Columbia Heights is an amazing, diverse, densely populated, and economically layered community. We’ve come a long way from the riots of 1968 – while our neighborhood was effectively ignored and avoided for decades by city planners, the neighborhood has witnessed an extraordinary revitalization since the Metro stop was installed in 1999 and DC USA was established in 2008.
This is why it’s amazing to me that some community members look at Columbia Heights and see a neighborhood “in decline.” There is no comparison to our community now and what it was like 10 or even 5 years ago. Businesses are thriving, people are competing to live here, and we even have America’s #2 Best New Restaurant! Our community has changed dramatically, and mostly for the better.
Unfortunately, the blessings of community revitalization have historically run “downhill.” What has generally been positive change has ended in a sporadic drip of benefits for long term residents. These changes are perceived as encroachment, because the changes are not for them but are geared toward supporting the “New Community.”
This visibly translates into a disparity within the community that begins to look like a line between the “Haves” and the “Have Nots.”
What is happening here is not unique to Columbia Heights. As newcomers enter an established community and work to make that community their own, they often aren’t aware of those they are displacing or the long term residents they will now be calling neighbors. But it is particularly dramatic here. From 2000 – 2010 the black population in Columbia Heights dropped 13%, while the white population increased 18%. And it’s only continued in that direction since then.
As long-term residents watch their neighborhood undergo dramatic change, what they see are affluent new people who are able to come in and make substantial changes: upgrading their property, buying out neighbors, closing or replacing the local corner store, and changing traffic patterns.
This progress clearly isn’t meant for long-term residents. They have been here for decades without change, but all of a sudden it is the new comers who get to dictate and direct the transformation of their community.
For example, one Saturday morning a neighborhood in DC woke to the bustling hum of a new farmer's market. The farmers had their trucks out and were busy setting up tables and cordoning off the area. The neighborhood soon learned that the market was to be a regular staple in the area from 10 AM – 2 PM every Saturday going forward. What a surprise this was!
What was also surprising is that no one knew that this was happening, not the home owners and residents who regularly parked their cars in what was now a restricted area, not the local corner market that would now be losing business to the incoming vendors. No one informed the ladies who regularly sat in the small park adjacent to the new market on Saturday mornings to enjoy the quiet setting.
At the next ANC meeting the “newcomers,” young white couples with toddlers at their sides and million dollar investments in their new homes, faced off against the “long-termers:” African American residents who had raised their children, grandchildren and great grands in homes they had occupied for most of their lives.
“Why would anyone oppose a farmers market?” the newcomers asked. “This is good for everyone!” What the market planners failed to understand was the importance of the process, the necessity of inclusion, the expectation of respect for the existing community. The market had drawn a line in the sand and brought to bear the real questions that typify the problems of a transitioning community:
"Whose community is this? Who gets to decide what “we” want? Does my voice matter? Is your voice more important than mine?"
The community of Columbia Heights is currently weathering this storm of transition. As a community changes it is the responsibility and duty of the designers of change to foresee the pitfalls of transition and work to address, if not prevent the inevitable ill winds.
Crime is one of those inevitable ills that result when parts of a community are left out of the prosperity equation.
While no one is opposed to growth and success, everyone must have a stake in progress and a viable chance to grow with the community. Real opportunities for participation in the “New Community” have to be within the reach of long term residents.
These opportunities include things like easy micro loans for home improvement, accessible job opportunities, training programs, homeownership, affordable housing, etc. Without these kinds of supports, feelings of resentment and exclusion fester as people who have the most to lose in our community are left behind or shoved aside.
City Planners, politicians, community advocates and members must continuously seek to engage strategies that create an inclusive community that promotes both the old and the new. Failure to do so will only breed the kind of contempt that results in a disregard for all things, including the community that no longer feels like home.
While Thrive DC is located in Columbia Heights and primarily serves the homeless of DC, a large part of our work is also homelessness prevention. More than 200 families a week come to Thrive DC for emergency groceries, or for fresh fruits and vegetables from our free farmer’s market, or simply to bring their children in for a free meal.
We are doing what we can to provide job assistance and job training for individuals who want to participate in our community. We even have a re-entry program for women coming home from incarceration that offers support while helping them get back on their feet.
However, these solutions will have limited effectiveness until our city and community leaders plan for a future that includes both the old and the new communities they serve.
It's out. The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness has posted the 2016 Point in Time report, the annual snapshot of what the homeless community looks like in DC. Click the picture to the right to read it!
In response to the daunting problem of affordable housing in DC, our Mayor has mounted an admirable 82.2 million dollar effort to preserve and create approximately 804 units of affordable housing. This housing is designed for residents making between 30-80% below the area median income.
