Monday, June 13, 2005

The District

I spent the entire day in D.C. with the director of Public Service and a former student today. I have agreed to lead a Service-Learning trip during the winter break in D.C., focusing on poverty issues. So, we headed into DC so I could see the various sites students could volunteer at and get ideas of places and people they can speak to about policy/advocacy.

Our first stop was the DC Central Kitchen, which is one of many "providers" housed in the largest shelter in the world. My students will work at the DCCK for two weeks in the mornings. We next spoke to a director of the shelter, which was very inspiring to me. The shelter has become "private" so that it can take in people that shelters who get government money cannot take in. I wondered what this meant? Did it mean that a "private" model was better at addressing the homeless population than government solutions? No. What it meant for this shelter is that they were running on a budget of $182, ooo.00 a year when they really needed something like $69 million to cover the expenses of all their services. To make this work, then, they depend a great deal on volunteers.

I was hopeful about the world that there are people in the world committed and compassionate enough to dedicate themselves to restoring the lives of the most battered and broken human beings on the planet. The men, women and children who become the "homeless" in our country have often seen the absolute worst in their lives: abuse, violence, poverty, mental illness, addiction, etc.

In order to rebuild their lives, the basic requirement is some stable foundation, some place they can rely on to be their home. Without a home, people spend the whole day in survival mode: walking quite a distance for meals, trying to protect their only belongings from being stolen, or braving the indifference of the people that pass them by on the street.

So many people think, write about, and act to eradicate homelessness. And, boy, do we need them during this administration. But, I started thinking about how radically things would have to change to begin to make affordable housing available to this growing population of homeless people.

In the "district," the neighborhoods where a majority of the poor have lived for at least a couple of generations are being gentrified. We spent a great deal of time around the Dupont circle/Adams Morgan area today, which is turning into a sleek, hip "urban" neighborhood. I was completely blown away when we walked by a "new restaurant" in the area: Hamburger Mary's (which is a longtime favorite restaurant transplanted from San Francisco). We walked by a huge Whole Foods, across from two cafes, a jazz club and newly built "condos." If you walk one block away, you will see what this neighborhood looked like before: convenience stores, greasy spoons, hair salons, and dive bars.

The contrast is something. The real estate in this neighborhood, because of all the gentrification has skyrocketed. Rent for a one-bedroom is probably $15oo.oo. There are outdoor cafes, yummy ethnic restaurants, fancy "garden supply" stores and pet daycare facilities. Why am I mentioning all of this?

Well, what is the cost of this gentrification process? A great deal more homeless people, displaced from their neighborhoods with less opportunities for livable wages. And, yet, can you imagine what it would take to reverse this? Why on earth would landlords, making a windfall on high real estate market value, agree to lower rents for low income folks? All of the young, yuppies don't want to live around these folks anyway.

I asked one of the men I met today (who works for the National Low Income Housing Coalition) what the current administration's solution is to making affordable housing available. He reminded me that what the President is always touting: "creating an ownership society." I passed by a huge Countrywide office (a mortage lender for "high risk" clients).

But, I don't get it. How can you buy a house if you don't make enough money to pay rent in the district? Where would you buy the house? What happens if you need to fix the roof in a year?

The other casualty of this strategy is "community." Yes, there it is again, that damn theme popping up in my ramblings. Gentrification destroys neighborhoods and their informal support networks--sharing in watching kids, building up local schools, knowing when a neighbor is in need. You replace neighborhoods with glossy and gleaming buildings occupied by workaholics who wouldn't put their kids in DC schools anyway. They shove the low income folks into smaller corners of their former neighborhoods and try to avoid eye contact with them as they swiftly walk by them toward the Starbucks.

And yet, let's be honest, I love this part of D.C. I love the restaurants, I love Whole Foods, and I love the lovely landscaping. I am part of the problem. I am the one of the people that needs to weigh how important that funky neighborhood is to the lives of the people it displaces. The transformation required in my own bleeding-heart-self is dramatic.

I know there must be creative ideas out there about how to save neighborhoods without sacrificing Whole Foods. Or, am I deluding myself?