Advocates protested outside Mayor Muriel Bowser’s home on May 20 after she said only 221 people are currently experiencing homelessness in the District at a congressional oversight hearing.
The most recent census of people experiencing homelessness in D.C. counted 4,922 people, with 821 of those living unsheltered.
Jewel Stroman, an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, said she organized the protest with eight others to hold Bowser accountable for seemingly downplaying the number of people experiencing homelessness in D.C.
“I feel like at this point we have to be in her face,” Stroman said at the rally.
Bowser made the statement during testimony to the House Oversight and Accountability Committee on May 16, after Rep. William Timmons (R-S.C.) asked her if there was a “major, major problem in Washington, D.C., as it relates to homelessness.”
“We have 221 people, as of today’s count, who are living on the street. Those are the people that you are referring to,” Bowser responded.
Timmons, who said he was asking about homelessness in D.C. to see if the federal government could help the city address the issue, initially cited the recently released Point-in-Time (PIT) Count numbers, which found that on one night in January, about 5,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the District. He repeated the results to Bowser.
“There are not 5,000 people living on the street, sir,” she responded, arguing that with the city’s outreach teams, D.C. knows how many people are currently experiencing homelessness on a day-to-day basis. “Those are the facts,” Bowser added, before Timmons moved on.
It’s not clear what Bowser was referencing when she said there were 221 people living outside. The PIT Count found a total of 4,922 people experiencing homelessness, with 821 of those people living unsheltered, or on the street, as Bowser said. While there is a possibility that number has decreased since the count took place in January, there has not been a specific effort that would have housed hundreds of people. Bowser’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the source of the number, or to clarify if she had misspoken.
Stroman said advocates tried to talk to Bowser when she left her home earlier on the morning of the protest, but the mayor did not answer her and other advocates’ questions. At least four Metropolitan Police Department officers arrived in front of Bowser’s house as the protest continued into the afternoon. Bowser returned around 3 p.m. and did not answer any questions while being ushered inside by police.
“This is a chance for her to explain why she said it,” said Tiffany Aziz, another advocate present at the rally. “We’re not out here today to be harmful. We’re here to bring up a true concern that is affecting an underserved population today.”
There’s already a division between the mayor and the D.C. Council, advocates and homelesss services providers on the scale of homelessness in the District. Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget cut several programs aimed to prevent and end homelessness, as she suggested the true need for the programs was low. The council restored the funding.
Many of the advocates at the protest have experienced or are currently experiencing homelessness. Still facing a homeless services system that is slow to provide aid, advocates were enraged at Bowser’s comment.
“Only 221 people? You mean at the park? The bus stop? Where?” said Kisha McDougald, one of the advocates.
McDougald and her family had to leave an apartment she was referred to by the District of Columbia Housing Authority (DCHA) this year, because sewage leaked out of their bathtub. Before that, McDougald lived in an apartment provided by DCHA for three years, which flooded and had mold growing on the walls.
McDougald received funds through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program to move into a new apartment — one of the programs Bowser proposed to cut funding for but the council ultimately restored.
McDougald is still waiting for DCHA to inspect the new apartment before she and her daughter can move in. She is paying over $220 per month to store her belongings in a storage unit while waiting, which is more than she owes in rent each month with her housing voucher. Hearing Bowser’s comment while dealing with these issues pushed McDougald to protest, despite the fact that she needs to rest for extended periods of time after recent spinal surgery.
Aziz, who works in the D.C. government and volunteers to help address the issues that people experiencing homelessness face outside of work, says they encounter the same issues McDougald does on a frequent basis.
“I hear the cries. I see the injustice,” Aziz said. “Just driving to work every day I see people that are unhoused. I see them!”
This article was co-written by Athiyah Azeem and Annemarie Cuccia.