Save D.C.’s homeless shelters

September 29, 2008

WASHINGTON--While congressional leaders were negotiating a $700 billion taxpayer bailout plan for Wall Street executives on September 25, a few blocks away, D.C.'s homeless community and activists were protesting the mayor's plan to shut down the Franklin School homeless shelter.

In the midst of a financial catastrophe brought on by a housing crisis that has produced hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures nationwide, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appeared determined to kick onto the streets those who depend on the 300-bed shelter just before winter.

On September 16, the city council passed a bill to prohibit the mayor from shutting down the historic downtown shelter building. Yet Fenty proceeded with the dismantling of beds. As of September 25, the shelter had only about 50 beds remaining.

The 150 protesters who gathered outside the Franklin School Shelter were quick to make the connection between the crooked priorities of a system that volunteers taxpayer handouts to Wall Street millionaires--many of whom made their fortunes by selling bad loans to thousands now facing homelessness--and tells working-class people to fend for themselves.

Protesters carried signs that read, "No Bailout! No Kick Out" and "Save Franklin, Save Lives" as they marched around the intersection in front of the shelter at the height of evening rush-hour traffic.

Among the protesters were around 30 homeless men who live at the Franklin shelter and face the nightmare of being kicked out, as Fenty threatened to shut down the shelter completely by the next day.

D'Juan Bean, who was evicted from his apartment four months ago and has been living in the shelter ever since, shared his reaction. "I've slept in the same bed with some of these men, and it hurts knowing that if these people get kicked out on the streets tomorrow, some of them are not going to make it," he said, referring particularly to those suffering from physical and mental problems.

"I'm going to lose some good friends," said Bean, who is also president of the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter.

After marching, protesters held an impromptu meeting in a nearby park to discuss next steps. Some protesters said they were planning a "sleep-out" in the coming nights in the park, pitching tents for those kicked out of the shelter and continuing to protest the closure.

Although the mayor claims that those displaced from the shelter will be relocated to another one in the city, the homeless say the other shelters are generally full and turn away more people every night. The shelter where the city wants to relocate them is also less accessible to the jobs and services they use.

In an effort to move away from large communal shelters, the city is attempting to move the homeless into subsidized apartments, an alternative that has been made available to only a small fraction of Franklin's residents. This new approach retains the problem of accessibility to jobs and services used by the homeless, in addition to the shrinking availability of such apartments and the temporary nature of the subsidized housing which gives residents an often unrealistic time limit to transition to a self-sufficient lifestyle.

Among the protesters were local activists, union organizers and members of Code Pink, who came over from an earlier demonstration against the bailout in front of the Treasury Department.

Sadly, early the next morning, the mayor followed through on his threats and officially shut down the Franklin shelter. Police loaded the remaining residents onto white vans, presumably to transport them to another shelter in a different part of town. Homeless advocates planned to assemble later in the day to demand a meeting with Mayor Fenty.

The closure of homeless shelters in the face of the biggest corporate bailout in history--coupled with thousands of home evictions and no government relief for those who need it most--lays bare the inhumanity of the free-market system.

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