By: Reginald Augustus

DC is now economically flourishing again; however, there are an ever-growing number of homeless individuals.  While Washington, DC Mayor, Vincent Gray, touts the strides the city has made under his leadership, the increase in homelessness is one statistic he won’t be playing up.

Recently, the city has packed over 4,200 people into homeless shelters that includes more than 700 families who were put in an abandoned hospital or overflow motel rooms around the District.  The projected increase from last year is almost 100 percent.  While many other major cities such as New York and Los Angeles have seen significant increases to their homeless populations due to consequences of the recession, none have come close to seeing the amount of people in shelters double.  Due to a lack of available space options, the mayor has had the city open makeshift shelters in recreation centers; similar to what the Red Cross has done in disaster areas.  Gray’s own social services director has called the situation a “crisis” and Gray himself has readily admitted that he can neither give a good explanation for the problem, nor solve it quickly.  D.C. estimates that many homeless families will be stuck in shelters or motels until spring 2015.  This is likely to cost the city tens of millions of dollars.

This current state of affairs seems to be at odds with Gray’s history as a man who spent decades dealing with homelessness and disability issues prior to becoming mayor.  One of the main reasons that Gray won against Adrian Fenty four years ago was because the people felt he was more in tune with the lower class and underrepresented populations in the city.  The unflattering fact that an increase this high has not been seen in the district since Reagan was President, does not help his re-election bid.

There are some within the community who believe that Gray has done a solid job of streamlining various social services for the poor, while trying to promote self-sufficiency among generationally poor families.  However, some of those same individuals also argue that Gray has not put forth a reasonable plan to accomplish this and that the homeless issue is only a part of a larger decline in economic well-being.  Given his track record for working with such issues, many would have expected that those within social services circles would be some of his biggest supporters in his re-election campaign.  However, it appears that many of those groups that supported him in his first term now seem to be at odds with the mayor, including many low income residents of the city.  Funding that use to go to homelessness and social services has been re-directed from what Gray called “the District’s ‘handout’ culture of the past.”  In lieu of those old programs, Gray has opted for programs that have tougher requirements for obtaining shelter and more severe sanctions for not complying with work training and education requirements; this has led to a reduction of allotted terms of rental assistance.  Opponents of the mayor argue that while he may have had good intentions, there were too many of his tough programs, and their failure was inevitable.

Additionally, opponents say that the mayor failed to address the lack of affordable housing, which is one of the key pieces of the homelessness situation.  The mayor has argued that he has not miscalculated the best way to address the homeless and poor in the city.  Gray said that he is still committed to fixing the homeless crisis and that his reform efforts were derailed by the DC Council last year.  Gray further claimed that those opposing him have not come up with any better ideas, stating “[t]hey can tell you what’s wrong but they can’t tell you how to fix it.”

Mayor Gray seems to have a serious dilemma on his hands.  The city needs to find a way to balance the interests of providing options for the under-served in the community and not perpetuating the culture of the welfare state.  It appears that Mayor Gray may have pushed too hard to implement new requirements for eligibility in the city’s assistance programs without providing the tools many in the community need to meet those requirements.  Additionally, the impact the recession had on low income residents in the District was not factored into the mayor’s plan for giving a “hand up” to the community.  I agree with the Mayor’s administration that you want to encourage families to get out of the shelters and not treat them like a “way of life.” However, I also agree that many of those who are in these shelters do not have the resources to locate affordable housing in a market where the supply is disappearing.