Memorial: Enzel Sudler inspired love, laughter

Public speaking had never come easily for Elouise Hutchinson.

It was especially difficult today — at a memorial service she had organized for her late brother Enzel. As a growing terror gripped her stomach, her eyes fluttered over to the twenty-some relatives and friends who had gathered there: to the clear weekend sky; to the yellowing, spiral-bound pages of a family album; to the sepia photos in a collage she had lovingly tacked together with captions like “Fun Guy” and “Brother.”

What could she possibly say to sum up his life in a matter of minutes? She took a deep breath and began to speak.

A table from the memorial. | Photo courtesy of Elouise Hutchinson

“He liked to talk. He liked to laugh. He liked to smile.”

Enzel Sudler was born on Jan. 19, 1960. His sister was 13 months older. His younger brother, Edmund, went to live with a family friend at a young age.

Hutchinson said that she and Sudler were “raised in the sticks by a very religious country woman: my grandmother.” They grew up in a two-story, two-bedroom house with no indoor bathroom just outside the small town of Smyrna, Delaware.

When Sudler was young, he was a Boy Scout and little league baseball player. He was popular in grade school. “He was the person who would get you in trouble for laughing,” Hutchinson said.

Enzel’s grade school class (second row, third from right). | Photo courtesy of Elouise Hutchinson

Sudler liked to play practical jokes, like putting smelly shoes underneath his sister’s bed when she was sleeping. Even so, they were close. “We would get laughing,” Hutchinson said. “Certain things between siblings…that are funny and no one else knows they’re funny.”

He was also obsessed with cars. Sudler would spend hours building models. When he was a teenager, he built a black Chevy. Hutchinson was “pretty sure it was never street legal,” but he loved it all the same.

In 1976, their parents got back together and moved to Trenton, New Jersey. Sudler bounced between Trenton and Smyrna. He never graduated high school, but he did have a job in construction for three years in the 1980’s. At one point, he lived with a girlfriend and her children in St. Marys, Georgia. Wherever he was, he was likely to be somewhere else not long after.

Enzel receives birthday gifts from his girlfriend’s children in St. Marys, Georgia. | Photo courtesy of Elouise Hutchinson

Sudler eventually found himself in D.C.– but this time, he stayed.

It’s unclear exactly when and how he became homeless. He was very private about it, even with those who were close to him.

In the years leading up to his passing, Sudler spent much of his time at Union Station and on 17th Street. He would talk with friends and run errands for vendors by the metro exit. Once, he was even featured in The National Catholic Register — albeit under the name “Enzio.”

A teenaged Enzel poses with his beloved Chevy. | Photo courtesy of Elouise Hutchinson

Sudler was faithful, though not Catholic. He started attending Dunn Loring Community Church of God in Virginia around 2005. LaVerne Holland introduced him to the congregation — she used to drive a bus to pick up homeless folks for worship on Sundays. Sudler became almost like an adopted son to her. He ate Christmas dinners with her family. He painted her house. He did odd jobs for other church-goers when he needed money. “He wasn’t scared of work,” Holland said.

When Meg Dominguez moved to D.C. to work as a Senior Clinical Case Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, Sudler gave her sight-seeing suggestions, like watching planes take off from Gravelly Point. A couple of times, he even went to cheer on Miriam’s Kitchen staff members at marathons.

“He was a really nice light and connected with a lot of people here,” Dominguez said. “Whatever was going on in his life, he made an effort to check in.”

“He was exceptionally lively,” said Beau Stiles, Outreach Services Coordinator at Capitol Hill Group Ministry. He said Sudler liked to tell tall tales and tease people — get them worked up by joking about “cooking ‘possum.”

“I can’t imagine not liking him,” Stiles said.

LaVerne Holland echoed this sentiment. “He liked to talk. He liked to laugh. He liked to smile.” She paused, lost in the memory. “He had a nice smile.”

A family photo from Christmas 1981. | Photo courtesy of Elouise Hutchinson

Things Fall Apart

It seemed like everything was finally coming together. Sudler had stopped drinking. He had gotten a cell phone. He was set to sign a lease for permanent supportive housing the next day.

And then, in late September, things fell apart.

“I always had this feeling I was gonna get a call,” said Hutchinson. But it still knocked the wind out of her when Holland told her that Sudler was in the hospital after a substantial stroke.

Hutchinson hadn’t spoken to her brother in over 10 years — they’d had a falling out the night before their mother’s funeral in January 2006. Now, she needed to make up for lost time.

The first week, Hutchinson thought her brother understood what she said. He would make eye contact, nod, squeeze her hand and follow her with his eyes when she left.

