Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Dvorak: Political showdown jeopardizes people who need help

When Dan Davis pulls the big Sasha Bruce Youthwork van up to Benning Park on Thursday nights, at least one kid afraid of dying asks for his help.

Davis, a 30-year-old youth outreach worker, has been at the park in Southeast Washington every Thursday night for several years now. If the teens are hungry, he gives them food. If they’re cold, he gives them blankets. And if they’re afraid that the violence and vengeance that make up the cruel reality of their lives is closing in on them, he’ll find them a safe bed to spend the night.

But not this past Thursday. You can thank the great minds in Congress for that.

This is what your political gamesmanship looks like in real life, elected leaders.

Ten days into the government shutdown, as federal workers are beginning to count their pennies and the grass is growing high around the memorials that Citizen Lawn Mower Man hasn’t gotten to, the nonprofit agencies that help provide our social safety net are beginning to feel the ripple effects of this selfish, cocky showdown.

Dozens of after-school programs in the District are coming up snake eyes. No cash. Job programs and health clinics are choking.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is striding across the U.S. Capitol lawn to bust in on news conferences and let these clowns who come in from all over the country know how badly they are hurting Our Town.

Seriously, Congress. You can stir our unremarkable, phlegmatic mayor into strong, leaderly actions, but you can’t figure this shutdown thing out? Ridiculous.

Sasha Bruce Youthwork has been helping homeless, runaway and otherwise at-risk teens in the District since 1974. It operates the city’s only short-term, emergency shelter for young people. On the eve of his inauguration as president in 2009, Barack Obama helped paint a room at the shelter to encourage community service.

Now Sasha Bruce is in crisis. Founder and executive director Deborah Shore had to furlough 46 employees Thursday.

“It is hard enough that the federal government does not deem services for runaway and homeless youth as essential,” Shore said. What’s worse is that D.C. government cash is also locked up by the federal shutdown. And hypothermia season is around the corner. That’s the deadly season for kids living on the streets.

The nonprofit group already faced one big cut this year. And as a result, it had to turn away 232 kids between February and May who were looking for shelter. Now the street outreach program — and the van that Dan Davis usually drives six nights a week — can’t run. Davis is the guy who knows where the homeless kids sleep, where the kids working as prostitutes gather. He’s where the hungry kids know they can get a meal. On average, Davis estimates, he talks to 150 at-risk kids every night.

So that kid in Benning Park (and there is at least one every week) — that kid who knows his home is dangerous because his parents are getting high or because his brother’s drug boys are looking to shoot him or because his father is threatening to beat him unconscious again — will get to that spot where Davis always parks the van. And there will be nothing there.

Nonprofit agencies such as Sasha Bruce Youthwork rely on a combination of funding sources. They raise money, get private donations and apply for city, state and federal grants. Across the country, these agencies — which include soup kitchens, shelters for battered women, suicide hotlines — are starting to face a budget that doesn’t have that federal cash.

Ugly, but doable in most cases.

In the District, however, the federal government shutdown has also frozen city funds.

Natalia Otero is executive director of DC SAFE, the city’s only 24-hour shelter and outreach program for victims of domestic violence. As the shutdown loomed, Otero was told that her agency — which works with the D.C. police, the courts and the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency and which houses 17 families in crisis every night — was considered essential and wouldn’t be cut off.

Then, she was cut off.

DC SAFE needs $19,000 by Tuesday to make payroll and stay open.

The agency helps 35 to 45 people every day. Most of the calls come in between midnight and 3 a.m. — when the really bad stuff goes down.

“I can’t imagine turning that line off,” Otero said. In a saner world, she wouldn’t have to.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

 
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