**FILE** With the one-year delay of the Free Bus program, advocates and elected officials are considering where to allocate the freed up funds. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)
**FILE** With the one-year delay of the Free Bus program, advocates and elected officials are considering where to allocate the freed up funds. (Anthony Tilghman/The Washington Informer)

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Since the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) requested a one-year delay of the Free Bus program, elected officials and District residents alike have mulled over where more than $100 million in freed-up funds would go, if not back to the K Street Transitway

Some people, like the Rev. Graylan Hagler, continue to demand that the D.C. Council and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) focus on working-class District residents who are finding it harder to live comfortably in the city.  

With the D.C. Department of Human Services’ point-in-time count showing a 12.1% increase in homelessness among families, Hagler said that discussions in the John A. Wilson Building must center on how to restore and increase funding for safety net programs. 

Hagler went on to say that if residents don’t hold the council’s feet to the fire beyond attending hearings, policy decisions will continue to reflect an allegiance to developers. “The council and mayor are not in a place where they understand what’s being faced by working-class D.C. residents,” Hagler said. 

“A streetcar line and Uber surcharge have nothing to do with working-class families,” he added, referencing polarizing budget season discussions. ” It’s time that people start thinking in terms of the working class and how you [send] resources for those families and individuals so they remain a valuable part of D.C.” 

Stalled Plans and an Opportunity to Help in Other Ways 

In a May 4 letter sent to Bowser and the D.C. Council, WMATA Board Chair Paul C. Smedberg cited a $500 million fiscal cliff, the disinvestment of the K Street Transitway and the board’s desire to engage Maryland and Virginia-based partners as reasons to delay the Free Bus program. 

Smedberg however did mention the board’s interest in providing 24-hour bus service to 13 District-based bus routes. 

Even so, D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), a champion of the Free Bus program, described the WMATA Board’s actions as shortsighted and not in the best interest of public transit users. 

In a statement, Allen expressed skepticism about Maryland and Virginia’s enthusiasm for the program. He also said that WMATA reneged on what they initially proposed to him as an addition to his Metro for DC proposal, through which Metro users have their Smartrip cards replenished every month. 

On May 16, the D.C. Council will conduct its first vote on the fiscal year 2024 budget. After committee markups, the version the council will present looks different than what Bowser proposed earlier this year. 

For one, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (I-At large) secured funding for his Baby Bonds program. The D.C. Council’s Committee on Housing, chaired by D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At large), also fully funded legislation aimed at boosting the social worker and behavioral health specialist workforce. Meanwhile, D.C. Council members Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and D.C. Council member Trayon White (D-Ward 8) collaborated to secure funding for a new library on 5th Street and Kennedy Street in Northwest. 

With more funds on the table, D.C. residents want to see that the D.C. Council pays attention to quality-of-life issues. 

In recent weeks, council members have hinted at other budget priorities. Lewis George and D.C. Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) recently attended a rally on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building hosted by the Fair Budget Coalition. Amid a contentious debate about matching Washington Teachers’ Union contract funds for the charter sector, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) has also been scheduled to speak at a rally hosted by advocates of equitable pay for charter school teachers. 

Meanwhile, D.C. resident and housing advocate Lydia Curtis said that the District must dedicate more funds toward the reduction of public housing and Section 8 housing wait lists. 

Curtis, who has organized for affordable housing with the Washington Interfaith Network for six years, said the funds freed up from the Free Bus program could be used to increase staff at the D.C. Department of Human Services and D.C. Housing Authority to facilitate unhoused residents’ transition to permanent housing. 

“With the numbers being as high as ever, there should be housing first, even for people who have other issues,” Curtis told the Informer. “The residents who use the various programs often find themselves facing homelessness again because the programs aren’t long term enough.” 

Increasing Calls to Tackle Opioid Use  

Ward 7 resident and public health advocate Ambrose Lane, Jr. remains adamant about the need for an adult and youth opioid and substance use residential treatment center east of the Anacostia River. He lamented Bowser’s $9.5 million investment in the construction of a sobering center on Park Road in Northwest. 

While the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health expressed support for the sobering center, committee members stood in solidarity with residents in Wards 5, 7 and 8 who desire similar resources in their communities. They urged the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health to place the next sobering center in one of those wards, and engage community stakeholders when choosing the ideal location. 

Lane, chairperson of the Health Alliance Network, expressed views similar to the D.C. Council Committee on Health about the sobering center. 

In regard to treatment for opioid and substance use, Lane proposed two ideas he said could be completed within six months: turning a portion of United Medical Center to a substance use and behavioral health urgent care center that would later be transferred to Cedar Hill Hospital, and further solidifying the use of 801 East Men’s Shelter on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue as a harm reduction site. 

Earlier this year, Lane testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health about the feasibility and effectiveness of substance use treatment centers. He told the Informer that the preventative models would end up saving the District government more money in the long run. 

“This is something where the city can get maximum returns and savings with minimum investment,” Lane said. 

“A substance use/behavioral health center could divert overdoses from emergency rooms to save millions of dollars in costs,” he continued. “There is already substance, opioid use and overdoses happening at the men’s shelter is already in use. The city can use the shelter as a harm reduction model if they want to produce more sites. It’s not a heavy lift.”

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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