D.C. HOMELESS DEBATE
Barry Delays Bill After Bickering Highlights Council Divide
Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Richard Embden, a 47-year-old Army veteran, waited for hours on the fifth floor of the John A. Wilson Building in hopes that the D.C. Council would pass emergency legislation to create a new 150-bed shelter in downtown Washington.
A former resident of the recently closed Franklin School shelter, Embden now sleeps on a park bench and said yesterday that the city has removed a lifeline for the homeless.
"When you are homeless, you have a system," he said. "You learn where you can eat lunch, where you can eat breakfast. . . . But when you have to move, you turn someone's life upside down."
More than 50 homeless men have been placed in apartments, the majority of which are in Southeast Washington. Some of the men from Franklin are being housed in trailers on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) started the day with a plan to introduce the bill at the day's legislative meeting, but he postponed it after meeting resistance from some colleagues. The debate exposed a divide in the council about the city's approach to its chronically homeless population. It is a debate initiated by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's ambitious plan to move the chronically homeless out of shelters and into permanent housing.
To some homeless activists and officials such as Barry, a downtown facility is about access to resources. For Jack Evans, whose Ward 2 includes the shelter, it is about an old concept.
Barry delayed his bill after a council breakfast during which Evans pounded the table and cursed in anger as he pressed his colleague.
"Is this move about you and the mayor, or is this about this shelter?" he demanded of Barry. Evans then accused Barry of being locked in a test of wills with Fenty (D), who closed the Franklin School shelter, at 13th and K streets, Sept. 26.
In an interview, Barry dismissed the accusation and said that the question of homelessness is a national one, and that providing permanent housing for some doesn't address the immediate needs of others.
The bickering at the breakfast ended after Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) asked Barry to delay the legislation because there was no consensus. "We need to try to get the principals together. There's a humane issue involved here, there is a practical issue here," Gray said.
Peter Tucker, spokesman for the Committee to Save Franklin, was frustrated at the delay. "It would have been nice to see who our friends were on the council and who is against guys having access to a downtown shelter," he said.
According to Tucker, about 80 men have been given apartments. Most of the 300 residents who lived at the Franklin shelter are either at the Southeast shelter, at the shelter along New York Avenue or living on the streets so that they can remain downtown.