July 8, 2009

Declaring Our Interdependence: Safe Shelter for All

Homelessness is on the rise. The number of those reporting unemployment in DC has swelled to over 10%. The need for emergency shelter, especially in this economy, is crucial. Wider Opportunities for Women, along with over 50 other organizations including Bread for the City, formed a coalition to ask the District government to provide increased shelter space. Instead of closing emergency shelters, as the Fenty administration has been doing for the past couple of years, we need to open more.

Though the coalition supports the Mayor’s Housing First program, it insists that until all in need are housed, emergency shelters should not be closed. Family and Women’s shelters are currently at capacity, meaning that many families and women are still left out to sleep in the streets despite dangerous conditions.

Unlike past years, the demand for shelter has not decreased with the warmer weather. In May 2009, shelters in the individual emergency system were in overflow. In addition, the shelters are poor in condition, and many are infested with bed bugs. Those seeking jobs during the day sometimes do not make it back in time to have anywhere to sleep. It is a problem that is deserving of serious attention. Debra, a homeless woman affected by the shelter crisis, said at a rally last week that, “…everybody that’s going through these situations [does] not want to be in these situations… We need a little bit more respect.”

Because of District budget cuts that resulted from the decline in the economy, opening up more shelters is not on the agenda. But, as our letter to Mayor Fenty states, “an important step towards acknowledging [the basic human right to housing] is to ensure that appropriate funds are designated for all three prongs of housing preservation: adequate prevention, safe and sanitary emergency shelters, and affordable housing.”

Sadly, though our joint efforts are concerted, people are still dying on the streets of DC. If this is the reality in the summer months, what can we expect three months from now when winter approaches?

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