Initiative 17 - The D.C. Right to Overnight Shelter Act of 1984 - passed in a landslide with 72 percent of the vote. It guarantees "safe, sanitary, and accessible shelter space, offered in an atmosphere of reasonable dignity" for the District's homeless.
For more than four years, District officials ignored the law. Finally, in January, 1989, following a lengthy trial, Superior Court Judge Harriet Taylor found the City to be clearly in violation of D.C.'s Right to Shelter Law.
Homeless people and health workers testified that shelter residents were forced to use blankets so filthy the staff wouldn't even touch them. The shelters were infested with rats, lice, and scabbies. Streams of running sewage I lowed through the buildings from toilets left broken for months at a time. In one shelter in upper Northwest, more than 150 men were housed in a space designed for 61.
Judge Taylor found the City's shelters to be grossly overcrowded, dirty, and unsafe. She called them "virtual hell-holes. " The Judge issued a Preliminary Injunction, ordering tire City to increase shelter capacity, and improve conditions in existing shelters.
In April, 1989, District officials voluntarily signed a consent decree that spelled out the City's obligations to provide emergency shelter. The City agreed to open additional facilities as needed, and maintain reasonable health and safety standards. The Washington Post reported that tire consent decree "appears to mandate drastic changes, but City officials said the improvements can be made. 'We went to great pains to agree to something we thought we could do"', said Claude Bailey, whose of l ice negotiated the agreement for theme City.
"We have done what we can to make them human beings. "
--Councilwoman Nadine Winter
In June, 1990 the D.C. City Council passed Amendment 8-156. If this bill goes into effect, it will virtually eliminate Initiative 17. It will also transform tile District of Columbia into the most repressive city in America in its policy
toward the homeless.
Amendment 8-156 eliminates all health and safety standards at City shelters, guaranteeing that they will again become horribly overcrowded, filthy and unsafe.
The Amendment eliminates the provision of transportation, making it impossible for many homeless children in City shelters to register for school or attend school. (However, if a child doesn't register for school, his or her family will be evicted from the shelter.)
The new rules and regulations, and the demand for information and documentation guarantee that many mentally disabled homeless people will be effectively denied admission to City shelters.
The demand for proof of residency in Amendment 8-156 is predicated on the idea that homeless people are flocking to the District for emergency shelter. But a 1989 study conducted by The City revealed that 97 percent of the families seeking shelter were D.C. residents. The District's own shelter director has acknowledged that among single homeless men and women, "10 percent or less are out-of-towners. The new requirement will, however, succeed in keeping many of the District's homeless people, who have neither I.D. nor personal papers, out of City shelters.
"This bill . . . does not permit the homeless to continue to work the system without giving anything back."
--Councilman H. R. Crawford
H.R. Crawford is the proponent of Amendment 8-156. His statements -and his Amendment- are very reminiscent of Ronald Reagan. Homeless people in shelters aren't "working the system". They are human beings in crisis, who, almost without exception, are desperately and legitimately in need of help.
Amendment 8-156 limits shelter availability to 30 days for individuals and 90 days for families.
Homelessness is physically, psychologically, and financially devastating. It takes a substantial amount of time and stability for many homeless people to pull their lives back together. Finding a place to live at a price they can afford may take even longer - particularly in Washington, where affordable housing is as scarce as hen's teeth. For many homeless people, such as those who are physically or mentally disabled, or elderly and on fixed incomes, appropriate and affordable housing simply doesn't exist.
Demanding that people contribute 30 percent of their income to defray the cost of shelter, or that they spend four hours a day in unpaid community service if they have no income, guarantees that they will never have the time or tile money to be able to break tile cycle of Homelessness.
All of these new provisions, coupled With mandatory drug testing and compulsory background checks, send a very clear message to homeless people: we don't like you, we don't respect you, and we really don't want you to come inside.
"We can no longer afford the luxury of the [homeless] program."
--Councilman John Wilson
It has been widely reported that the cost of providing shelter has skyrocketed as a result of Initiative 17. District spending on Homelessness has increased dramatically since 1985, but not nearly as much as claimed: City officials routinely add to the reported cost of Initiative 17 the cost of programs that have nothing to do with emergency shelter, such as, tile District's $10 million a year Tenants Assistance Program (TAP).
The escalating cost of sheltering D.C.'s homeless is, in part, a product of the significant increase in the number of homeless Washingtonians - particularly families. More than 75 percent of the City's shelter budget is spent on families.
It isn't Initiative 17 that is busting the budget, but official mismanagement and waste.
We can all agree that it makes no sense to spend thousands of dollars a month to shelter a family in a rundown apartment or welfare hotel - particularly in the face of thousands of vacant units of publicly-owned housing. But whose fault is that?
Last year the City Council passed legislation requiring that the City move homeless families out of hotels and into public housing within two weeks. The Council has never funded or enforced that legislation. Again, whose fault is that?
As the result of a recent Congressional Rearming on the District's treatment of homeless families, Rep. Ted Weiss (D-NY) concluded that "millions of dollars are being wasted on dilapidated hotels and transitional apartments that are located in drug-infested neighborhoods." These programs are operated by people with close personal and political ties to D.C. officials.
For instance, tile operator of two 45-unit apartment buildings as homeless shelters leases units in the buildings from the owner at a monthly cost of about $400 per unit; his contract with the District pays him, per month, about $2,800 per unit.
Amendment 8-156 caps spending on homeless programs. But that won't eliminate mismanagement arid waste. In fact, it will slave the opposite effect: the elimination of Initiative l7 will remove all pressure on the City to cut costs and devise more efficient and creative ways to house the homeless. The City will simply spend what it has appropriated, and then be out of the shelter business for the rest of the year - a business it didn't want to get into in the first place.
The Council will blame the Mayor for not spending the money more wisely the Mayor will blame the Council for not giving him or her enough money; and the homeless will be back out in the cold- by the thousands. Even worse, the increased costs resulting from tile cutback in emergency shelter-such as medical and mental health care, added police protection and incarceration, and foster care- will more than consume the "savings."
Help The Homeless
We can afford to provide emergency shelter for the District's homeless if the programs are simply managed better.
In fact, we could -and we should- provide more than just overnight shelter. We should be enabling the homeless to yet back on their feet, by providing tile services and resources that will allow them to do so.
We must not punish the victims -the homeless- for the City government's inefficiency, mismanagement, cronyism, and waste. But it is clear that the government will find more responsible ways to shelter the homeless, only if it is forced to do so by the voters.
Recognizing that the City Council might enact a bad law, the District's Charter makes it possible for the voters to repeal an act of the Council.
The signatures of 5 percent of the registered voters in the District of Columbia puts the question of repealing Amendment 8-156 and saving Initiative 17 on the ballot in November.
Initiative 17 is a good law. One that we can be proud of. We must defend and protect it, and those whom it serves.
We must not sacrifice the poor, the unemployed, the elderly, the disabled, the children.
Save Initiative 17
Repeal Amendment 8-156!
Help the Homeless!
Vote YES on Referendum 005!
For more information, or to find out how you can help, call or write:
Paid for by:
The Committee to Save Initiative 17
425 2nd Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001
Carol Fennelly, Treasurer