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Addressing Homelessness in D.C. — One Tent at a Time

Bowser Approach Hits Funding, Logistical Snags

Last week, I was standing outside of the MLK Deli on Martin Luther King Avenue SE waiting for my lunch order when a man approached me and asked for something to eat. I ended my telephone call, walked him inside and told him to order what he wanted. He placed his order and as I was about to pay, asked if he wanted something to drink, which he did. He expressed his appreciation, said “God bless you,” and walked off with his meal.

As I watched him walk away, I reflected on the courage required to approach a total stranger and ask for money or food. I also wondered if he was homeless and when and where he would have his next meal.

The sad fact remains that homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked in America. Efforts are underway by the national and local governments to address the plight of the homeless.

Recently, Mayor Muriel Bowser asked the Biden Administration to expedite the reallocation of Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) funds from jurisdictions with excess funding not yet obligated. Final payment of an allotted $352 million has been requested from the U.S. Department of Treasury to support residents with rent and utility assistance by Oct. 27 to fund the Stronger Together by Assisting You (STAY DC) Program.

“We know this important federal resource has kept Washingtonians housed and made our city safer during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bowser said. “We thank the Biden Administration for their commitment to what we know to be true in Washington, D.C., that housing is a right, and urge Treasury to expedite reallocation of excess ERA funds.”

Unfortunately, mass homelessness is not a new phenomenon in the U.S. Homelessness first became a national issue in the 1870s. The emergence of the continental railway network, along with urbanization, industrialization and mobility led to the emergence of itinerants “riding the rails” in search of jobs. One religious organization described the problem of homelessness as a “crisis of men let loose from all the habits of domestic life, wandering without aim or home.”

According to the Biden administration, homelessness in this country on a single night in January 2020 exceeded 580,000 people. However, the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated domestic social problems, particularly in the areas of homelessness and affordable housing

The pandemic increased the risk of homelessness, according to urban scholars who say COVID-19 curtailed the accuracy of the census.

On Sept. 20, the Biden administration launched House America: All- Hands-on-Deck Effort to Address the Nation’s Homelessness Crisis, a national partnership with the U.S. Interagency on Homelessness (USICH) designed to address the growing challenges of homelessness across the United States. Governors, mayors, county leaders and others are invited to join and participate in the partnership.

According to HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, “The pandemic has shown us that we as a nation, are only as strong as the most vulnerable among us. Addressing homelessness is not only about helping the individuals and families who face the greatest housing challenges, but also about the well-being and economic security of our communities and our whole nation … and guarantee housing as a right for every American.”

Bowser said the pandemic blunted her goal of reducing the homeless population by 65 percent in 2020. D.C. officials estimate that 6,380 residents a day are counted as homeless.

Still, the Bowser administration contends it will contain homelessness. “Homelessness in the District of Columbia will be rare, brief, and nonrecurring. We will eliminate racial inequalities in the homeless services system and create systemic treatment for all people,” the Bowser administration said under its Homeward DC 2.0 plan.

While the plan details strategies for meeting housing needs, the administration is getting tough on public encampments. The city halted a recent push to clear unsanctioned tent cities on L and M Streets, N.E., when a skid-steer injured a homeless man who occupied a tent targeted for removal.

In the wake of an attempted removal of a occupied tent, Ward 1 Council member Brianne Nadeau has called for a reevaluation of the District’s pilot program on homeless encampments.

Government alone cannot solve the problem of homelessness in America. The Biden and Bowser Administrations, as well as local and state governments across the country, will need the input and support of the private sector to reach this goal.

As Marian Wright Edelman, former president of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said: “Homeless shelters, child hunger, and child suffering have become normalized in the richest nation on earth. It’s time to rest our moral compass and redefine how we measure success.”

Austin R. Cooper Jr.

Austin R. Cooper, Jr., is an experienced government affairs and public relations professional. He has over 25 years of related experience and accomplishments working in senior-level positions on Capitol Hill, as a state lobbyist for the City of New York under former Mayor David Dinkins and with Edelman Worldwide and Hill & Knowlton. For several years, he also served as the Vice President of Government Affairs for the Turner Broadcasting System (TBS) in Atlanta, GA. Austin is currently the President of Cooper Strategic Affairs, LLC, which provides government relations and communications counsel to government and non-government organizations in Washington, DC.

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