We still need to speak to our Congresswoman

A photo showing Eleanor Holmes Norton speaking at a conference.

Eleanor Holmes Norton speaking at the AFGE Legislative & Grassroots Mobilization Conference in February.

This year’s National Alliance Conference to End Homelessness was so rewarding in so many ways. Our FACE (Focus Attitude and Commitment to Excellence)  group at Street Sense Media went to this year’s conference to focus on covering workshops in areas we have been advocating for in the homeless community for years.  

D.C. government is in the planning stages to build three new low-barrier shelters: a new Harriet Tubman for women and a new 801 East for men in Southeast, and a new shelter to replace the New York Avenue men’s shelter in Northeast. We kept the new shelter plans in mind for our first day of full workshops, especially during conference sessions on low-barrier and housing-focused shelters and what happens after shelters open.  

The FACE group at Street Sense Media has also been working on the issue of racial equity along with some of our advocacy to bring about a universal right to housing in the District. 

On Tuesday, unlike other conference goers, D.C. residents went up on the Hill to meet with our elected representatives. Congresswoman Norton, like last year, wasn’t feeling well enough to speak with us. That was a big let down for a lot of us. We were really looking forward to seeing and speaking with her about our concerns  for how little our city and the federal government are dealing with the issue of homelessness and housing insecurity. We were also hoping to discuss improving the health and wellness of some of our most vulnerable communities. There were about 20 of us who met with a staff person from the Norton’s office 

We had especially hoped to get the congresswoman’s support on a bill currently before Congress that we believe would help improve the lives of people in the community that we advocate and work for. We also encourage Mrs. Norton and her allies to get more involved with local politics to help shore up the city’s “Homeward D.C.” strategic plan to end homelessness. There are  shortcomings in funding on the federal side.  

Lastly, we wanted to have a real conversation about the $2.2 billion dollars in disrepair that D.C. public housing is in. The entire public housing system in this country has experienced neglect from private and federal partners. We had also hoped to discuss what should be the local and federal responses to make sure that D.C.’s poorer residents will not continue to be displaced and gentrified out of a city and a community where many were born and raised.  

We know that Congresswoman Norton doesn’t like to weigh in too much on local politics. But when it comes to housing and homelessness, we in the advocacy community feel like each side gets off with blaming the other for the state of public housing and poverty in low-income communities of color. No one wants to be held accountable for this affordable housing crisis where many low-income residents are being displaced from their homes and businesses. 

That evening, some FACE members went to the University of the District of Columbia for a roundtable discussion with people who are part of the Human Rights Alliance and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. We discussed the number one issue around human rights here in Washington D.C: the right to housing 

On the last day of the conference, we focused on the dialogue around racial equity within the homeless services continuum of care. Part of this is giving people with learned experience a paid seat at the table for their work. There were many workshops around this great work. So many communities are doing better to address the needs of people suffering while homeless across America. However, too much focus was on managing the experiences associated with homelessness  and not enough focus was on how we can and should reshape local and federal public policies in order to truly end homelessness as we know it in America.  

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We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.