Community

Struggles Faced by District’s Homeless Citizens Return to the Spotlight

As the D.C. courts gear up for a flood of eviction proceedings, many homeless and housing-insecure District residents continue to make last-ditch appeals to landlords, case workers and housing advocates to prevent their precarious conditions from worsening.

For one District resident, each new day brings uncertainty about whether she will remain in a District rapid rehousing program that, for six years, has allowed her to stay in increasingly expensive apartments at well below the market rate.

Months into the pandemic, the resident, who asked to be called “Cell Jamison,” lost her job while caring for a child who contracted COVID-19. She subsequently applied for unemployment compensation, leaned on community programs for diapers, wipes and other essentials and negotiated with her landlord to pay her delinquent rent.

Through it all, Jamison continued to collect evidence of mold infestation she said triggered her and her children’s asthma. She also attempted to make sense of stories she heard about other rapid rehousing participants who, after passing the six-year benchmark, had been dismissed from the program without proper notice.

Reflecting on her situation today, Jamison said she has nothing to fall back on if she meets the same fate.

“Homelessness is hard, especially when you have children,” the Southeast resident said. “We’re trying hard but they say we have to pay market rate for rent after a year knowing we can’t do that. I can’t find the unit I want. They usually do that for me.”

The Clock Continues to Tick 

Thousands of District residents facing eviction have applied to STAY DC, a financial assistance program that covers rent and utility costs. However, the program has been mired in controversy for what’s been described as a convoluted application process.

Over the last few weeks, D.C. Council Chairperson Phil Mendelson (D) and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) repeatedly clashed about the program.

Mendelson, concerned about the sluggish distribution of funds, told The Informer he wanted to prevent as many evictions as possible before October 12, when District landlords can start filing eviction proceedings against tenants.

Throughout the pandemic, many homeless District residents have found themselves in a similar, and increasingly contentious, relationship with the D.C. government. This ongoing conflict reached its apex this week when the D.C. Department of Human Services attempted to clear a homeless encampment at the NoMa overpass in Northeast.

That operation, part of what’s called the Encampment Pilot, targets the above-mentioned site and other encampments on E Street in Northwest between 20th and 21st Streets, and New Jersey Avenue and O Street Park in Northwest with the goal of connecting homeless people with housing resources.

While carrying out this plan at the NoMa overpass on Monday, Oct. 4, a skid-steer loader hit one homeless person. Though the individual reportedly did not suffer life-threatening injuries, the outcome brought operations to a halt, at least for that afternoon.

On the same day, a fire broke out at the encampment at O Street Park, subsequently claiming the victim’s life.

For housing and mental health advocate Rhonda Hamilton, both the Encampment Pilot and the state of affordable housing in general, demonstrates the District government’s lack of empathy toward homeless and housing insecure people.

“People find themselves on the street because of the breakdown in trust and resources,” said Hamilton, founder of M.I. Mother’s Keeper, a Southeast-based organization dedicated to improving housing and mental health outcomes for marginalized District residents.

“Deputy Mayor Wayne Turnage felt justified using the [skid-steer loader] but the reality is that people are sleeping on the street because they’ve gone through something. Using [a skid-steer loader], of course you’re going to catch a human body. We’re just concerned that they’re being robbed of their dignity,” Hamilton said.

A Dire Need for Greater Accountability, Transparency

Earlier this month, the Bowser administration announced the use of $400 million from the Housing Production Trust Fund [HPTF], along with other local and federal resources, for the construction and preservation of affordable housing.

Bowser said the recent investment would bring the District closer to its goal of 36,000 new homes by 2025.

The Sept. 30 announcement preceded the release of a report by the Office of the Inspector General [OIG] which indicated that the D.C. government awarded nearly $82 million from HPTF to developers deemed ill-suited to create housing for extremely low-income residents.

The OIG’s findings drew the ire of several residents, including Sharece Crawford, a fixture in the D.C. Democratic Party who’s running for an At-large D.C. Council seat next year.

She said the report highlighted the need for good governance and collaboration with the right developers.

“We have to assess who we are putting in positions [and] have as many oversight hearings as needed,” Crawford said Monday during a press conference on the steps of the Wilson Building in Northwest.

It’s okay to be more transparent in the process instead of waiting until [the end] of the fiscal year,” she continued. “There are developers and corporate interests who are doing their fair share. We want to see the blueprints and amplify the plans of developers who want affordable housing.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is part of our 2021 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at www.DCHomelessCrisis.press. You can also join the public “#DCHomelessCrisisSolutions” Facebook group or follow #DCHomelessCrisis on Twitter to discuss this issue further.

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