Bowser chats with Williams and Harris outside Dunbar High School.
Bowser chats with Williams and Harris outside Dunbar High School.

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Last week, as the mayoral primary race entered its final stretch, Donnell Harris tweeted at me with a type of image that’s not too uncommon during campaign season: a photo of himself with the mayor, out on the trail.

Harris and his family became homeless this winter, and I’ve gotten to know them well over the past few months in the course of my reporting on the surge in family homelessness in the District. As long as temperatures dropped below freezing at night, the city was required to shelter all its homeless families in need, and Harris’ family was put up first at recreation centers and then at a motel. But now that spring has rolled around and the legal right to shelter is gone, the administration of Mayor Vince Gray is no longer placing homeless families in shelter. When I asked Harris if Gray had said what his plan was, he referred to Gray’s recently announced push to place 100 homeless families into long-term housing within 500 days, but said he wasn’t aware of any immediate plan to help families like his.

Today, while following Gray’s top rival, Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, on the campaign trail, I found Harris and his wife Stephanie Williams talking to Bowser at a campaign appearance outside Dunbar High School. Harris and Williams had just come from nearby So Others Might Eat for a bite, where they saw some commotion at Dunbar and stopped by to check it out.

As I approached, Bowser was telling them that if she were elected mayor, she’d make it a priority to see that families weren’t living on the streets. But she stopped short of pledging to shelter families year round, rather than just in extreme weather.

Still, the promise of a change at the top was enough to sway Harris and Williams, who said they’d voted for Bowser this morning.

“It’s time for a change,” said Harris. “I think [the Gray administration has] let a lot of people down in the homeless community.”

“I heard she was trying to get people off the street,” Williams added. She mentioned the recent letter signed by four members of the D.C. Council urging the administration to continue sheltering the families it’s been putting up this winter. I asked if she knew that Bowser wasn’t among the four signatories. “That’s unfortunate,” she replied, “but hopefully she’ll get on board.”

Later in the afternoon, Bowser arrived at Bancroft Elementary School in Mount Pleasant. There, one of her campaign’s most active volunteers, decked out in Bowser Green, was Polly Donaldson, executive director of the Transitional Housing Corporation, which provides housing and services to homeless families. Donaldson praised Bowser as a good listener.

Bowser hasn’t yet had to prove herself much as a homeless advocate, and in fact, in perhaps her highest-profile involvement in homeless issues, she opposed the use of a building in her ward as a homeless shelter. But for homeless families and their allies who have been frustrated by the Gray administration’s response to the shelter crisis this winter, the simple fact that she’s not Gray might be enough to win their support today.