At the beginning of D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams's administration, a member of his transition team said, "With the management of homeless programs under the D.C. initiative set to expire in March 1999, it is paramount that the mayor take this opportunity to implement certain steps." But, unfortunately, those "certain steps" have not been taken.
When the mayor's transition team issued that statement, 400 families were on the waiting list for the city's emergency shelter program. Today more than 400 families still are on that list.
At the time of that statement, about 400 men and women lived in deplorable conditions at three trailer parks for the homeless contracted for by the city. About 400 homeless men and women still are housed at those trailer parks, and conditions there deteriorate daily despite repeated calls from advocates and activists.
At least 400 homeless individuals also are being housed in three D.C. Public Schools facilities that are slated to be sold. An undetermined number of people are sleeping on the District's streets each night. Many of them have been turned away from shelters because of a lack of space. Others sleep on the streets or in parks because their situation cannot be addressed by the city's "continuum of care" approach to the problem of homelessness.
During his first 10 months in office, Williams assigned homelessness and its services to a specific contact person in his office, and members of his staff have been responsive when issues concerning the homeless are brought to their attention. But much more is needed.
In New York City, homeless services are provided in much the same manner as in Washington, through nonprofit organizations and contracting -- with one fundamental difference: New York City has a Department of Homeless Services that coordinates services and is accountable to taxpayers and to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
In Washington, the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness coordinates homeless services, but it functions outside of the government.
Some of the problems with programs for the homeless might be solved if the District's administration assumed its responsibilities. The mayor's "certain steps" should be to consolidate fragmented systems and bring a systemic approach to the problem of homelessness in Washington.
-- Brian Gilmore
is staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Inc.