Even when he became unresponsive; even when his body started to shut down; even when it became clear that he wasn’t going to get better, she kept talking. She talked about the things they loved in their childhood. She talked about the things she regretted now that they had grown. “At least I got to apologize,” she said.

Sudler passed away on Oct. 1.

Not long after, Hutchinson organized a memorial service on a sunny afternoon at Ebeneezer’s Coffeehouse by Union Station. She shared her memories of her brother, as did the twenty-some relatives and friends who had gathered there. One of Sudler’s friends stood up and sang to his memory — in notes not somber, but celebratory.

Elouise said that the man stopped her after the program to thank her for honoring Sudler’s life and passing. Now, at least he wouldn’t be forgotten.

The memorial service. | Photo courtesy of Elouise Hutchinson
This memorial is part of an ongoing effort to honor the lives of those who passed away without a home in Washington, D.C. To learn more, visit streetsense.org/obits.

Originally published at streetsense.org.

D.C. Homelessness on the Rise, According to HUD Report

Homelessness in D.C. spiked by 14.4 percent between 2015 and 2016 despite increased funding for affordable housing programs, according to a Nov. 21 HUD report. While homelessness went down 3 percent nationally, the report listed D.C. as tied with Idaho for the highest percentage increase in the country.

HUD estimated that homelessness went down 10.5 percent in Virginia and 8.4 percent in Maryland between 2015 and 2016. But some advocates are skeptical of these numbers. The Baltimore Sun published an op-ed by an area social worker noting that point-in-time estimates often severely understate actual rates of homelessness.

“We are concerned about the use of these numbers to talk about homelessness,” Megan Hustings, director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, told The Hill. “It doesn’t give an accurate picture of homelessness. What it gives is an accurate picture of the services provided through HUD.”

When the 2016 count was conducted nationally in January, 8,350 people in D.C. were experiencing homelessness. Of those, 3,683 were individuals and 4,667 were people in families with children.

The vast majority of homeless Washingtonians, 96.2 percent, were in emergency shelters or transitional housing, which makes D.C. one of only seven jurisdictions with less than 5 percent of people experiencing homelessness left unsheltered.

Roughly 1,500 individuals were reported as chronically homeless, which refers to people with physical or mental disabilities who have been homeless repeatedly or for more than a year continuously. In addition, HUD counted 350 homeless veterans and 211 unaccompanied homeless youth in the District. As noted by The Washington City Paper, veteran and chronic homelessness declined by 14.2 and 10.7 percent, respectively.

HUD releases a point-in-time estimate as part of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. The count is a snapshot of the number and demographics of people experiencing homeless on one night in January. This data is collected by continuums of care — regional or local planning bodies responsible for coordinating homeless services.

This is the first year that estimate was broken down in a state-level index.


Originally published at streetsense.org.

Workplace protections not guaranteed for volunteers harassed or assaulted on the job

D.C. residents who plan on volunteering at their neighborhood non-profit might want to ask to see their harassment policy first.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act requires employers to actively address workplace harassment on the grounds of sex, race, religion, color and national origin. However, unpaid volunteers and interns are not explicitly covered. In the absence of these strong federal protections, holding organizations accountable when they fail to prioritize volunteers’ safety can be a Herculean task.

The potential impact is far-reaching: more than 1.6 million D.C. metro area residents volunteered last year, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service.

Due to underreporting and confidentiality policies, it’s hard to pinpoint how many volunteers have experienced workplace harassment, which ranges from repeated degrading comments to physical assault. In fiscal year 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) received 27,893 workplace harassment complaints nationally — but they don’t collect data on the number of complaints filed by volunteers or interns.

Street Sense recently distributed an anonymous survey to volunteer coordinators at 45 local non-profit organizations that serve the homeless community. The 18 respondents ranged from small organizations that work with less than 25 volunteers each year, to massive organizations that work with more than 10,000 volunteers per year. Exactly half indicated they had heard of an incident of harassment or assault perpetrated by a staff member, volunteer or intern at their organization.

“[When Title VII of the Civil Rights Act was being drafted], the U.S. was in this huge economic boom, so everyone was working,” said an EEOC attorney. “In that context, the 1964 Civil Rights Act only talks about employers and their employees.”

The Supreme Court has yet to accept a case that would clarify whether Title VII applies to unpaid volunteers or interns. Meanwhile, the federal and circuit courts seem reluctant to extend workplace protections to unpaid volunteers or interns unless these individuals receive some other form of compensation, such as college course credit.

The EEOC attorney is critical of this approach. “[Even if] you’re not paying the person, they’re effectively an employee … you’re functioning because you’re leaning on their back for their labor.”

