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Native Intelligence
D.C.'s homeless need our help, too
(Published September 19, 2005)

By DIANA WINTHROP

D.C. residents are a curious bunch, though not dissimilar from thousands of Americans who have given generously to the New Orleans flood victims. Residents have shown unbelievable generosity to the roughly 300 flood victims who were evacuated to temporary shelter at the D.C. Armory. They have showered the shell-shocked evacuees with not only food, clothing, job offers, but some have even opened their homes to total strangers who have lost everything and need a chance to recover.

But many of the same D.C. residents virtually turn their backs on the 17,000 homeless (which is a really thought to be a low figure, though it is rising about 6 percent annually), who struggle daily to survive in the city. One city council staff member told me he was stunned by residents who where jamming the office phone lines with offers of aid, while he knew people would never consider offering the same to those families living at D.C. Village.

It is so sad that we think of the flood victims as more deserving of our help than the rising number of homeless families in the District.

Terry Lynch, executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations, agrees that homeless flood victims are seen as more valuable citizens than homeless D.C. residents. Despite that value judgment, "we are not that dissimilar from New Orleans in terms of having that entrenched poverty," Lynch adds.

We apparently are tired of the plight of our own homeless, in part because we think it is their fault that they are homeless. We think it is their fault that some are mentally ill, and it is their fault that many families are just a paycheck away from disaster. It's as though skyrocketing housing costs and fuel prices have nothing to do with families not being able to find affordable housing. It must be their fault that they can't find housing they can afford in the District.

The flood victims are seen as real victims of a terrible act, which is seen as no fault of their making. The story of the Gulf Coast flooding and devastation is really a form of media-driven philanthropy than any other recent story. The major media are far more interested in Katrina's victims than the plight of local homeless people, because they see them firsthand. Local poverty is no less tragic, but it doesn't attract the personal involvement of reporters who are pressing the flood stories.

Twenty-five years ago, local reporters spent nights with the homeless on heating grates. It was a personal story that humanized the homeless veterans, who were finally given a face. Now that has changed, because homeless stories aren't as "newsworthy" as flood victims. There is a sharp contrast to how we treated homeless veterans 25 years ago and how we recently treated the aging veterans from Mississippi who arrived at the Soldiers Home in Northwest Washington -- to balloons and applause, as well as open arms.

Why is it necessary for us as a society to categorize some people as more worthy than others?

Mayor Anthony A. Williams has 82 homeless shelters in the District, though some (such as the old Randall school) have closed in recent months. Many are in deplorable condition and some, located in church basements, are quite small. But in either case, they have been forgotten.

Helping the homeless is not a priority for the mayor or even members of the D.C. City Council. It was a remarkable sight to see so many of them at the D.C. Armory welcoming flood victims, most of whom had no idea they were being sent so far from home. There have been a number of events cancelled at the D.C. Armory to transform it into a temporary home for Louisiana flood victims. Our local officials thought this national catastrophe was reason enough to marshal all forces to help these people get on their feet.

Why isn't there an effort to marshal forces also to help homeless families in the District, rather than pushing them to the back of the line on subsidized housing? Hurricane Katrina victims are being given preference over waiting-listed D.C. residents for the limited subsidized housing that is being made available -- while homeless local families live in the squalor of D.C. Village.

In the end I guess that, even though we refuse to admit it, opening our arms to help the Katrina victims is our penance for electing President Bush -- who not only inflicted untold pain and suffering on thousands of helpless Americans by botching his job, but wasted precious resources on concocting conservative social policy experiments when he should have been rebuilding and maintaining the strategically important Mississippi Delta region.

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Diana Winthrop is a native Washingtonian. Contact her at diana@thecommondenominator.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator