Under a blistering afternoon sky on June 3, over 130 people joined the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) as they held their fifteenth-anniversary celebration, commemorating years of advocacy for people experiencing homelessness in D.C.
Participants, eager to escape the heat, gathered underneath the shade of trees and pop-up tents to eat, socialize and celebrate the organization’s years of service.
The event, held in Franklin Park, featured a row of booths managed by partner organizations and a panel of speakers, including PFFC Director Robert Warren and Street Sense artist and vendor Queenie Featherstone.
PFFC is composed entirely of individuals who are currently or were formerly without housing. Other organizations including Focus, Attitude, and Comment to Excellence (FACE), N Street Village’s Be the Change, and Isaiah House, have a similar structure. It is this, advocacy for and by unhoused people, that is crucial to the PFFC ethos.
PFFC members describe their mission as nothing less than to end housing instability for the District’s unhoused — and especially unsheltered — residents, and employ a multifaceted approach to accomplish it.
In addition to their regular Tuesday morning meetings at Miriam’s Kitchen, a registered nonprofit dedicated to ending chronic homelessness, PFFC has produced a variety of outreach programs.
The group raises awareness about housing instability in the broader D.C. population, petitioning for increased focus on one of the District’s most vulnerable groups. A large amount of their efforts concentrates on informing individuals experiencing homelessness.
“The most important thing is that we teach people how to advocate for themselves.” said PFFC Outreach Director Andrew Anderson in an interview with Street Sense Media.
The booths were manned by Street Sense Media, the Washington Legal Clinic, and other organizations dedicated to housing justice. Attendees, many of whom are actively experiencing homelessness, quickly lined up beside the tables, receiving Subway sandwiches, PFFC t-shirts and housing resources — including legal advice and invitations to Street Sense Media’s weekly writers’ group workshop.
The organization used its anniversary celebration, an event ostensibly meant to commemorate their own achievements, as an opportunity to further support D.C.’s unhoused people. Once participants had circulated through all the booths, participants sat down in view of the podium, where PFFC Speaker Rachelle Ellison was hosting the event.
Ellison shared her story about how she slept in Franklin Park, the very site of the celebration, and Freedom Plaza, located just a few blocks away, for 17 years.
After acquiring housing a decade ago, she was able to turn her attention toward helping others. She became a D.C. Department of Behavioral Health-certified recovery coach and is currently earning a bachelor’s degree in human resources management at Strayer University. Today, she is a core member of PFFC and a community advocate at the National Coalition for the Homeless.
Apart from sharing her own perspective, Ellison also facilitated a steady stream of new voices, offering the microphone to anybody “with something to say.”
Several participants took up her offer, sharing their experiences with homelessness and their commitment to ending housing instability while Director Warren snapped pictures and offered encouragement. Despite the variety of speakers, nearly every speech agreed on one point: “Housing is a human right.”
Anderson found PFFC when he needed it most. Recently out of prison, unsheltered and still on parole, he found himself surrounded by people who’d faced similar challenges and were willing to support him as he worked through them.
“The People for Fairness Coalition was the first activist group I was really a part of,” he said. “It became my community. My family.”
The organization’s peer mentor program, where members mutually support and instruct each other on how to gain steady housing and employment, was an invaluable tool. As he became increasingly involved in the group, and passionate about spreading knowledge to other unhoused people, he became outreach director.
“[PFFC Director] Robert gave me a chance, he gave me a platform that I never would’ve had before,” Anderson said.
And once he’d been given that platform, he used it. As outreach director, Anderson has been a key player in advocating for affordable housing in the District. He has spoken at various PFFC events, including several vigils, their regular memorial service dedicated to unsheltered people who had died on the streets that year.
Most importantly, though, he was responsible for supplying unhoused individuals with the same resources that he’d been given as a new member. “[PFFC peer educators] do this job well, because we’ve been there. We were them once,” Anderson said.
In his three years spent working at the organization, few initiatives have made him prouder than Housing 101, an educational program meant to arm unhoused individuals with the knowledge to gain stable housing.
“One thing about housing is that there’s always so much that people don’t know,” said Anderson. “Housing inequality makes it hard to understand, for example, how to choose the best housing option or work with the D.C. Housing Authority. That’s what we’re for.”
He was careful to point out that, while giving unhoused people the tools to self-advocate is crucial, larger institutional problems exist. “Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of barriers,” said Anderson. “There are thousands of unoccupied housing units in D.C., yet none of them are being filled by the people who need them most. There’s blatant discrimination.”
Still, hope endures. “We teach people to examine their barriers, to understand them, and to capitalize on the opportunities that are out there,” said Anderson. “To win anything, you have to know the rules of the game.”
Between the panel of speakers and the booths, there was little self-congratulating by PFFC itself. Rather than focusing on their 15 years’ worth of accomplishments, the organizers instead devoted their time as they always had: to supporting those who were experiencing homelessness.
For all the event’s success, PFFC remained grateful for all the help they received along the way. “We’d like to thank everybody who gave their time to make this happen today, especially the Street Sense vendors,” said PFFC Member Queenie Featherstone. “We couldn’t have done this without you. We love you.”