Indeed, volunteers in the D.C. metro area contributed 193 million hours of service worth an estimated $4.1 billion last year, according to Corporation for National & Community Service press secretary Samantha Jo Warfield.

The number of volunteers in the D.C. metro area is consistently higher than the U.S. average. | Chart courtesy of Corporation for National & Community Service

The D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 goes beyond federal law to offer employment protections for 15 protected traits, such as sex, gender identity and disability. Although volunteer status is not one of these traits, volunteers can still file an employment discrimination claim with the D.C. Office of Human Rights (OHR) so long as the harassment occurred in D.C. within the past 365 days and was motivated by a protected trait. For example, a volunteer who was sexually harassed can file a sex discrimination claim.

“In D.C., we have probably the more progressive civil rights law of any other jurisdiction here in the United States,” said Stephanie Franklin, director of policy and communications at OHR.

The OHR essentially functions as a free alternative to the courts. Clients initiate the claim process by filing a complaint online or in person. After meeting with the client to confirm eligibility, OHR attempts to resolve the complaint through mediation before conducting a thorough investigation and presenting the case to an impartial commission of judges. Damages awarded from mediation or adjudication range from monetary compensation, to changes in the organization’s policies, to anti-harassment training for staff.

An OHR complaint usually takes six months to a year to be resolved, which is much faster than the civil court system, according to Franklin. In fiscal year 2015, OHR docketed 399 employment-related violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Both the EEOC and OHR offer their services free of charge. Private organizations such as the Crime Victim’s Compensation Program and Network for Victim Recovery of D.C. also play a critical role in offering financial and emotional support for victims who ultimately decide to pursue legal action.

Many non-profit leaders are also trying to make positive changes to their own policies. “Even if we’re doing good now, we’re always looking to do better,” said Sonya D. Springfield, volunteer and in-kind manager at Bread for the City. For Springfield, that meant adopting a rigorous code of conduct and harassment reporting procedure. It also meant ensuring these materials were available online and covered during volunteer orientation.

It is unclear whether or not the new Trump administration will affect what federal workplace protection resources are available for unpaid volunteers.

“We have some sort of insulation because we’re local government,” Franklin said. “There may be more or less claims brought to [OHR] depending on the climate of this area entering into the next administration. But I can’t say whether or not there’ll be any significant changes.”

In an uncertain political landscape, the first line of defense for volunteers remains each individual organization’s leadership and culture.

“The more policies you have in place and the more you verbalize these things… [the more] people will think twice,” said Wanda Spence, director of administration at Central Union Mission. “As a nonprofit organization, it’s very important to make sure every person is protected.”


This story was originally published at streetsense.org and was recognized by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists as a 2017 finalist for “Best Non-Deadline Reporting.”

Rising Costs Complicate Options for Voucher Holders

Fair Market Rent (FMR) for the D.C. Metro Area is calculated based on rental costs for D.C., five counties in Maryland and 14 in Virginia. | Graphic by Robyn Di Giacinto

Things were looking up for Washington native Ronia Evans. She had been clean for two years. She was keeping busy at a regular volunteer gig at Bread for the City. And when she finally received her housing voucher, she was ready to pack up and leave her troubles behind her.

Fast forward six months: Ronia sits shuffling through a backpack full of paperwork, worried that she won’t manage to find an apartment before her voucher expires in December. She says she could give up and use it at a place in Southeast — but she’s worried that she might fall back into old habits and would prefer to live elsewhere.

“It feel like my soul is tired,” she said. “I want to move and continue to be productive. I want someone to give me a chance.”

Ronia is one of many Washingtonians who has reached the top of the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) wait list— which covers rental assistance programs such as vouchers as well as placement in public housing. However, now that her name had come up, Ronia found that navigating the private rental system was more challenging than expected. Despite ongoing efforts by officials to streamline the process and implement creative new programs, rising housing costs and outdated procedures spark confusion and limit choices for some benefit recipients.

DCHA manages more than 12,000 Housing Choice vouchers funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). These vouchers can follow recipients to any metro area with a similar program. DCHA also manages a smaller number of vouchers — over 3,000 — under the Local Rent Supplement Program, which is funded by the city budget and can only be used in D.C., according to Housing Authority spokesperson Christine Goodman.

The process for obtaining and using both Housing Choice and Local Rent Supplement vouchers is essentially the same. When a client gets to the top of the DCHA wait list, they undergo an eligibility interview and background check, which takes about 30 to 45 days. Voucher holders can then use DCHA’s new “Benefit’s GPS” website to find private housing that fits their needs. They meet with landlords and once the property they choose passes inspection, they can move in. DCHA gives recipients 180 days to use their voucher before it expires. And in some cases, a client’s DCHA representative may provide an extension, according to Goodman.

