For Reginald Black, the recent assault and murder of unhoused men in D.C. and New York has further brought to light the reality of homelessness in the U.S. and what must be done to guarantee truly affordable housing for every District resident.
As a member of People For Fairness Coalition [PFFC], Black has spent much of the pandemic connecting unhoused Washingtonians to temporary housing and other resources, even as bulldozers razed homeless communities throughout the District as part of what the Bowser administration designated as Encampment Pilot.
Black said that the District’s housing policy made Morgan Holmes and other unhoused men more vulnerable to Gerald Brevard III’s alleged attacks earlier this month. That’s why Black insists that the District takes steps to guarantee housing for all of its residents.
“I totally envision a city in which housing is a right [and] where we spend the money to ensure that housing is a right so people are able to access resources to sustain their housing and allow for economic growth and development for marginalized populations,” Black said.
Black, who currently serves as PFFC’s executive director, experienced nearly a decade of homelessness before securing housing in 2019. He first collaborated with PFFC in 2008 while writing for and selling copies of Street Sense, a newspaper that raises awareness about homelessness and highlights policy solutions.
Years later, Black would officially join PFFC where he and other unhoused people continued to weigh in on aspects of the District’s housing policy, particularly the increasingly high cost of rent that made it difficult for Black residents to live comfortably.
“In terms of racial equity, [D.C. has to] eliminate the overrepresentation of Black people being homeless,” Black said. “Even with the historic investments in the last two years and as progresive as we are, we have over 80 percent of our homeless community being Black people and we haven’t addressed that fully.”
Last year, a coalition of volunteers recorded 5,111 unhoused residents during an annual point-in-time homeless count. That figure represented a 20 percent decrease from what had been counted in 2020. Since 2016, homelessness has fallen by 73 percent, according to figures compiled by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
Holmes and Abdoulaye Coulibaly, an unhoused person allegedly killed by Brevard in New York City, spent years on the streets and battled mental illness. In the aftermath of Holmes’ murder, affordable housing advocates criticized the Bowser administration for the Encampment Pilot and cost-of-living issues they say exacerbated Holmes’ situation and that of other unhoused people.
Out of the $19.5 billion in D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FY 2023 budget proposal, $31 million has been dedicated to the addition of permanent supportive housing vouchers for 500 people, 260 families and 10 youth. The budget proposal also allocates funds for critical homelessness outreach and prevention programs. Over two years, $114.6 million would fund modernization and renovation of permanent and temporary supportive housing, while another $2.8 million enhances services at 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast.
If approved, the funding would build upon other investments, including the renovation of 801 East Men’s Shelter. That project counted as part of Homeward DC 2.0, a long-term strategic plan facilitated by the District of Columbia Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness and a strategic planning committee that includes people who’ve experienced homelessness.
In the District, the continuum of care for unhoused people includes rapid rehousing, permanent supportive housing and Section 9 public housing. For some unhoused people, however, navigating what has been described as a convoluted system can be cumbersome.
In response to those concerns, PFFC’s peer support model emboldens unhoused people to collaborate with representatives, many of whom have experienced homelessness, as they advocate for themselves and secure housing.
Providing support as a peer means often attending meetings, asking questions and making suggestions relevant to their peers’ experiences. This “boots-on-the-ground” method as Black called it differs from traditional case management. In regard to the maze that unhoused District residents have to navigate, Black placed blame on the District and other local governments for not creating a system that tackles homelessness holistically.
“We should have taken time to do things, like with the new 801 East men’s shelter, [so that] the system is not disorganized,” Black said. “This is a national issue where demographics are the same across the country. You see a lot of places that didn’t even have shelters.”
“During the pandemic there were places that were more proactive than us in terms of making sure their housing infrastructure was supported. That should’ve been done before and we didn’t take that into account,” Black said.