In January of this year, city officials recorded 5,111 people experiencing homelessness throughout D.C.
This number, though a 20 percent drop from the year before, is 5,111 too many.
City officials have grappled with how to address homelessness in the District for the past several years, with Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office implementing its “Homeward” plan in 2015 with the goal of ensuring homelessness is limited to being “rare, brief and nonrecurring” by 2020. That did not happen.
In the newest iteration of this plan, which aims to end homelessness by 2025 and is dubbed Homeward 2.0, officials have now begun shutting down homeless encampments throughout the city and extending housing vouchers to the residents of the camps in an effort to transition them to long-term housing. But critics and homeless advocates have spoken out against the plan, saying it lacks clarity on how to ensure each resident is contacted about the voucher and details on why the encampments need to be shut down at all.
The government has even used front-end loaders to forcibly remove people from where they live – an affront to people’s basic dignity. The removals were halted shortly after they began when a bulldozer struck a man still inside his tent at the encampments on M St. in NoMa.
D.C.’s new homelessness policies fall far short by kicking people out of encampments and making them fend for themselves with just a voucher in hand. D.C. officials and GW should get involved with helping our Foggy Bottom neighbors who are experiencing homelessness.
The D.C. government has both the capacity and the responsibility to adopt a more humane approach to homelessness that respects people’s basic dignity, and GW needs to get more involved in efforts to help people experiencing homelessness.
To fundamentally end homelessness, D.C. officials must first understand the root causes of why people become homeless in the first place. A report from Central Union Mission D.C., a local homeless outreach organization, states that a lack of affordable housing options, high costs of housing and low work wages, are among the issues driving rates of homelessness in D.C. If city officials are truly committed to solving the problem of homelessness by 2025, they should consider the actual situation of unhoused people in the District, what they can do for the community and how they will not be without housing again.
Such a plan should consider how to provide employment or reemployment support for every person experiencing homelessness, with programs, that will provide employment coaching, skill development and job searching for people experiencing homelessness. Organizations like Thrive DC, which provides professional support for unhoused residents, are a good model of programs that officials can be funding or spearheading themselves. Housing vouchers can bridge the gap between being unhoused and finding a permanent housing solution, but a better plan would be paired with helping more people integrate into D.C.’s job market so that there will be more guarantees that will prevent them from being without permanent housing again.
GW has a role to play too. Almost every student has surely walked past the E St. encampment across from the Elliott School of International Affairs building – the homelessness problem is literally within our field of view. To help the community it is a part of, the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences could consider establishing a homeless research center to further carry on research and find more solutions, akin to the Center for Housing and Homeless Research in the University of Denver, which is a center that researches housing solutions to be implemented in the Denver area. GW as a whole should also publicize continuous activities like volunteer work of local homeless service such as what the Catholic University of America is working on by organizing student volunteers to give away food prepared by the university and communicate with people experiencing homelessness.
Several student organizations are currently committed to community services, like Humanity First, which provides humanitarian aid and volunteering work for the low-income or vulnerable communities. The Nashman Center has three semester-long homeless service projects under the EngageDC program, which aim to help GW students to build service leadership by building connections to communities of D.C. The University should enhance these efforts to help the community.
GW is an incredibly politically-engaged school, with students priding themselves on being activists who care about the well-being of the underserved. Still, our commitment and engagement in politics must really tackle the challenges that are affecting people’s lives, as the ultimate goal of politics is to serve the people. To truly end homelessness in D.C., everyone, from the government to the GW community, needs to do more and care more.