In practice, the process can be confusing and difficult to manage for people like Ronia, who try to navigate the system without a dedicated advocate or social worker.

And then there’s the question of how rising housing costs factor in. The number of affordable units in D.C. dropped by about half from 2002 to 2013. Now, two-thirds of low-income households in D.C. spend over half their income on housing, according to a March 2015 report from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.

Generally, a voucher holder pays 30 percent of their income directly to their landlords. The voucher, in theory, makes up the difference.

How much a landlord actually receives — the “submarket rent” — is based on the average rent on the open market in a given neighborhood. The submarket rent for expensive neighborhoods like Capitol Hill and Chevy Chase is set at the “Payment Standard,” or the absolute maximum DCHA will pay on behalf of any voucher holder, according to Goodman.

The Payment Standard itself is based on the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for the D.C. Metro Area as calculated at the federal level by HUD. Fair Market Rent is based on a scale of all the housing prices in a given metro area. In the D.C. Metro Area, FMR is set at the 50th percentile, meaning voucher recipients can shop for housing in the cheaper half of the housing market, according to HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan.

D.C. originally adopted the 50th percentile, 10 percent higher than most metro areas, as part of a pilot program in fiscal year 2001 that was meant to increase housing stock. D.C. was removed from the program in fiscal year 2013 for “failing to adequately deconcentrate its voucher holders,” according to Sullivan. A 2014 study by George Mason University found that voucher recipients were heavily concentrated in poor neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The D.C. Metro Area has since returned to the pilot program.

This year, FMR for the D.C. Metro Area was $1440 for a studio; $1513 for a one-bedroom unit; $1746 for two bedrooms; $2300 for three bedrooms; and $2855 for four bedrooms.

If those numbers sound low, there’s a reason: the FMR for the D.C. metro area factors in parts of Virginia and Maryland where rents can be much lower than many parts of the District.

Housing data obtained from Zillow showed that in September, the median listing price for a two-bedroom apartment in D.C.’s 20001 zip code was nearly $3,400. Meanwhile, similar space in the 21702 zip code of Frederick, Maryland came out at just over $1,200. Both zip codes are included in the D.C. metro area FMR calculation. On June 15, HUD proposed a new rule for 31 metro areas, including the District, that would introduce Small Area Fair Market Rent, calculated by zip code. This would phase out the existing 50th percentile FMR. “The whole idea is to give families more choice,” said Sullivan. The announcement stated that HUD would accept public comment through Aug. 15.

In the meantime, the D.C. Housing Authority has already moved to adjust their Payment Standard to reflect local rents. In March, DCHA set its Payment Standard at 130% of the FMR. At the time, DCHA predicted that this would allow voucher recipients to afford rent in 26 of the District’s 54 rental submarkets, up from 15 out of 54 before the change.

On Nov. 14, while still trying to navigate this sea of arithmetic, Ronia got another letter from DCHA. A room had finally opened up in public housing.

It wasn’t quite the outcome she had hoped for. But for now, it was enough. “I thank God and the people who took a chance on me,” Ronia said in a phone interview.

She laughed and started talking about all the things she has to do before she moves in December. “I got to get me a bed! Other than that, I’m just taking it a day at a time.”

DCHA has received less federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development due to congressional budget cuts, with the exception of annual incremental increases of new HUD vouchers specifically for veterans. DCHA currently administers a total of 1,035 Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing vouchers. HUD continues to be the primary source of funding for DCHA.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration, for its part, has tried to address the problem with unprecedented investments in affordable housing. This year’s budget allocated $234 million to affordable housing programs, including $5.6 million for new vouchers for formerly-homeless residents whose rapid rehousing has expired and $423,000 for 20 vouchers for seniors referred by the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. However, no new funding was allocated for more local tenant-based vouchers to address the DCHA wait list.


Originally published at streetsense.org.

Second Chances Take Center Stage at Project Homeless Connect

Andra Gray sat at a circular metal picnic table outside the shelter at Central Union Mission, completing a form dated Oct. 19 on a black plastic clipboard. The 43-year-old wore a bright plaid button-up shirt, muted blue jeans and white Nikes.

Gray grew up in D.C., but he hadn’t seen it since 1997. He had been released just a few days ago after spending nearly 20 years in prison.

“You do years and years of prison and they let you out into a city you don’t even recognize,” Gray said. He examined a Department of Corrections ID card wedged in a slot in the pocket-sized planner his reentry advocate gave him at the Greyhound stop. He hoped that today he would find the help he needed to start over.

