Shelter Stasis: The former D.C. General hospital is used to house homeless families. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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Pop Quiz: Name the director of D.C.’s Department of Employment Services? How about the director of the Department of Human Services? No peeking at dc.gov. And no, Cathy Lanier and Michelle Rhee don’t head up these agencies. No luck? No surprise. Our collective inability to turn these agencies’ main tasks into high-profile election issues is a reason why this campaign season was such a bust.

In January, the District’s unemployment rate stood at 12 percent. The rate has since fallen to 9.8 percent. It was 6.5 percent five years ago. We’re doing only slightly better than Baltimore. But the unemployment numbers only tell part of the story. In 2009, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute reported that an estimated 11,000 additional residents fell into poverty—families of four earning $21,800. The growth in the District’s poor was the largest year-to-year jump in 14 years. At the same time, the number of affordable housing units has shrunk by a third since 2000.

Boring, wonky issues? Sure. But the story of D.C.’s underclass also includes tales that have grabbed media attention. The Banita Jacks case, in 2008, turned the spotlight on the city’s long-troubled Child and Family Services Agency. The agency had been supposed to be checking up on Jacks’ four daughters. They turned up dead, murdered by Jacks. It was an enormous story. But two years later, the only time juvenile social-services issues are discussed on the campaign trail is when people attack Peaceoholics, the nonprofit activist group closely tied to Mayor Adrian Fenty.

Thus the contentious 2010 mayoral race between Fenty and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray will be remembered for go-go shows, crank calls, frat brothers, lottery contracts, Gray’s change in eyewear, and Fenty’s late decision to apologize for everything. The Washington Post’s endorsement of Fenty doesn’t mention the city’s unemployment rate, its expanding underclass, or Banita Jacks. In fact, the only debate we’ve had about the city’s social-welfare performance concerns how DHS did in the early 1990s, a period when Gray led the agency and which Fenty has decided is ripe for attack ads.

You won’t hear the candidates talking about it, but those bad old days look a lot like today. Too many homeless families? Check. Residents forced to live in the streets? Check. Homeless living in trailers? Check.

This past winter, the number of homeless families overwhelmed the emergency shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. On Feb. 4, there were 163 families—double the number from the same date in 2009. A month later, there were 200 families—comprised of 851 residents, including 400 children. The families slept in the cafeteria and bunked in common rooms. Some spent nights sleeping on hallway floors next to trash cans, and used their belongings for pillows. In the past two years, two babies died at the shelter.

And yet there are folks for whom D.C.’s own Superdome remains a sought-after address. On Aug. 2, Marta Beresin, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, testified before the D.C. Council that by mid-July, 543 families were on the waiting list just to get into the D.C. General shelter. Twenty-seven of those families were sleeping in cars and at bus stations.

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Maybe it’s not surprising that non-homeless residents, worried about jobs and schools and neighborhoods, aren’t obsessing about people sleeping in cars. But it’s a bit more jarring that the city’s ample supply of activists haven’t used D.C. General for so much as a protest backdrop, press conference locale, or YouTube video—the sort of thing that could shame candidates into dealing with the issue.

Some of them tried. Sort of. This past spring, Save Our Safety Net held rallies, interrupted a Fenty press conference and D.C. Council business—all in the name of addressing proposed budget cuts to DHS and CFSA. The group lost its biggest fight, promoting a tax on the city’s top wage earners. But they at least got politicians talking about the most vulnerable residents.

“I felt like we lost beautifully,” says Joni Podschun, a Save Our Safety Net organizer. “We accomplished a lot—to have things talked about publicly that wouldn’t otherwise have been.”

But as soon as the budget debate ended, Podschun says that her organization ran out of funding. In the process, reforming the tax system also fell off the radar.

Once the campaigns started up in earnest, D.C. went back to talking what we’ve been talking about every election cycle since the late ’90s: gentrification. We have these silly proxy wars over streetcars and bike lanes and dog parks. Fenty’s answer for everything is a shiny new school and a shiny new rec center. Gray’s answer is a shiny new taskforce and vocational program. Both candidates suggest that 30 percent unemployment in Ward 8 is an intractable problem that will only get fixed decades from now.

Perhaps poverty and jobs are just too complicated a subject for political rhetoric. “The question is if you know a Metro is coming in or a streetcar is coming in, what do you do to capture the increased wealth to help people stay,” says Ed Lazere, executive director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. “It’s fair to say no leader has thought through that. What are we going to do when a streetcar comes to help people stay there? It’s a pretty complicated conversation. It’s the kind of conversation that should be happening.”

The vacuousness on poverty was even on display at the one candidates’ forum of the campaign season that was explicitly supposed to focus on poverty. During that August debate, attended by the candidates running in the D.C. Council chairman and at-large races, participants were unable to address the current state of the shelter system, from capacity issues to out-of-date facilities. Midway through the forum, I asked one of the debate’s organizers what she thought of the candidates’ answers so far. She put her finger in her mouth and pretended to gag.

It’s not like the candidates were going unchecked. Just as Save Our Safety Net went dormant, the nonprofit Defeat Poverty DC campaign, in which Lazere plays an active role, was started in order to push pols to discuss poverty. They launched a website, produced videos for a YouTube channel, set up booths at forums, and passed out stickers. But they had only about $200,000—not enough, apparently, to wean pols off their long-running obsession with posturing over gentrification. At some forums, their booth looked like the loneliest place to be. Its YouTube channel hasn’t had a video with more than 104 views.

Defeat Poverty DC sent out a questionnaire to all the candidates running for office. By the end of August, only the two major mayoral candidates’ responses had been posted. Recently, more responses have trickled in—often as pat and superficial as campaign mailings. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham merely produced a list of his accomplishments.

But maybe this is just what the voters want. Aaron McCormick, a former D.C. General resident, had been one of the biggest agitators for shelter reform. He had spoken out repeatedly on the poor living conditions at the old hospital. Late this summer, he and his family finally found an apartment and moved out of the shelter.

He wrote me to say that he had gotten a job with the Gray campaign. Alas, he wasn’t tasked with organizing around the one issue he knew best. Instead, he’d been asked to organize a go-go show.