A "No" vote on Initiative 17 is a vote for the homeless. This is the position of the Coalition for the Homeless, the only city-wide advocacy network of shelter providers, churches, local organizations and individuals devoted to protecting the rights of the homeless. A No vote is a vote that no homeless person will be homeless forever. Here are the reasons:
The initiative was developed by a small group of activists with no participation by local people who will have to pay a projected $20-million cost of the initiative. It would allow us to vote only yes or no to set in place a public policy for providing warehouses for the homeless; nothing more is required from the District government to provide comprehensive support services, including appropriate facilities for homeless families These services are necessary to ensure that a homeless person will not just be a part of the revolving population in shelters, relegated to be a member of a permanent underclass and homeless forever. Initiative 17 does not recognize the reality of a baby born in a shelter and growing up with a permanent homeless status.
In the past two years, with prodding from the coalition and other groups, the District government has made strides in recognizing that solving the problems of the homeless requires a host of specialized services and involves a critical need for mental health services. About 70 percent of the homeless in the District today are people who have some mental health problems. We know the impact of a public policy that creates warehouses for the homeless, such as the facility at 2d and D Streets NW. The coalition is currently discussing the opinion of some professionals who believe that putting the homeless mentally ill into warehousesmay be more detrimental than were the situations from which they come.
Initiative 17 states that all persons in the District of Columbia, with no limit on age, income or duration, have a right to "overnight shelter" that can be enforced through the courts. The coalition affirms its support for overnight shelter as an emergency response to a crisis. But the initiative makes warehousing the homeless a long-term public policy. That would allow our local government to ignore a more substantial response to homelessness and would absolve the federal government of any role in providing for the people who come to the District because it is the nation's capital. In fact, it is the policies of the Reagan administration that have increased the homeless population in the District by more than 30 percent.
The coalition's decision to oppose Initiative 17 was a difficult one. It required a thorough analysis showing that the needs of the homeless will never be met by voting yes on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The comprehensive response that is needed requires a partnership of business, labor, religious and government leaders and individual residents. Initiative 17 was created without consultation with any of these groups. There have been no public hearings, no public debate that reflects a city-wide perspective on solving the homeless crisis. The recent series highlighting the success of the McKenna House is a prime example of the services to the homeless that the coalition believes form the basis for public policy.
The coalition recognizes that neighborhoods have to be educated to accept neighborhood-based facilities for groups with special needs. We are now working closely with religious organizations to sponsor "Shelter the Homeless Sunday" on Nov. 4 -- a positive search for the resources to do more than create warehouses and a permanent underclass of homeless. Churches and temples can make a difference in providing dollars and beds. In the meantime, a No vote on Initiative 17 ensures an active moral commitment to a better world in which the homeless will not be homeless forever.