Gray wasn’t the only one trying to get back on his feet at the second annual Project Homeless Connect. The event, which was organized by the United Way of the National Capital Area, provided homeless Washingtonians with on-site access to more than two dozen local providers. This year, 357 participants and 304 volunteers attended, up from 275 participants and 167 volunteers last year.

Each participant was paired with a volunteer guide to help them navigate the event, which spanned all four floors of Central Union Mission and portions of the sidewalk outside. There were also on-site translators for 13 languages.

Howard pharmacy student Iman Ahmed prepares a flu shot. | Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

The first floor was packed to the seams, as participants and volunteers visited stations where they could sign up for library cards, get haircuts, learn how to apply for vital records and affordable housing and register to vote (complete with a voting machine and test ballots for live demonstrations).

The three upper floors featured free legal advice, physical exams, dental screenings, flu shots, podiatry and more. Outside, volunteers distributed hygiene kits and free pizza, beverages and KIND bars. Stations for HIV testing and mock interviews hugged the sidewalks.

“People who are experiencing homelessness often have to knock on so many doors and jump through so many hoops to get basic services,” said Mariam Nek, a job placement program supervisor staffing a table for Friendship Place, a nonprofit that serves homeless Washingtonians. “Trying to connect people to so many well-rounded services at once … [is] quite a way to help people get back on their feet.”

Mariam Nek helps staff the table for Friendship Place. | Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

Outside, volunteer guide Etzy Salazar waited for her client next to a bus outfitted as a mobile employment assistance unit. The 42-year-old Marylander works at 3M; she took a vacation day to be here. “I think it’s hard to be in this kind of a situation,” she said. “It’s such a great feeling knowing there’s so many people who want to help out and they’re all in one place.”

“Sometimes we think when we get a roof over the head of a homeless person or provide a meal, that’s all they need,” Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a press conference during the event. “Those who come today, who provide…all the services in between that everyone needs — what a great, ingenious idea!”

Event organizers said the impact of these services can’t be overstated.

“After last year’s event, over 80 percent of participants reported never having attended an event like this before and a majority of those served said without Project Homeless Connect they otherwise would not have been able to access the services provided,” said Rosie Allen-Herring, President and CEO of the United Way of the National Capital Area in a press release.

A participant and her son share a tender moment. | Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

Gray said he’s glad he attended the event. He talked to service providers about getting medication, glasses, a photo ID and a copy of his birth certificate. He also managed to set up appointments with people who can help him find permanent housing and employment.

Before he was released, Gray worried he wouldn’t be able to get the resources he needed to make it “on the outside” — but Project Homeless Connect proved him wrong.

“I was able to see and get connected to a lot of things that day,” Gray said. “Gotta take it one step at a time.”

Contact phc@unitedwaynca.org to get involved in Project Homeless Connect next year!


Originally published at streetsense.org.

Ralliers Call for More Affordable Housing Funds and Budget Input

Roughly 75 District residents rallied outside D.C. General Family Shelter on a rainy Saturday, Oct. 1, to demand that Mayor Muriel Bowser prioritize spending for affordable housing over policing and jails in next year’s budget.

Bread for the City community organizers Nicole Baker and Sam Jewler wanted to get the mayor’s attention after they learned this year’s budget, which went into effect Saturday, allocated three times more funding to policing and jails than affordable housing programs.

In an official press release, they also called for Bowser to attend a town hall budget meeting that Bread for the City will host in December. Jewler acknowledged in an email that Bowser’s efforts to include the community in public budget forums hosted earlier this year were an improvement over previous administrations’ efforts. However, after attending those meetings he found them to be “somewhat superficial.”

“Given that Mayor Bowser starts putting together her priorities in November or December, and hosts the budget forums in February, it’s clear that…all the big decisions have already been made,” said Jewler. “We are beginning our budget organizing in October because we want to set a tone and show that this year will be different.”

A speaker from the Horn of Africa Community Initiative talks about the struggle to find affordable housing as an immigrant. | Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

“One of Mayor Bowser’s top priorities is to preserve and produce affordable housing in the District, so that everyone who wants to live in the city, can live in the city,” said Polly Donaldson, director of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development in an email statement on Oct. 7.

“The mayor does understand that the demand for affordable housing is higher than available resources,” Donaldson said. “[Next year’s] budget process is in its early development, however, so it is too early to speak to specific budgetary numbers.”

The rally, which was organized in partnership with the D.C. Employment Justice Center and the Horn of Africa Community Initiative, started at 1 p.m. in a driveway next to the Stadium-Armory Metro stop. The site overlooked the D.C. General Family Shelter and D.C. Jail. Attendees listened to speakers and chanted protest slogans despite grey skies and off-and-on showers.

