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Why does the District pay to bus homeless men downtown?

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By Colbert I. King
Saturday, November 13, 2010

Last Saturday's front-page story "As shelters move farther out, network of buses connects homeless with downtown," got me to thinking: How does the District government justify spending money to transport homeless men every day from shelters to downtown Washington so that some of them can panhandle or sit on curbs with cups? I still haven't figured it out.

For the record: I'm no stranger to the city's work with the homeless. I was an editorial writer back in 1993 and 1994, when the administration of Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and her Human Services director, Vincent Gray, got tied up in knots over the Clinton administration's experiment - led by top Housing and Urban Development official Andrew Cuomo - to make the District into a model for a national battle against homelessness. The District's homeless population, suffice to say, outlived both the Clinton and Kelly administrations. The homeless will also be on hand when Gray takes office as mayor in January.

I've spent plenty of time in shelters, attending group sessions with homeless men and visiting transitional housing. Homelessness, as advocates working tirelessly in the trenches will tell you, is not an easy problem to solve. People become homeless for many reasons; they have different strengths, weaknesses and needs. It's easy to talk about preventing men, women and children from becoming homeless. Actually preventing people from becoming homeless is another matter. What's more, helping them exit homelessness to stable lives is equally challenging.

Here's how the city's Proposed Comprehensive Plan for Accessibility of Homeless Shelters describes the New York Avenue Shelter featured in the Post story:

"New York Avenue provides low barrier [short-term, emergency] shelter for 360 men. . . . [It] is a housing assistance center offering severe weather, low barrier and Wrap-Around services for men. Specific services include life skills and substance abuse counseling and education, computer, GED and literacy classes, health care, employment and other mainstream service referrals." Did they forget transportation?

I learned from the Post story that some of the homeless men who are bused to downtown locations from the Department of Human Services' network of shelters around the city also go to jobs or soup kitchens, and some visit social service bureaus. But not all.

A case in point is the 47-year-old man featured in Saturday's story. He's been unemployed for almost a decade. He has slept in the shelters of four states. He rides the city-provided bus downtown daily to get a meal, collect cigarette butts, panhandle and hang out in the public library. What good are we doing him by putting him on a bus for a daily round of begging in the streets? He needs more than that.

So, pray tell, where are those services touted by the Comprehensive Plan? Where is the city worker responsible for assessing that bus rider's problems? Where is his referral to a program or service that addresses his needs? Where does he find those services? On the bus? On a downtown street corner? In the public library?

The city, facing a $175 million deficit, is reportedly spending about $1.8 million a year on transportation for the homeless. I, for one, support spending for hypothermia vans that patrol the streets on wintry nights. And I agree that the city should provide transportation that links homeless people living in shelters to feeding stations, jobs and social services.

The part that I find mystifying is the supplying of homeless men in the city's widely dispersed shelter system with free transportation to facilitate panhandling downtown. What's with that?

"This just fits into an overall notion that being homeless doesn't eliminate your need to get to and from places to conduct your life," Clarence H. Carter, director of DHS, told The Post. "Everybody's got to commute." Say what?

That makes no sense. Carter did not return my call or respond to an e-mail request for comment.

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