Rags and riches, both present in the nation’s capital

A woman sleeps outside of Ladurée, a high-class Parisian bakery, in Georgetown. Photo courtesy of Meghan Sorensen.
A woman sleeps outside of Ladurée, a high-class Parisian bakery, in Georgetown. Photo courtesy of Meghan Sorensen.

By: Meghan Sorensen

In the nation’s capital, the country’s most powerful and influential people share the same streets as Washington, DC’s homeless population.

Due to the city’s attempt to revitalize its suburbs over the years, there is a growing gap between affluent neighborhoods and impoverished residents. Through gentrification, the cost of homes and rent have skyrocketed over the years, leading many residents realizing they can’t afford to live in local neighborhoods.

In fact, many of the people who used to live in DC are relocating to Virginia or Maryland to escape the city’s steep prices. As for those who can’t afford to stay or leave, they find themselves on the streets or in local parks.

While homelessness is a prominent issue all over the world, the nation’s capital is home to the sixth-largest homeless population in the United States, with a level 5.23% above the rest of the country. This fact shines an interesting light on what is referred to as arguably the most powerful nation.

In 2002, Richard Florida released a book The Rise of the Creative Class, which describes the theory that young people, typically working in science, writing, or art fields, are the key to a city’s successful economy. However, in seeking out this “creative class,” cities like D.C. leave longtime residents out to dry to go onto big and better things.

Out of this book, the Creative DC Action Agenda and the Creative Economy Strategy were created. Mayor Adrian Fenty’s agenda called for promotion of creative employment and business opportunities in order to revitalize impoverished areas. Mayor Vincent Gray’s strategy was part of his Five-Year-Strategy and worked to plan a way to achieve growth in creative industries. Both sounded good in theory, but made no real plan for those who were unable to adjust to the affluent, glamorous new city past mayors envisioned.

Last April, civil-rights lawyer Aristotle Theresa filed a lawsuit claiming Mayor Fenty and Mayor Gray, and others were promoting discriminatory practices in order to entice the creative class.

The lawsuit also claimed that, “[L]ow-income black residents are moved around as easily as ‘potted plants or flowers’ … [in] the past decade of African-Americans … [have been] forced out of the city, to the tune of 39,000 between 2000-2010 while gaining 50,000 white residents during that time.”

The World Population Review found that 92.73% of 2018’s homeless population are people of color, proving  Theresa has a valid point.

“These policy documents say outright, we are planning to alter land use in order to attract people who are of a certain age range, in order to attract people who are a certain profession,” Theresa said.

On April 26, Theresa won a case against the DC Housing Authority for a group of low-income African-American residents. The DC Housing Authority planned on using $400 million to destroy and reconstruct Barry Farms, one of DC’s largest public housing complexes. Due to the win, the reconstruction was postponed.

The DC Court of Appeals determined that the Housing Authority was not fully addressing how many lives would be affected and how many would be hopelessly displaced.

Additionally, many homeless people in Washington DC are frustrated with the government and the lack of support they have received from federal buildings right around the corner.

In 2017, Mayor Muriel Bowser returned $15.8 million dollars to the Federal Government given to her to help the epidemic of homelessness in DC. Homeless resident, Antonio “Cabbagestalk,” found this personally upsetting.

“She could have done something. She had the power and the authority to do something. [The Mayor] had the Federal Government backing [her],” said “Cabbagestalk.”

Mayor Bowser also cleared out a homeless encampment along Virginia Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway on November 16, 2015. Dump trucks and officials cleared out tents in an effort to have homeless individuals move into city shelters before winter struck.

While the possessions were put into storage units to allow them to be claimed for a period of time, individuals who were forced out were upset that this decision was made without them.

“We have nowhere else to go. The reason we don’t want to go to shelters is because they’re not safe and they split you and your husband up. It’s not what we prefer. We prefer to have privacy,” said Stephanie Abbott to Fox 5. Others claimed that there are violence and hygiene issues in shelters.

In December of 2015, Utah tried a different theory to try to help the homeless population. Called Housing First, the concept places people in homes before handling issues such as mental illness and prescription drug addiction treatment.

The original model works to handle complex issues first before housing individuals, but for many, it was hard to focus on improving their mental health while still living on the streets. According to Stop Overdose Illinois, the theory worked and in 2015, the chronically homeless population dropped by 91 percent. Let’s hope Bowser can ensure change.