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Despite nearly 7,500 D.C. residents counted as homeless this year, a lack of affordable housing on both sides of the Anacostia River, and tent cities still being broken down by the District, Patricia Mullahy Fugere chooses to be hopeful about eradicating homelessness. She has helmed the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless since 1991, after she co-founded the nonprofit organization and served as its board president in the mid-1980s. Fugere sat down with City Paper last week to talk about the state of homelessness in D.C., what officials can be doing to alleviate major pressures on the shelter system, and how the District can lift up those in need.
What aspects of homelessness in D.C. haven’t changed over the years?
When the clinic first started, the city sheltered families in what were known as welfare motels: a string of hotels out on New York Avenue, the most notorious of which was the Capital City Inn, which no longer exists. And where are the families now? They’re in hotels on New York Avenue.
In 2007, the city finally shut down D.C. Village, the former nursing home that had been closed by the Justice Department but then reopened as a shelter by the city. It placed some residents in a short-term housing program and others in D.C. General, the former hospital that in 2001 started operating as an overflow shelter during winters. D.C. General became a year-round shelter because the need was pretty significant, and it grew. First there was one floor at D.C. General sheltering families, then they added another floor, then another, then another.
How much of a turning point was concentrating homeless families at D.C. General?
It was the same type of thing we saw at D.C. Village but certainly not of the magnitude. The [Adrian] Fenty administration proposed opening another facility. But because of NIMBY concerns, the pressures against that site were too significant, and it never opened. Instead, D.C. General got overcrowded. The city passed a requirement that if apartment-style shelter was not available, it could use private rooms for families. The goal of that was basically to make D.C. General lawful.
During the [Vince] Gray administration, they said they had run out of motel space, and that’s when they were using recreation centers. They had hospital or Red Cross kinds of dividers between beds in gymnasiums. The city tried to make a case in court that this qualified as private rooms, even though there was no way to lock a door or keep your kids safe. That was held to be unlawful.
Everybody acknowledged that D.C. General is not a place for families to be. Families shouldn’t be in motels either. The current administration embraced the idea that it’s better for families to be in communities and not in a building where when a kid gets “home” from school every day. They see the D.C. Jail and an abandoned building, and they used to see signs for the morgue, an STD clinic, and a psychiatric unit.
One of the sad things for me has been that it’s hard to deny that folks in various administrations have looked negatively upon homeless families, in communications and testimony. With it being so public that D.C. General is a dump, you have to be desperate to turn to that system for help. Families have said it’s like prison. “I’m not here because I want to be here. I have nobody else.”
For those unfamiliar with your organization, what services does the legal clinic offer?
This is the legal clinic’s 30th year providing legal assistance and advocacy. We started as a direct-service program with volunteer lawyers, who would go into shelters, dining programs, and other places, and basically set up a little table. “The lawyer is here, how can we help you?”
We have evolved to do much more. We saw early on that a lot of the issues clients were bringing to us were emblematic of bigger issues in systems: government programs that were not running according to the law or adequately funded, shelters that were in horrific condition.
Today we have six intake sites around the city and about 250 volunteer lawyers in our network. Most cases fall into either public benefits, shelter, disability benefits, or subsidized housing.
What’s the clinic’s caseload like in a given year? Has it changed over time?
We open maybe 1,000 client matters every year. Sometimes folks just need help untangling bureaucracy or understanding why they’re still being hounded to pay a debt that had been resolved a long time ago, and it only takes a few phone calls.
We’ve seen ups and downs. Before 2005, we saw a lot more cases related to conditions or treatment in shelter programs. Another example is accessibility of shelters. The Department of Justice got involved and found that none of the District’s emergency shelters complied with federal disability rights laws. DOJ and the city entered into a precedent-setting agreement that imposed certain requirements on the District, and the system is in a much better place. Not to say it’s without problems completely.
Officials say resources are constrained and the shelter system can’t be used to fill gaps in affordable housing, so they need to restrict eligibility. Is that convincing to you?
What the city in some instances has determined to be acceptable alternatives are not. Families may be putting other relatives at risk of violating leases and being evicted. It’s like: You can’t take anybody in, but you have to because you’re the only part of her safety net that’s viable. Families are hearing that from different government agencies, and it doesn’t make any sense.
