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On Saturday, Nkechi Feaster will return to D.C. General, where she was born when it was a hospital, and lived with her son after it became the city’s biggest family homeless shelter.
But this time, Feaster, 40, will be flanked by social justice activists like herself, who plan to stage a two-hour rally calling on the District to invest more money into affordable housing and anti-poverty strategies. A past participant in D.C.’s rapid rehousing program, which seeks to divert people from homelessness, Feaster will speak about the obstacles to stable housing that low-income residents face, among them non-violent criminal histories and insufficient opportunities for employment. Organizers say they expect around 100 demonstrators. They chose 19th and Burke streets SE, near the Stadium-Armory Metro station, as the site of the rally because D.C. General and the D.C. Jail are co-located there.
“They go hand in hand,” says fair housing advocate Nicole Baker, making a link between incarceration and homelessness. “A lot of the women who go into the shelter, they’re there because they’re unable to support their families and provide a roof over their head by themselves. A lot of the times, it’s because their partner or their child’s parent is in jail, or because they themselves are victims of domestic violence, [or because of] mental health.”
“All I needed was nothing special, just a roof over my head,” Baker continues, adding that she and her first-born child lived out of a car for some time.
Those gathering tomorrow hope to get the attention of Mayor Muriel Bowser, the D.C. Council, and other officials as they begin to formulate the District’s budget for fiscal year 2018. By their count, the District’s fiscal year 2017 budget, which comes into effect Oct. 1, invests three times more in policing and criminal justice than affordable housing: the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Corrections received roughly $700 million for total operating expenses, versus a little more than $230 million for affordable housing programs, which is notably a 7 percent increase over the prior year’s budget and a record level, according to the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Since she’s been in office, Bowser has committed $100 million a year to the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund, a major tool for propping up and producing affordable housing—the most by any mayor.
Still, Baker argues that not all those dollars go towards the needs of the most vulnerable residents. “I don’t mean ‘affordable housing,’ according to the area median income,” she says, referring to the metric D.C. relies on to create different levels of affordability. Asked about the city’s recent investments in affordable housing, Feaster adds: “You’re not doing enough. The D.C. budget is in the billions. You can’t tell me you don’t have the means to put more than $200-some-odd million into housing.” (The city’s total budget for fiscal year 2017 is about $13 billion, including $7 billion in local funds.)
Or, as Sam Jewler, an organizer with Bread for the City, says, “Millions of dollars sounds like a lot to the average person, but it’s really not when you look at the budget as a whole and relative to the need.” He adds that Saturday’s rally will be a “base-building event” for housing advocacy this year.
The event is scheduled to start at 1 p.m. and last until 3 p.m.