Column: After reelection, Bowser must aid unhoused Washingtonians

Last summer, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration offered residents of the city’s four largest homeless encampments one-year leases to move to transitional and ultimately permanent housing in a “housing-first” approach. The city successfully housed 100 of the encampments’ 139 eligible residents under the Coordinated Assistance and Resources for Encampments, or CARE, pilot program. But to paraphrase GW alumnus and Foggy Bottom and West End Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Yannik Omictin, you can’t just give somebody housing. It takes more than a home to ensure someone is housed.

While Bowser’s initiatives to address homelessness may connect members of the District’s unhoused population with forms of temporary housing, these programs fail to target underlying factors like skyrocketing real estate costs, high addiction rates and complex mental health issues that force unhoused people back onto the streets just months into their subsidized leases. Bowser should be held accountable for breaking her promise to end family homelessness by 2018, but she just won her third term as mayor Tuesday. It is unjust for the local government to treat our unhoused neighbors as second-class citizens as they neighbor the vast wealth concentrated on GW’s campus.

Unlike CARE’s focus on short-term leases and transitional housing, D.C.’s more regular and less publicized encampment clearings force unhoused people to pick up and leave, shuffling around the city with their belongings. A Washington Post map of encampment engagements – when the city removes waste from, deep cleans or shuts down an encampment – shows a dense group of dots concentrated around Foggy Bottom in D.C. from 2015 to 2022. But as abstract as these dots are, they represent real people living among GW’s campus. 

In the frequently literal push to move unhoused people from encampments to temporary housing, a bulldozer struck a man in a tent in NoMa in a October 2021 encampment engagement. In the event of a sudden encampment closure, case workers have been said to lose residents’ birth certificates or fear their clients’ disappearance. And when officials do close down an encampment in one part of the city, the experience of finding shelter elsewhere can be traumatic. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services closed seven encampments this summer without any promise of vouchers for encampment residents, leaving unhoused individuals completely on their own to find housing.

While CARE may offer more direct assistance than direct encampment engagements, it’s also setting up unhoused people for failure. The idea of temporary or transitional housing assumes residents can begin paying their full rent typically within a year of their leases. Bowser’s use of rapid rehousing quickly mandates economic self-sufficiency for homeless residents climbing out of abject poverty. But without a steady source of income – something that substance abuse and mental illness can make harder to obtain – newly housed residents can end back up on the street. And while DC’s Department of Human Services increased and extended the subsidies offered to participants in rapid rehousing during the pandemic, that program has quickly expired. The dire needs of its recipients are not going anywhere, and evictions will continue to spike in the COVID-19 pandemic’s wake. 

D.C. needs more healthcare professionals and social workers to help unhoused Washingtonians obtain not just a home but the tools, resources and support they need so that they can continue to be housed. The city should not expect unhoused people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps since they only have guaranteed shelter for a few months or a year. Meeting unhoused people where they are, whether in transitional housing or in an encampment, is essential to truly helping them.

And now that Bowser has been elected as mayor again, D.C. residents need to keep her accountable to her latest promise to truly end all homelessness by 2025. This issue needs to remain in the public eye through initiatives like Street Sense’s Homeless Crisis Reporting Project. And District residents who are housed should adopt their unhoused neighbors’ most pressing concerns as if they were their own. Homelessness should become D.C.’s political priority heading into 2023 – whether housed or unhoused, the city can’t progress by leaving part of its population behind.

D.C. cannot ensure that rapid rehousing programs address homelessness at its roots without an understanding of the complex reasons for why people are unhoused. This city’s residents are not homeless by choice – they are the mailman who got laid off last spring, a recent grad between jobs or parents who spent their last paychecks on their child’s needs. By acknowledging that it takes more than housing to address homelessness, Bowser can pair long-term support with immediate shelter to aid unhoused Washingtonians.

Matthew Donnell, a junior majoring in political communication and English, is an opinions writer.

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