When I headed to D.C. three decades ago, it was to join a small group of activists responding to the needs of what was an ignored and largely invisible group – the homeless. We opened overnight shelters, feeding and housing nearly 1,000 people and reducing the number of dead bodies discovered on wintry city sidewalks.
We addressed an unmet need and forced the issue onto both local and national agendas. At the time the District made little effort to shelter the more than 10,000 locals traversing life on the street. Later would come a ballot initiative approved by more than 70 percent of D.C. voters in 1984. Passage of the “D.C. Right to Overnight Shelter Act” was the first time U.S. voters created a legal right to shelter.
During my involvement I simultaneously managed two independently operated city-financed shelters in abandoned school buildings – an experience that taught me much about the limited capacities of government. Public monies and empty properties were the useful resources, with service delivery the embarrassing deficiency. To this day, the country’s most successful programs are government partnerships with the private sector, volunteers and faith communities.
Government inability to think and act as a business enterprise and measure performance and results rather than program size and dollars allocated is the greatest failure of bureaucrats.
That is a lesson not yet learned by D.C. elected officials. Many local leaders are content to keep doing the same thing over and over, regardless of whether it works or merely illustrates a failure of approach. The politician’s reflex is to spend more money, without concern for common sense or critical evaluation.
When it comes to the homeless, no one represents this shortsightedness more than D.C. Council member and Human Services Committee chair Jim Graham.
As demonstrated by public hearings Graham held on the issue this year, he has proven less interested in fixing what’s wrong than simply wrenching more money for program budgets. Graham’s approach is nothing more than old-fashioned posturing employing outdated politics of the past. Worse, he combines a lack of disciplined oversight with a disinterest in solutions from other jurisdictions, placing the District in bottom-of-the-barrel disrepute.
The result? Serving fewer people at greater cost and over budget by millions. All while leaving recipients stuck in a cycle of perpetual reliance.
Fortunately for the homeless and other taxpayers, an initiative by D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is starting to show results. Patterned on the success of similar programs elsewhere, “Rapid Re-Housing” offers an immediate response for families entering shelters or on the brink of homelessness. It’s an effort to break with current failures while curtailing a culture of dependency.
Gray’s action-oriented get-tough strategy, coupled with finally beginning to comply with federal welfare reform measures instituted 20 years ago, have met opposition from Graham. These new policies, however, have proven successful in moving homeless families into private market apartments utilizing short-term subsidies and supportive case management.
The result? Three-quarters of families succeed, not returning to shelters, at less than one-third the astounding shelter cost of $50,000 per family per year. Emergency housing becomes available to others when not occupied long-term and more are served with limited available funding, producing broader benefits.
Housing in D.C. has become extraordinarily expensive and low-income housing is increasingly scarce. The number of homeless families has more than doubled in the past five years, affordable housing has decreased by half during a decade and there are no simple solutions. But a city can’t wait to solve poverty to reduce homelessness.
Mayor Gray is re-focusing transitional shelter and encouraging self-sufficiency. Coupled with affordable housing investments over the next 10 years, Gray offers a more forward-moving approach than the status quo Graham seems to prefer.
Posing as defender of the poor while becoming a barrier to better outcomes is no longer supported by a public interested more in progress than pathos.
Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.