Washingtonians gather to listen to speakers. | Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

“My caseworker told me I’d have to move out of DC,” said Charles Crews, who ran as a write-in candidate for the D.C. Council in 2013, to a fervent chorus of agreement. “I work two jobs, I should be able to afford a place.”

As the chants died down, volunteers played music and distributed free sandwiches, bananas and bottled water as protesters signed petitions and held signs at passing cars. The event was punctuated with moments of joy, as neighbors embraced and formed an impromptu dance circle.

Kevin Winky was born in D.C. General Hospital, which has since become a homeless shelter. He said he believes the city can do more to provide affordable housing. “I think that if someone gives you the opportunity to have that kind of power and money, you should work real hard to get it to people who need it.”

Co-organizer John Neagundoeboi said he’s heard many stories of native Washingtonians having to move to the suburbs due to rising rents or a dearth of landlords willing to accept housing vouchers. He said he wishes he could tell those making budget decisions to talk to the community. “You gotta grow and things change, but you gotta involve everyone.”

John Neagundoeboi works the crowd after the speaker line up. | Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

Bowser has long listed affordable housing as a top budget priority, aiming to eliminate homelessness in the District by 2020. This year’s $13.4 billion budget allocated $234 million to various affordable housing programs, which was about $16 million more than last year.

On Oct. 7, city and community leaders broke ground on the Beacon Center, one of the new projects being built with this money. At the ceremony, Bowser announced that in Fiscal Year 2016, $106.3 million was committed through the Housing Production Trust Fund (HPTF). $100 million of this was new funding that Bowser budgeted and $6.3 million was unused HPTF funding allotted by previous administrations but never implemented. A spokesperson from the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development indicated that this money was now getting through the door because of Donaldson’s aggressive efforts to push projects forward.

This funding covers building six new projects and renovating 13 projects — totaling to 1,210 affordable housing units for over 2,600 D.C. residents.

“We want a Brightwood that’s inclusive of people of all incomes and that’s why I push for affordable housing,” Bowser said to the crowd. “And it’s not easy, and it’s not enough either, so we as a city, as prosperous as we are, have to continue to focus on how more Washingtonians can participate in this progress.”

Despite this progress, several key programs were left out of this year’s budget. According to an analysis from the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the budget “does not add funds for tenant-based vouchers for families on the DC Housing Authority waiting list, or new rental assistance linked to units assisted by the Housing Production Trust Fund.”

Housing Authority spokesperson Christine Goodman said in an email that there are 42,450 people on the waiting list, which stopped accepting applications in April 2013. She was not able to provide an average wait time for receiving a housing voucher, but said the Housing Authority is pulling applications from 2003.

A public art display at the rally. | Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

An Urban Institute report from last May estimates that it would take between $3.1 and $5.2 billion for the District to end homelessness through 2020.

Organizers said they plan to actively work with elected officials throughout the budget process to ensure their demands are met.

Likewise, Donaldson said Bowser “will continue to hold budget engagement forums throughout the District so that residents’ funding priorities are identified and included in the process.”


Originally published at streetsense.org.

Healing Together: Service Builds Community

(Content Advisory: assault)

Volunteering has always been a way of life for Miami native Melissa Sullivan. When her 30th birthday rolled around in September 2015, she couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than with 30 days of community service.

Her mother’s spirit and passion for volunteering instilled a passion for service in Melissa at a young age. “I have three younger siblings, so as a mother of four she was always involved in PTA, different fundraisers and bake sales when we were younger,” Melissa said in an interview.

When a loved one joined the Marine Corps shortly after 9/11, Melissa founded Operation HERO (Helping Everyone Reach Out), which sent thousands of care packages to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. She then went to work on political campaigns directly out of high school.

When she moved to D.C. to work on the Hill a few years later, Melissa wasted no time in volunteering regularly at organizations like D.C. Central Kitchen and So Others Might Eat. She even attempted to organize a blood drive, despite her deep-seated fear of needles.

In 2014, Melissa married her fiancé whom she met on Match.com through their mutual interest in volunteering. In 2014, Melissa married her fiancé, whom she met on Match.com through their mutual interest in volunteering. “Instead of having the traditional bachelor or bachelorette party, we actually rented a huge van and surprised everyone,” Melissa said. “We organized a day of service at DC Central Kitchen…Surprisingly, they really enjoyed it.”

30 Days of Service

Melissa was not looking forward to turning 30.

“I wanted to do something positive,” she said. “I thought ‘well what a better way to celebrate than to do good work and to help others.’”

The numbers worked out perfectly for her September birthday: 30 days for 30 years. How hard could it be?

Photo by Benjamin Burgess

She tried to keep it exciting by volunteering with a variety of organizations — mostly those working with veterans and people experiencing homelessness. Since she was already connected with a lot of organizations, it was just a matter of looking at her calendar, signing up for events and plugging them into a Google spreadsheet.

