D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray sat down Friday night to discuss his record on homelessness. The city is on pace to end the winter with a 100 percent increase or more in homeless families in city shelters.The precipitous rise has put Gray on the defensive in recent mayoral debates as he makes his bid for reelection. The interview transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you arrive at this tough-love philosophy for dealing with the city’s homeless? Has there been an evolution in your thinking? As the city’s Human Resources director two decades ago, you closed 500 shelter beds in favor of more permanent housing aid to homeless. Now, you’ve opted for more temporary aid, rapid rehousing, and to push people to take care of themselves.
I worked in the private sector with people who were homeless. That was an important part of my life. I don’t know that I would term it ‘tough love.’ I would term it ‘to try to get people into someplace that is stable.’ Shelter is not a place where children should be raised. Nobody should be permanently in shelter. It’s very expensive, first of all, but in human terms, it’s very expensive also. I think what you will see in terms of my history is an effort to try to get people to a place where they can be stable. I did it when I was DHS director … to get people out of these hotels, which used to happen routinely in the 1980s and 1990s, and get them into apartments. That’s exactly what I want to be able to do now.
When you came into office, you were obviously dealing with a tough financial situation, but you did take a good chunk of money out of the Housing Protection Trust Fund those first couple of years. Do you regret that? I’m sure you wish you could have funded everything, but there were a lot of projects in the pipeline that had to slow because there wasn’t the money. Do you think that contributed at all to the current situation, where there’s not enough affordable housing available for people coming out of shelter?
I don’t think it’s an issue of money. I think it’s an issue of having the flexibility to spend the money rather than on shelter, which is very expensive, than on housing. It’s clear that this city is now in huge demand, and people are bidding up the prices of housing. But if I had to draw a conclusion about what we did a couple, three years ago, I think we had to keep the city solvent first of all, that included furloughs, some small tax increases, so we were doing what was necessary at that point. But I think we have more than invested in the last year, year-and-a-half in those things that create a better quality of life for people.
As you said, you have spent a good portion of your life working on these issues. Personally, have you taken any offense to the criticism that you don’t care about the city’s homeless population?
No. When you’re in a city as complicated as this is, you are going to have a variety of opinions and you are going to have to make decisions on any given day, some of which will please people, some of which will not please people. If you’re going to take everything personally, you will have a very difficult time getting anything done. ... those are advocates, and they have a particular point of view, and they have every right to express it. At the end of the day, I said we were going to try to improve conditions for poor people in the city, and I do think people, by and large, people are better off today than when I came in to office.
Your director of human resources last week called the dramatic rise in families seeking homeless shelter a ‘crisis’ and said the administration cannot fully explain the numbers. What do you think is the biggest cause? And how much of that is the council not moving forward with your reforms - the problem you stressed last week in a campaign debate.
Well, if you look at where we started out at the beginning of hypothermia season, the shelter was full; we had people in hotels then, and it only worsened. I think the city is back — look, for good or bad, the city has a right to shelter — and it is costing the city a lot of money and the inability to say to people, ‘look, we have a place for you, and we're going to move you into some more permanent situation, an apartment,’ and obviously we subsidize that for instance, through the Rapid Rehousing program, I think we’re hamstrung to a substantial extent to move in the direction we want to move.”
Controlling the shelter population, is it more a problem on the front end, the city not being able to evaluate if people should be allowed to stay after hypothermia nights, or is it not having enough affordable units to move them out to on the back end?
The front end is clearly an issue. With [Director of Human Resources] David Berns and Deputy Mayor [Beatriz ‘BB’] Otero, we have two people, who, you know, like me have a background in social services, who have worked all of our lives with people who have human need. What we bring to this is a desire to spend our resources differently than the way we’ve been spending them. I’m not asking for any more money. We’ve actually increased the homeless budget from $85 million when I came in to $120 million dollars. ... we’re putting more money into homeless services. I would rather put it into spending in ways that would get people to a stable, more permanent situation.
You have moved money away from the local rent subsidy program, where people pay percentage of their income to housing, and the city backfills the rest. You don’t seem to be a fan, but could something like that be a one-time fix to reduce the growing shelter population? How do you make a dent in the population quickly?
It certainly could be a help. I won’t say I’m not a fan of it ... but the question is what could we afford to do, and how do we best spend our dollars. It certainly might help in the short term to help get people moving in another direction. But if all we can do is preserve people in shelter, we can't do the evaluation, we can’t move people out when we find a place for them, I don’t know how you solve this problem.
If there’s one takeaway, if there’s one line that you want people to hear about this topic, what is it?
That we’re committed to solving it. I want the council to work with us to give us the flexibility to be able to spend the dollars differently. I don’t want people to think we need more money. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying I don’t want to be spending the money the way we’re spending it now. I want to spend it on helping people get to a permanent situation.