The Mayor’s plan is certainly better than nothing and will help those who are lucky enough to be first in line and eligible for the housing offered. However, many, many more will be left behind without even the hope of being able to work their way out of their circumstances.
For example, the city’s Point In Time count of homelessness in 2015 estimated 6,500 people who were currently homeless. While we applaud the effort to increase affordable housing for even one family, we have to understand that these housing units represent a mere drop in the bucket of required assistance.
Even if every unit of new housing established by the city were dedicated to the homeless community, this would only help 12% percent of the identified homeless persons in DC.
In other news, a new study published by the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) shows it is impossible for an individual working full-time at minimum wage to rent even a basic apartment. The NLIHC found that individuals working in the District of Columbia would need to make $23.65/hour to afford a one bedroom. Someone making our current minimum wage at $10.50/hour would need to work two full time jobs just keep a roof over their heads.
For poor individuals, let alone single mothers with children, it is simply not possible to work hard enough to afford adequate housing.
This study represents a very sad truth that even 82 million dollars is not enough to solve our housing problems. The approach to solving housing instability has to be multifaceted and include elements which allow individuals the ability to become self sufficient.
First, we as a city (and country!) must decide that people deserve to earn a living wage. We must also commit to creating ample opportunities to earn that living wage, and we must insure that there are sufficient affordable and decent dwellings in which to live.
Finally, we must provide the necessary and consistent supports for people to achieve and maintain their lives. It makes no sense to provide a person transitioning from homelessness or housing instability a beautiful new home if they do not have what they need to maintain it. These kinds of support range from ongoing case management, to accommodations for physical disabilities, to job development and more.
Thrive DC believes that every individual deserves a safe place to sleep at night, employment that allows them to afford that place, and external support to help when times get rough. The District’s new commitment to affordable housing is commendable, but will be ultimately insufficient without broader systemic change.
One night a year hundreds of volunteers in DC walked through all the neighborhoods, alleyways, parks, and woods for one simple purpose: to physically count every homeless person in the city.
Started in 1983, the Point In Time (PIT) homeless count was created to finally get an accurate sense of how big the problem of homelessness really was. Before then, estimates of homeless persons in the US ranged wildly, from the millions to hundreds of thousands. To get more accurate data, federal agencies decided to make a count of all homeless persons in a specific place at a specific time.
Today, the PIT count is huge coordinated effort between the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and local nonprofits. While every city that receives HUD funding is required to make a PIT count every two years, Washington, DC makes it an annual tradition. Every year, during one night in the last week of January, hundreds of volunteers go out with surveys in hand from 10:00 PM – 2:00 AM counting the people they find outside and asking basic demographic questions. Everyone in shelters and at homeless day programs like Thrive DC are counted as well. The answers to these questions help determine funding priorities for the upcoming year.
The PIT count is done the last week of January because it is the time when shelters are expected to be the most full, making it easier to get an accurate count. Especially in DC, where the city is legally required to provide shelter when the temperature is below 32 degrees, the population sleeping outdoors should be much smaller, easier to find, and more manageable to survey in a limited time.
The survey is designed to be as quick and informative as possible. While it asks basic information like race, sex, and age, it also makes a point to ask persons in their own words what the reason for their homelessness is. The survey also asks if someone is living with medical conditions, receiving any kind of financial assistance, and whether or not they are a veteran.
Everyone! Local homeless service providers act as team leaders and outreach specialists, but volunteers come from all walks of life, with even some homeless persons acting as advocates for their own community. Homelessness is an issue that affects all of us, because it represents a failure of the safety net we rely when tragedy strikes. The volunteers gathered last night bore witness to our commitment to end homelessness in DC not just for those who are chronically homeless, but for everyone who finds themselves without a place to stay at night.
Cold! But it was heartwarming to see everyone come out to support an end to homelessness. More than 300 volunteers stepped up in 2015, six times more than the 50 who were doing the PIT count just a few years ago. Even Mayor Bowser came and said a few words.
Surveying the homeless members of our community at night was a humbling experience. Volunteers were able to see exactly how meager sleeping arrangements were, talk to couples huddled together for warmth, learn people’s names, and hear their stories in their own words.
While the PIT count is an important strategy for shaping homelessness policy, it’s also a powerful experience of meeting our city’s most vulnerable members and seeing where they live. It’s our annual trip out to the margins, where we seek out the people who are too often ignored during the daytime.
This spring, after all the data is collected and tallied, we will have a better sense of what homelessness looks like in DC (no PIT count can be entirely accurate, since many homeless individuals and families stay with friends, family, and in their cars, avoiding the count and going uncounted). But if the PIT count interests you, I encourage you to get involved with your local homeless service provider. We need your help as volunteers, and would like you to get to know the people we serve.