The Oct. 8 Metro article “As winter approaches, hundreds of families have nowhere to go” told a painful story of mothers and babies sleeping in Metro stations. As a rabbi and a priest, our jobs are often to serve the religious needs of our congregations. But the jobs of our faith traditions are much greater than that — to hear the pain of those we live among and to respond to them. Like Moses, who answered the suffering of the Israelite slaves, and Jesus, who had special concern for the poor, our traditions demand of us that we be our brother’s keepers.
Here in the District, family homelessness has increased by 73 percent since 2008, and many families have been left to sleep on the street. Yet the District just announced a $140 million surplus. As members of the Good Faith Communities Coalition, we call on Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. Council to use some of the surplus to help meet the needs of our struggling families.
How could these funds help our most vulnerable residents?
Cuts in this year’s budget mean that half of all shelter beds for single residents will close come April, possibly forcing 1,200 residents into the streets and onto our steps. The District has empty shelter beds for families, but it says it does not have money to operate them. Using some of the surplus to house families and keep singles shelters open can help D.C. residents escape unstable and unsafe conditions and get back on their feet.
Some of the money could also be used to build and preserve affordable housing. Budget cuts have led to significant drops in funding for the District’s Housing Production Trust Fund — the city’s main tool for preserving and creating new affordable housing. Directing some of the surplus toward affordable housing will provide a second chance to residents who have not been as fortunate as so many others in the District.
Lastly, the surplus could help struggling parents get the help they need to return to work. Tight budgets have left many parents waiting for job training and case-management services. Worse, thousands of these families face drastic cuts in cash assistance before they have had a chance to access improved supports recently put in place by the city. Some of the surplus should be directed to expanding job training and case management and to delay cuts in assistance that help vulnerable families stay off the street.
These critical needs were identified by the mayor and council on a “wish list” they hoped to see funded if the District’s revenue picture brightened, as it has. But basic human needs — shelter, housing, job training and assistance — do not belong on a wish list and cannot wait. The District’s $140 million surplus provides an excellent opportunity to address these critical issues. We urge Mayor Gray and the council to use some of the funds to help those in need.
Esther Lederman is a rabbi at Temple Micah. Leo Murray is associate pastor at Holy Trinity Church.