The District of Columbia’s new mayor has his work cut out for him in convincing homeless Washingtonians of his resolve to improve their lives. In his inaugural address on Sunday to a room of hundreds at the Washington Convention Center, Vincent C. Gray stressed his commitments to unifying the city and providing more opportunities for its residents.
However, Gray and the returning City Council face the thorny tasks of successfully managing the city’s ailing budget while simultaneously reducing expenditures and improving D.C.’s social services network.
Although some homelessness advocates worry that funds to fight homelessness make an easy target for budget cuts, they hope that Gray’s background in social services will help their cause.
Gray was director of the D.C. Department of Human Services under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly in the early ‘90s and later was executive director of Covenant House Washington, which serves homeless and at-risk youth. He was elected in 2004 as a councilmember to represent Ward 7 and became chairman two years later.
“Now is the time for all of us to be moved by a spirit of service at the community and neighborhood level, and to help build our city,” Gray said in prepared remarks after taking the oath.
“We want a fair shot at achieving the American dream and creating a better future for our children,” he added later.
But many in the District’s homeless community don’t share Gray’s optimism.
“The mayors talk like they’re helping the masses, but they’re just shedding light on their own success,” said 50-year-old Warren, who is homeless and declined to give his last name. Warren was spending Sunday afternoon in Franklin Park, about six blocks from the convention center’s inauguration festivities. While eating a plate of rice and beans from a food line in the park, Warren recalled D.C.’s previous five mayors and said all offered empty promises.
“We need some help out here,” he said. “They’re just giving lip service.”
Beatrice, who also declined to give her last name, said she doesn’t bother listening to elected officials anymore because she doesn’t think anything will change. She became homeless four months ago, after losing her job and going on disability last year.
“It’s no use. They’re not going to do anything,” she said. “I’m just trying to get by on my own.”
But along with the mayor, at least one councilmember is determined to change that perception.
“I have faith that this council and this government — while we’re figuring out how to raise resources and how to make government more efficient — has foremost in our minds those least able to speak for themselves,” Councilmember Jim Graham said in prepared remarks.
Graham, who has represented Ward 1 since 1998 and formerly served as executive director of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, was re-elected in November and is taking over as chairman of the Committee on Human Services.
His first action in that role will be to visit the city’s primary shelters this month to assess conditions, he told Street Sense.
“I want to get a one-on-one understanding of what’s going on there,” he said. “I think it’s very important that I do so.” Graham will also focus on a new single-room occupancy shelter in Columbia Heights and management of the city’s public nursing homes and Department on Disability Services.
Gray ended his address by reiterating his campaign theme of city togetherness.
“From Friendship Heights to Columbia Heights to Lincoln Heights to Congress Heights, this is one city — our city,” he said. “From Fort Lincoln to Lincoln Park, this is one city — our city.”