It comes into play with the city’s rapid rehousing program, too, where families are taking on a rent burden that they won’t be able to sustain on their own once the subsidy is pulled out. The math simply doesn’t work. The subsidy is time-limited, so there’s this cliff that too many families are at risk of falling over.
Speaking of rapid rehousing, the clinic published a critical report on the program last month, and the city disagreed with its findings. Is there a genuine difference of opinion?
It seems that the goal of the program could perhaps be reduced to a shelter-exit strategy and not a housing-stability strategy. It’s a very different view of the world. Our view is that it’s gonna take more housing that’s truly affordable to very low-income people to move beyond this crisis. It’s not a problem that should rest solely on the lap of D.C.’s Department of Human Services.
The establishment of the targeted affordable housing program is finally some acknowledgment that there needs to be something longer-term for people who can’t sustain in rapid rehousing but don’t need the level of services that permanent supportive housing would provide. It needs to be a bigger part of the system.
What should people be tackling with the most ferocity to reduce homelessness?
It’s on both ends of the problem: prevention and housing. Keeping people afloat against the tide of gentrification. Taking steps to make sure that development happens in a way that doesn’t displace low-income residents, their support networks, their communities where they have things so precariously balanced to make life work. The city has not done a good job at that.
To what do you attribute that?
It goes back to [Mayor] Tony Williams. He talked about wanting to bring 100,000 new residents. He could have said we are going to lift up the 100,000 D.C. residents who live below the poverty line, and we’re going to do it with an investment in economic development that will make this a cool, hip city, but in a way that includes our long-term neighbors.
I believe it can be done. It probably means that a bunch of developers would have a few fewer coins in their pockets, but you would be able to maintain a stronger, more vibrant, and more diverse community. We can’t afford to see more significant privatization of public housing either.
On the back end, we need a reality check about what rapid rehousing can and cannot be. It can work for some people, and I will own that I have probably overgeneralized about how the math doesn’t work. But it’s not a tool that will work for an awful lot of folks, who will now have a bad rent record if they get pulled into landlord-tenant court. That little blemish on their record could be a deal-breaker in a city like this that’s so competitive for housing.
You can also be nice to people, treat people respectfully. It goes a long way.
What do you mean by that?
Families in particular are looked at with such a disbelieving eye. Why have more-intensive proof of residency requirements for shelter than the school system has? It’s gotta be because somebody doesn’t believe that families are really D.C. residents.
There may on occasion be a story where an outsider comes to D.C. to use its shelters. But you know what? It’s constitutional. The Supreme Court said it’s OK to move to a jurisdiction because you want to take advantage of its resources. What I have trouble with is the double standard.
How much money did the city invest in public resources like schools, dog parks, and bike lanes to attract well-to-do people who use them? That’s OK if your wallet’s this thick, and it’s not OK to come here because you have no place for your kid to sleep at night. There’s just something fundamentally wrong with that in my sense of the world.
What got you into this work and what keeps you doing it?
As a college student here, I did some tenant organizing and got bit by the affordable housing bug. About a year and a half after I graduated from law school, the group that ultimately became the Washington Legal Clinic was forming. So it’s been a part of my life virtually since I’ve been out of school. Back then, there were many neighborhoods that were abandoned, but now there are people who are being abandoned in the effort to revitalize neighborhoods.
Why am I still doing this? I’m stubborn. I guess it’s sort of not what I do, it’s who I am. We at the legal clinic have an important role to play in trying to realize a vision of D.C. where housing is honored as a human right, people are honored with the right to participate in decisions that impact them, families have access to resources that they need to thrive, community means community—and we’re stronger for it. There’s a lot of work that’s still left to do to get us there.
It’s very hard work. But we’ve learned a lot over the years. There are tremendous success rates with the idea of housing first, getting people into a place they can afford with a subsidy, and from that place of stability tackling all of their other issues.
What’s your outlook for the next two years, both for the legal clinic and for homelessness in D.C. overall, the rate of which has decreased since last year?
We’re gonna expand some of our work on the prevention side, trying to keep people in housing and make sure that tenants are not displaced. We’re gonna continue to press for more investment in deeply affordable housing.
We are quite concerned about the implications of Trump policies on the housing authority here, which underscores the importance of protecting those resources, using them to their best possible end, and making sure we hold on to hard stock housing.
I don’t know if I would say it’s bleak, but it’s certainly a challenge that lies ahead—maybe a greater challenge than we have seen for a really long time.