This summer a woman died while sitting on a bench in downtown Washington, D.C.

She’d been sitting on the same bench night after night, even when it rained. It turns out that the woman, who’d probably claimed the bench as her own, was homeless.

This is just one of the many scenarios often painted in the District surrounding its homeless individuals, and according to an official with a D.C.-based organization that advocates the eradication of homelessness, this can’t go on.

“We can’t continue to let that kind of stuff happen,” said Neil Donovan, executive director of the Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. “We can’t just walk by people and say, ‘ I can’t believe that they make choices like that,’ because they’re not really making decisions.”

Donovan said PPH’s hypothermia report from last year concluded that the District can’t begin to plan for the homeless just as it begins to get cold. “Because that’s too late,” Donovan said. “Oftentimes people think that it’s 32 or below freezing when people can start to get into the danger area, but in fact it’s a lot warmer than that. It’s about 47 degrees when someone can actually die of hypothermia.”

He continued. “Also, there are consequences that people may not be aware of such as the influence of cold on someone who has a psychiatric disability.”

But Donovan said because the city is currently in a financial bind, officials are hard pressed to make a decision to balance the budget by closing or reducing winter services for the homeless.

“That’s just going to make the problem that much more challenging when April rolls around and they’re faced with this enormous budget deficit,” he said.

Donovan added that Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, a longtime advocate and supporter of homeless people, “is coming up with some really questionable ideas about balancing the budget on the backs of the homeless and we just can’t allow that to happen,” said Donovan.

Wells, who chairs the city Committee on Human Services, was not immediately available for comment.

But he said in a recent statement about a hearing last month to review the city’s plans for assisting the homeless this season, that with the District facing yet another budget gap, officials should use local resources solely for D.C.’s homeless.

Although the District has developed a strategic action plan to end homelessness by 2014, during the colder months it automatically provides emergency shelter to any homeless families and individuals in need of assistance.

Clarence Carter, director of the city’s human services department, said one of the roles of the District’s Interagency Council on Homelessness is to approve a winter plan that specifies what the District will do to accommodate its homeless population during the coldest months of the year. That timeline, which covers the hypothermia period, began this week and runs through March 31.

While Carter could not say immediately how many families and individuals the District serves each winter, he alluded to efforts of the U. S Department of Housing and Urban Development, which in January of each year, makes a count of the homeless in jurisdictions across the country. Carter said that as a result of last year’s count, the District designated 6,500 people homeless.

He said that within the current fiscal year the city has earmarked some $50 million for homeless services, and that $3.7 million of those appropriations are typically spent during the hypothermia season.

According to Carter, his department is on board helping to wipe out homelessness in the District, period.

Said Carter: “Prior to my arrival at the department, its focus on homelessness had been essentially to be able to maintain that level of existence, which meant really did no more than focus on getting them and other economically challenged people what they needed to maintain in whatever circumstances they were found dealing with.”

But he said the department is now attempting to shift the emphasis so that it won’t be enough for it to just maintain poverty. “We have to actually try to move through to a place where they have a better chance of standing on their own,” Carter said. “So we are in the process of completely reinventing the department to not be one that only focuses on the point of public need, but to determine what is it that we can do to grow the homeless beyond the need for this assistance.”

 

DorothyRowley

AFROStaffWriter