receive housing with the services they need,” Omictin said.
Laura Zeilinger, the director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, said housing system reform, like opening shelters year-round and providing housing subsidies for individuals experiencing homelessness, has lowered the rate of family homelessness by about 50 percent in the past year. She said while the District’s eviction moratorium that went into effect during the COVID-19 pandemic may be partly responsible for the decrease in homelessness, she thinks the city’s permanent housing reforms have had the greatest effect on the homelessness rate in the city.
“Year over year we have seen these reductions in homelessness as we reformed our systems,” she said.
Karen Malovrh – a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization offering unhoused communities legal services – said learning why people may live on the street is crucial to understanding the problem as a whole.
She said while most people attribute homelessness to mental illness or substance abuse, more than a third of people experiencing homelessness are employed. She said the true causes of homelessness include systemic racism, low wages and a lack of affordable housing.
“The rent is too high, people aren’t making enough money, racism affects every single institution in this country and has for 400 years and that’s why we have the problem we have today,” she said.
Kate Coventry – a senior policy analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which researches budget and tax issues in the city – said homelessness in the District is primarily caused by failed systems and policy, like the disappearance of half of the city’s affordable housing since the early 2000s. She said funding for affordable housing lags behind other key priorities for the city, like education.
“Over 9,250 individuals without minor children touched the homeless services system in 2020, but the District only has a housing resource for about one of ten individuals experiencing homelessness, meaning that many people become homeless and they are unable to find a way to exit,” she said.
Qaadir El-Amin – an activist from the People for Fairness Coalition, an organization advocating for homeless people – and John George, the president of the Foggy Bottom Association, also spoke during the discussion.
GW shares fall planning updates
Kevin Days, the University’s director of community relations, said GW officials hope to hold most classes in-person with remote opportunities to accommodate all students come fall. He said the University is also working with the District government to develop ways to distribute vaccines directly to members of the campus community, but he did not have additional details on what those developments could look like.
Days also said all students that have been granted exemptions to live off campus in the fall will be required to undergo mandatory “Be a Good Neighbor” training to introduce students to Foggy Bottom and prepare them for off-campus living.
“We’re working with the Foggy Bottom Association to reach out to students who are arriving in the community to introduce them to their neighbors,” he said. “The idea, in this case, is to build community by making sure that students recognize they’re coming into an existing community with certainly different expectations.”
ANC endorses police reform recommendations
The ANC unanimously approved a resolution calling on the D.C. Council to enact several recommendations outlined in a report released last month by the D.C. Police Reform Commission – a body created by the Council last year to investigate police reform in the District. The report urges city officials to downsize MPD by as much as 3,000 officers and abolish qualified immunity, which protects police from civil lawsuits.
The resolution advises the D.C. Council to accept recommendations to increase police accountability, strengthen social services, embrace a harm-reduction approach to policing and allow mental health experts to respond to some emergency calls. Following local and nationwide racial justice protests in light of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer last summer, the District passed emergency police reform legislation that banned the use of chokeholds and restricted the hire of officers with a history of misconduct.
“This isn’t an attack on the police department,” Commissioner Joel Causey said. “These are actually good recommendations to the police department to better help both community policing and ensuring we don’t end up as one of those headline states.”
Commissioners approve renovations
The ANC unanimously approved a request to renovate the landscape around Western Market, a new food hall set to open at The Shops at 2000 Penn this summer.
The plans, which come as part of a project to introduce new stores and restaurants near campus, will install tree and planting beds and expand seating areas with new furniture near the shops to attract more customers like workers and students, according to the proposal from MRP Realty – the company developing Western Market.
Jeri Epstein, the chair of the ANC, supported the renovations and the Western Market project as a whole, saying they could boost the economy near Foggy Bottom.
“I think it’s going to bring business and jobs and revenue to our area,” Epstein said. “I don’t see a downside to it.”
This post has been updated to correct the following:
The Hatchet incorrectly reported that Malovrh trains police officers on how to interact with individuals experiencing homelessness. Malovrh said her colleague has conducted this training. We regret this error.