Barring a court order, we District voters will be asked to decide when we go to the polls a week from tomorrow whether to direct the city to provide overnight shelter for the homeless. Initiative 17 is so controversial that it has divided even those who act as advocates for the care and protection of the homeless. Understandably, many residents don't know whether to vote yes, the D.C. government should provide shelter for the homeless, or no, the D.C. government should not.
I have decided to vote yes for Initiative 17 to express the belief that a homeless person's right to shelter is an important question of justice. But I would not view a no vote on this referendum as an act of hostility or indifference.
Washington has an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homeless, far more than existing facilities can house. About 70 percent are mentally ill, victims of deinstitutionalization, which is not working. This is a complex issue that must be addressed.
There are people on both sides of the initiative whom I know and admire. Mitch Snyder and his 45-member Community For Creative Non-Violence, the creators of the initiative, have put the problems of the homeless on the front burner.
But the equally admirable Coalition for the Homeless, a citywide advocacy network of shelter providers, churches, local organizations and individuals, worries that a yes vote would make "warehousing the homeless a long-term public policy that would allow our local government to ignore a substantial response to homelessness and absolve the federal government of any role."
A measure of the difficulty of deciding which side is right is the fact that some members of the coalition don't agree with the majority position.
A Christian paradigm, is, in part, the backdrop for some of the confusion. Who is so without compassion that he or she would suggest that the homeless are not the problem of us all? The homeless do not represent only personal failures; they are our brothers and sisters. Programs should be put in place to support and protect them, especially since the federal government says such problems are up to local and state jurisdictions. So, the people must make government understand that a difference exists between charity and justice. The Coalition for the Homeless asks only: what is the most desirable approach?
The question of cost is uncertain and unresolved. The city said the initiative would cost taxpayers $20 million, and the coalition agrees, but advocates say the city would not have to spend any more than it does now. The fact is nobody knows what it would cost, and, in highlighting that issue the city may have gutted the initiative process. The notion behind their strategy seems to be: "Since we can't attack the initiative, let's spotlight the money. Mandating appropriation by referendum won't work."
The coalition's antiwarehousing argument is persuasive. They maintain that the initiative makes warehousing the homeless a long-term public policy. Snyder maintains that the homeless cannot expect to receive the wide variety of services that will prevent warehousing until they have been brought from the grates and benches inside, as Initiative 17 would provide.
But we know some of the shelters are already filled to overflowing, especially in winter, and many of these shelters -- including the CCNV's own at Second and D streets NW -- are not providing adequate services.
There is equal disagreement on whether the homeless from other areas will come to Washington for free shelter. The initiative provides that shelter need not be given those who come expressly for that purpose.
Whatever the ultimate accuracy of the criticisms, one should not feel that a no vote is a statement of meanness. It is just that I perceive that the consequences of a negative vote would be such a serious setback to the already alarming problem of the homeless that I will cast my vote for the city to "require" that they be sheltered.