By Eric Sheptock
WASHINGTON,DC - On Friday, March 11th, 2011 DC Councilman Jim Graham held what would turn out to be one of the most heart-wrenching Human Services budget oversight hearings that I've ever attended. Stories were told of homeless mothers and their very young children being turned away from shelter with nowhere to go. One woman sat in the hearing with her month-old baby who has never slept in a crib or had a place to call home. This is happening in the capital of the wealthiest country on earth, as our government spends billions bailing out Wall Street and fighting unjust wars!
Those testifying included homeless and formerly homeless people as well as service providers. People gave testimonies of how certain programs have helped them and implored the councilman to ensure continued funding for these programs. Others exposed problems with the system. A lawyer from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH) suggested that, since DC Government's Dept. of Human Services devises a winter plan each year and the purpose of that plan is to prevent weather-related deaths, they should also keep records of weather-related deaths as a way of gauging their level of success or failure.
As is the case with government all too often, what was once presented as a solution has now become the problem. In response to complaints about the DC Village Family Shelter, the administration of former DC mayor Adrian Fenty closed the shelter and instituted the System Transformation Initiative (STI), a program which housed about 170 families. Now the government claims that it doesn't have enough money to keep funding STI and is "transforming" the System Transformation Initiative into STEAP (Short-Term Exit Assistance Program).
Whereas STI previously had no time limit, STEAP will pay all of a homeless family's rent for the first month and then incrementally over the course of a year, decrease the percentage of rent that they pay. The program will cease to pay the family's rent after a year. Families are screened for the program and may only receive its services if is highly probable that they will become fully self-sufficient within a year. However, it is not very likely that a family's monthly income will increase by more than $1,000 over the course of a year, which means that most participants are being set up to fail.
Four young mothers with children ranging from one month to five years old came under the direction of lawyers from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. They gave heart-felt accounts of how they and their children were turned away by the shelter system with nowhere to go. One mother cried as she explained how that she, with her 3 children -- ages 5, 3 and less than a year-old -- in tow, was told by an employee of the Virginia Williams Family Intake Center that there were no shelter spaces for them and that she was given bus tokens so she could ride the city bus all night with her children in order to stay warm. Other mothers testified that they also were given bus tokens so that they could use the bus as a de facto shelter. (DC Law states that, if there is no shelter space available for a homeless family with small children, then they must be put into a motel room)
All of this just goes to show that the State is not genuinely concerned about its poor and dispossessed. They are giving tax breaks to the wealthy while cutting the budgets for much-needed social services. The silver lining in this dark cloud is that more of the dispossessed are becoming socially conscious and angry at the system which is failing them.