Sunflowers offered by vigil attendees honor the 43 people who died while homeless in D.C. Credit: Ambar Castillo

There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.

Yesterday, residents, officials, and homelessness advocates attended a memorial for 43 local people who have died in 2021 without housing. The vigil at Foundry United Methodist Church came before the D.C. Council budget vote this Tuesday, when lawmakers will make decisions about how much to invest in rent assistance, homelessness protections, and support for groups hit especially hard during the pandemic. 

At the vigil, advocates called for the Council to earmark $66 million to fund 2,300 additional permanent supportive housing (PSH) vouchers in the effort to end chronic homelessness. By contrast, the Interagency Council on Homelessness’ strategic plan recommends 5,000 such vouchers.

Permanent supportive housing vouchers allow for disabled people or families with a disabled family member who experience homelessness to live as independently as possible while in community-based housing. PSH is designed for folks most at risk of becoming homeless after timing out of temporary housing assistance such as Rapid Re-housing and those who require intensive case management. In addition to rent payments, the PSH budget funds these case management services as well as Housing and Urban Development Shelter Plus Care rental assistance grants and PSH staffing costs. 

214 PSH vouchers have been allotted for 2021, many of which have not yet been distributed. The distribution problem is nothing new: A DCist report found that from October 2019 to February 2021, the city had used only 56 percent of its PSH vouchers for individuals and 37 percent of those available for families. But a first step would be just to get more of these vouchers approved, which advocates say would require a slight tax increase for wealthy residents.  

“If this is the big budget, this is the one where we get all the money, then why haven’t we solved the problem?” asked Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau at yesterday’s vigil. “We don’t think it’s a lot to ask for people who were doing the best to pay a little more in taxes to help the people who have been treated the worst.”

According to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, “the richest 1 percent of DC residents pay less in DC taxes as a share of their income than middle-income residents.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen has supported raising taxes on the wealthy to support housing initiatives, while Chairman Phil Mendelson has been critical. Tomorrow’s budget vote will determine where the chips fall. 

Nadeau and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George were the only councilmembers who attended the memorial, prompting speakers to put additional pressure on members not in attendance. Reginald Black, an activist who has experienced homelessness, asked that the city be a national model “at the mountaintop” in ending homelessness and support his peers’ right to housing, food, and clothing. 

Housing has loomed as an issue in the upcoming vote. Last week, the Council unanimously voted for a phased end to eviction bans, rent freezes, and utility shutoffs—tenant protections that have helped keep many residents afloat during the pandemic. While advocates for large and small landlords alike fear what they see as an excessive overhaul of civil and property rights, tenants and their advocates decry the return of evictions at a time when the pandemic still limits some residents’ ability to work and repay crippling debt incurred throughout this period. 

“People in D.C. are closer to being homeless than being billionaires,”  advisory neighborhood commissioner for ANC 2A Yannik Omictin told City Paper

Omictin gave a tearful speech yesterday, recalling how his friend Robert Stephens, who lived at the E Street NW homeless encampment and was one of the 43 memorialized at the vigil, always wore Nationals shirts and carried his small radio with the game on around the camp during his cleanup efforts despite his early-onset Parkinson’s. The ANC commissioner denounced what he called a double dehumanization of both folks experiencing homelessness and those who are stably housed when we devalue housing rights. 

A letter from Ward 2 faith leaders addressed to Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto today called for budget vote action from their representative, who has been vocal about her commitment to helping end homelessness. Advocates also called for residents to call and email their councilmembers to voice housing as a top concern before the Council’s vote Tuesday at 12 noon.

“Tuesday’s going to show if we learned the lessons of the pandemic,” said Jesse Rabinowitz of Miriam’s Kitchen on the church steps, facing the sunflowers attendees had offered to memorialize the 43, “if we truly believe it when we say everyone needs housing for us all to be safe and well…or if we will go back to a city where we allow people to live and die without housing.”  

How Does the Budget Address D.C.’s Homelessness Goals?

Sunday’s vigil highlights the urgency behind the second phase of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to end homelessness.

We reported in June how the city is still vowing to eliminate homelessness by 2025. Bowser’s proposed budget pledged $400 million dollars over the next two years to the Housing Production Trust Fund—which is used to create affordable housing. 

But despite Bowser’s office touting the “record-setting” amount being pledged, which it is, advocates say the 2022 fiscal budget for homelessness prevention and diversion services doesn’t do enough—especially after D.C. fell far short of its 2020 goal of a 65 percent reduction of homelessness.

Now the pandemic definitely didn’t help. Officials say the number of people experiencing homelessness for over a year jumped 20 percent from the year before, though totals of homeless singles and families declined overall.

Amber Harding, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says in an op-ed published in The DC Line that the decline in family homelessness is due to moving families from shelters into the Rapid Re-Housing program. Recent figures show an increase of more than 1,100 families between 2019 and Spring 2021, with more than 3,200 families currently in the program.

Harding says the loss of that funding could lead to a “homelessness emergency” as the eviction moratorium comes to a close. The time limit on some families’ assistance will lead to many unable to afford rent and potentially out on the streets.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we are on the precipice of historic levels of homelessness in DC unless the council invests significant resources into ending and preventing homelessness,” she says in her commentary.

The proposed budget would provide support for 687 individuals and 327 families through permanent supportive housing. She says the allocation isn’t enough.

“This budget, most of the money is going into building affordable housing, which isn’t going to be ready for a minimum of five years,” Harding says, “I had some higher expectations for what we could do as a city.”

The Way Home Campaign, an initiative to end homelessness, said this is the largest such commitment for housing vouchers. However, this number still leaves 2,300 singles out on the streets for at least another year. 

Advocates also worry about the lack of new funding for Targeted Affordable Housing. Harding says only a small percentage of those experiencing homeless qualify for PSH vouchers and argues more money needs to be allocated for other voucher programs.

The Council will hold its first of two votes on the FY 2022 budget Tuesday.

Ambar Castillo and Bailey Vogt (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com and bvogt@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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