As the District prepares for the inauguration of America’s next president, restaurants are ordering extra food and bars are packing away an overflow of spirits while hotels are seeing their rooms quickly fill up for those who plan to attend the swearing-in and a host of related parties.
But for some D.C. residents, the days leading up to the change in power in the White House will be relatively unchanged. For those who are poor, unemployed and homeless, the only thing that will matter will be staying warm and alive.
Even as the District and nearby suburbs continue to accumulate more and more wealth, our poorest residents grow poorer. Just last month, a survey of 32 large cities prepared by the United States Conference of Mayors showed that D.C. has the highest rate of homelessness. That’s right, in the District there are 124 homeless people for every 10,000 residents — more than twice the national average.
As for those who are not homeless, poverty remains a constant threat to their existence with 17.3 percent of District residents living in poverty, based on recent census data.
Experts who research and confront the homeless crisis all agree that the surging cost of urban living and the lack of affordable housing are the primary reasons why the number of homeless men, women, teens and families continue to rise.
The mayor and City Council have indicated that they want to close the city’s largest homeless facility, the D.C. General Family Shelter, which currently houses hundreds of families, hoping to replace it with more intimate shelters spread across the District.
Meanwhile it seems those who are most vulnerable have been told that they must wait while we put in new bike lanes, increase the amount of green spaces, improve roads and build better schools. Then, we seem to be saying, we’ll focus on their dilemma. Each day these families face violent encounters, ugly custody battles, days without nutritious meals and nights huddled in fast food restaurants, laundromats or abandoned cars. And we say to them, “be patient.”
What ever happened to our concern for the least of these? When will we get serious about helping those who care nothing about embarking on the road to the middle class but who simply want a warm place to call their own and the assurance of eating every day?
Surely we can do better. We must do better — now.