At first, it was more daunting than she expected. Melissa had started an undergraduate degree at American University, so she had to balance volunteering with schoolwork and other obligations. But once she got into a rhythm, she found that the feeling of making a difference was more than worth it.

At the same time, she shared her volunteer spreadsheet with friends and documented her experience by posting selfies to social media with the hashtag #30DaysOfServiceForMy30th.

“I’m not a selfie person normally,” she said. “I did it to…show that it doesn’t matter if they can donate one hour or one full day, they can fit service somewhere into their schedule.”

The Incident

On Oct. 19, 2015, she was volunteering at Martha’s Outfitters on the Martha’s Table campus where she had spent many of her 30 days of service.

She was assaulted by another volunteer.

“I’m a survivor of sexual assault in my early adolescence and my husband was in India during the time for work, so as you can imagine this is the last thing I would’ve expected,” she said. “In the aftermath, I was very flustered and very taken aback.”

She reported the incident to police later that night and ultimately decided to press charges.

The criminal case went on for about seven months and resulted in a sentence of 10 days suspended confinement, six months supervised probation and a $50 fine to D.C.’s Crime Victims Compensation Program. Her aggressor wouldn’t have to serve those 10 days if he followed the conditions of his probation: stay away from her, receive sex offender counseling and complete 40 days of community service — which is where the assault occurred in the first place.

“I’ve been through a lot of trauma…and volunteering has really been my saving grace in a lot of ways,” she said. “The fact that something like this could happen in my safe space [was devastating].”

The year before, she had volunteered over 400 hours. After the incident, she barely volunteered at all.

The healing process

Melissa says she started the healing process by asking hard questions. Why was she questioning her passion and purpose?

“I think the conclusion that I came to is that I’ve been through a lot in my life and I’ve always come back to trying to create a silver lining,” she said interview. “That’s what really inspired me to continue the project, that I just need to pick back up again and do this.’”

This interview with Melissa occurred 12 days into Melissa’s 30 days of service for her 31st birthday, as she geared up for the AARP Meal Pack Challenge on the National Mall. She plans to continue the project in future years, possibly in another form like 30 acts of kindness, since she plans to work full time or pursue a Master’s in social work.

Photo by Benjamin Burgess

The healing process is ongoing and some days are easier than others. She continues to draw support from her husband and resources such as the Network for Victim Recovery of DC and the Crime Victims Compensation Program.

This time around, school is a little more demanding as Melissa gets ready for graduation. So she and her husband are doing more of what she calls “freelance volunteering”: bringing toiletries and meals to about 30 homeless folks at Edward R. Murrow Park across from the World Bank.

It has become a community where Melissa has been able to start healing from her own trauma, while helping others work through theirs. She mentioned, for example, meeting Lance Johnson while he was still running his street ministry at the park. Even though she hasn’t seen him preaching there lately, Melissa still remembers talking with him about his experiences as a veteran.

“It’s all about connecting with people,” she said. “Whether I can bring them a hot meal, or whether I can listen to them for an hour and hear one of their war stories.”


Originally published at streetsense.org.

Poetry Workshop Inspires Washingtonians to Rethink The Presidency

Sunlight filtered through the massive windows as the clack of typing keys and friendly whispers bounced off beige brick walls to the high ceiling above. A vague smell of dust and coffee permeated the air.

Sixteen people sat at a semicircle of white tables littered with paper, brightly colored Post-it notes and pens. The facilitator stood in front of an electronic whiteboard illuminated with a typewritten poem, calling on raised hands. An assistant stood next to her, intently scribbling down the participants’ suggestions.

“Someone who’s lived in a homeless shelter,” said one participant.

“Someone who values different opinions,” said another.

“Someone with a disability”; “student debt”; “a criminal record and a good attitude” all eventually migrated to a Post-it clad easel.

Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

The someone in question? The president of the United States.

The workshop, which took place at the MLK Library Digital Commons on Sept. 16, was part of a public art project called “I want a president…” The project is challenging Washingtonians to reimagine political representation through poetry and will culminate in a collective reading of these poems on Oct. 16 at 5:30 p.m. in front of the White House.

Co-organizer Saisha Grayson said the project was inspired by the 1992 poem of the same title by Zoe Leonard. The poem was written as a critique of the Reagan Administration’s handling of the AIDS crisis and the overall lack of diversity in American government. A group of artists from Stockholm translated it into Swedish for a protest in 2010. Since then, it has become a larger rallying cry against divisive political systems in cities across the globe.

“When it became apparent this election cycle would be marked by fear and divisiveness, it was the perfect time to bring [the poem] back to the U.S.,” Grayson said.

