Exploring the Divides in DC

Published Mar 13, 2015

By Allison Bolgiano

Looking down North Capitol Street at 1:00 am on a Thursday, I get a clear view of the Capitol Building glowing butter yellow. On this blustery January night, I am traversing the streets’ of D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood looking for anyone without a place to stay for the night as part of the annual Point in Time Count of homeless individuals. Seeing the Capitol, I am reminded of the deep divisions between the Democrats and Republicans who work there, three of whom I was able to shake hands with a week earlier during AVODAH D.C.’s advocacy day.

Allison and her fellow corps members meeting with Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).

Together with my four fellow corps members from the U.S. West, I visited the offices of Washington State Senator Patty Murray, Arizona Representatives Kyrsten Sinema, Ann Kirkpatrick, and Raul Grijalva. We were on Capitol Hill to try our hand at lobbying. Our ask: reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act this September. Inside the ruby-red walls of her office, Representative Kirkpatrick tells my group, “Feeding the hungry didn’t used to be a partisan issue. I expect that the Child Nutrition Act will be reauthorized, but I am very concerned about what will happen to SNAP.” The Representatives explained that Democrats are in defensive mode – they hope to defend progressive policies from crippling cuts. In D.C., low-income residents find themselves in a similar position to the Democrats – just trying to hold on. Instead of policies, they are clinging onto their homes as rents rise with the influx of middle class professionals.

Back to the PIT Count. My partner Sam Jewler, a community organizer with Jews United for Justice, and I hop out of a warm car, ready to start surveying. I am glad that I put on that second pair of long underwear at the downtown church where more than 300 volunteers gathered before fanning out across the city. An hour into the count, I am struck by how many row houses are under construction in Shaw. They are next door to decrepit ones, kitty corner from public housing projects, and across the street from homes with slick new interiors that I can’t help but peer into. To some, all this renovation signals a real estate boom, but as we turn the corner, we are confronted with the human face of D.C.’s affordable housing crisis.

We practically bump into a man and woman bundled up in oversized coats. Before we can even launch into our introduction, the couple greets us by saying they have been going door to door asking for help. I ask if they have a place to stay tonight. Their answer is no, a hard thing to hear on frigid evening. Their story unfolds as Sam asks them the survey questions. Shawna was recently released from the hospital, but they cannot afford her expensive, but critical medications. They have been knocking on doors asking for money for Shawna’s medications and a bit of food. The couple has been homeless since James’s father lost his home eight months earlier.  After hearing their story, we offer them a McDonald’s gift card (courtesy of the PIT count), a granola bar, an apple, and offer to call to the shelter hotline, a service that can take homeless individuals to emergency shelters on cold nights. They turn this down, preferring to continue their canvass of the neighborhood. As we part ways, I hope they will reconsider and call the number we wrote down for them.

Allison and her fellow corps members meet Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis (D-GA).

James and Shawna are two of D.C.’s roughly 7,000 homeless. Over the past decade, D.C. has lost half of its stock of low-cost rental housing. Now, more than 50% of D.C. renters pay more than 30% of their income toward rent and utilities, meaning their housing is unaffordable. (The Department of Housing and Urban Development considers housing affordable when it costs a person or family 30% or less of their income.) Paying a high percentage of income towards rent stretches thin low-income families’ budgets for food, childcare, transportation, and medical expenses. The answer isn’t working a few more hours a week. A worker making $8.25 an hour would have to work 140 of the 168 hours in a week to afford the 2012 fair market rent for a two-bedroom apartment in D.C.

There is a chasm in D.C. between those who can afford to pay thousands of dollars a month to rent a row house in Shaw and those who just cannot work enough hours a week to afford D.C.’s skyrocketing rents.  Unlike in Congress, there is no aisle separating these two groups.

At the end of advocacy day, I left the Capitol surprised and impressed with the fact that I had been able to meet three Arizona Representatives, shake their hands, sit in their offices, and encourage them to support a reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act that ensures the most needy children eat nutritiously year round. The legislators kept stressing the importance of face-to-face connections – those had been the bedrock of bipartisan cooperation. Constituents showing up, writing in, and speaking up was also what swayed hearts and minds, even of powerful people like Senators and Representatives.

The PIT Count is also powerful because it brings thousands of volunteers nationwide face to face with our homeless neighbors. Besides gathering useful data about the homeless population, it helps people like me, and probably even moreso people who don’t think about housing and homelessness daily, reach across that invisible divide between D.C.’s haves and have-nots.

In D.C., divides of all kinds can separate us: lay person versus veteran Congressman, a SE versus NW addresses, an R or D behind one’s name, the new arrival living in a spruced up apartment who buys their latte from a man whose family had lived on that block for years, and having a warm bed to sleep in versus having no shelter on a chilly night. In a city where divides are prevalent, I learned from a day of lobbying and a night of surveying homeless individuals that looking someone in the eyes, hearing their story, telling yours, and asking a few good questions breaks down barriers. Beyond narrowing chasms, it should be the substance of progressive social movements.

Allison Bolgiano is from Seattle, Washington,attended Whitman College, and is a Program Manager at Housing Unlimited, Inc.

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