But this time, she wanted to do it differently. Instead of translating the poem, she would update it to reflect America in 2016.

Since July, Grayson has worked with Co-Organizer Natalie Campbell and a growing list of community partners to host six workshops in D.C. and one in New York, with the goal of capturing as many voices as possible. Participants will condense the poems into a final one page version at Corcoran School of the Arts & Design at the George Washington University on Oct. 5.

Grayson said the workshops have been relatively intimate — usually between 10 and 15 people — but that participants are highly engaged and excited to share their ideas.

Photo by Robyn Di Giacinto

D.C. native Nathaniel Akers was delighted with the MLK Memorial Library workshop on Sept. 16, which he heard about while doing research at the library.

“I like sharing ideas. I think ideas are the things that make our country strong,” Akers said. “Words are like seeds — if they’re positive, something positive is going to grow.”

Akers said he looks forward to attending the reading at the White House.

The workshop’s success may come down to the medium itself.

“This format allows people to get past day to day arguments regarding [the] given political system and think creatively and expansively about what’s important to them,” Grayson said.

The reading is the official closing event for Creative Time Summit, an international conference on art and social change taking place in D.C. from Oct. 14 to 16. Organizers are also sharing the poems generated in workshops on their website and promoting the project on social media, and hope for a large turnout at the White House on Oct. 16 at 5:30 p.m.


Originally published at streetsense.org.

Service Provider Fair Aims to Help Homeless People Circumvent Waiting Lists

The United Way of the National Capital Area is gearing up to host its second annual Project Homeless Connect on October 19 at Central Union Mission, 65 Massachusetts Ave. NW. The event, which runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., will connect over 200 homeless Washingtonians with local providers and services that would otherwise take months to access.

On-site services will include employment services, housing information and referrals, medical and pediatric care, HIV screening, legal help, breakfast and lunch, veteran’s assistance, voter registration, haircuts, hygiene kits, socks and more. Each participant will be matched with a volunteer guide to help navigate the event.

Event organizers are currently seeking general volunteers, participant guides, Spanish translators and licensed mental and physical health professionals. Those interested in getting involved can email phc@uwnca.org for more information.


Originally published at streetsense.org.

The package services situation, explained

“GWU PACKAGE RECIEPT NOTIFICATION”

That’s the email subject line we all used to look forward to seeing in our inboxes. However, this past semester its connotation has shifted from excitement to annoyance.

The first complaint hit Twitter on Sept. 4. It only got worse from there.

By 7:52 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 12, there was already a small line gathered outside of the interior door of package services. Some students had looks on their faces that clearly read, “Why am I here?” It was many people’s first time in line before Package Services had even opened.

A storm brews.

In the second and third weeks of school, waiting 30 minutes or more in lines spilling out onto the sidewalk was the norm. This continued for all hours of the day, leading many students to put off picking up textbooks and other packages.

Sophomore Gabby Irizarry remembers seeing students filing in even after closing time. “It was definitely frustrating and discouraging,” she said. She would ask herself, “Do I really need this book? How much time can I actually put off doing the work for this class?’”

“I waited about a week from when my books arrived to pick them up because I heard the lines were outrageous,” says junior Mackenzie Fusco. She said one friend waited in line for 20 minutes before leaving for class empty-handed.

The dust settles.

On Wednesday, Sept. 14, Package Services sent out an email acknowledging complaints and assuring they were working to address the problem.

The increase in staff and natural progression of textbook ordering season both contributed to the decrease in wait time.

“Now, I had less than a 10 minute wait, which is better,” says sophomore Samsara Counts. “I appreciate that they amped up the number of staff.”

The forecast.

Although Package Services is usually swamped at the start of the semester, there’s a general sense that this year was somehow worse — after all, the email from Sept. 14 blamed the backup on a nearly 50 percent increase in package volumes.

Senior Associate Director of Media Relations Brett Zongker confirms that there are more students living in residence halls this year as a result of juniors being required to live on campus. He points to District Hall, which alone accounts for almost 900 new bed spaces.

Although the official enrollment numbers for the class of 2020 won’t be released until later this fall, according to Zongker, we do know that there was an increase in applicants this year. We’ll see if this translated to more students.

Regardless, Package Services is not to blame for any of this. Anyone, no matter how hard working, would struggle to adjust to a sudden 50 percent increase in workload.

Can we expect smaller surges as thousands of students expect absentee ballots, boxes of winter clothes, finals care packages and more textbooks in the spring? Maybe it’s the influx in student housing or just more Chegg orders? No one knows.

For the time being, that’s a later problem.


Originally published at gw.therival.news.