A Race Worth Winning

Posted on March 20, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

This past weekend, I was reminded again of how breathtakingly beautiful our nation’s capital is. I was in Washington on Friday and Saturday (along with 40,000 other runners) to participate in an annual half-marathon event, and the city was awash in the colors and smells of spring.

Between the beautiful monuments, historic stone buildings, meticulously-tended outdoor spaces, upscale shops, and affluent residences, no one can deny that Washington is indeed a lovely city. At least on the surface. In stark contrast to its majestic exterior, however, is a dark underside of homelessness. In fact, according to the NAEH’s State of Homelessness in America report released in January 2012, the rate of homelessness for Metro Washington exceeds the national rate (24 homeless individuals per 10,000 in D.C. compared to a national rate of 21 homeless individuals per 10,000) and is almost three times the rate in Richmond (9 homeless individuals per 10,000).  Moreover, while the homeless population decreased nationally, it increased in the District of Columbia.

In past years, it was not at all uncommon to see homeless people sleeping on benches and huddled on sidewalks along various points of the race course, especially in some of the downtown areas and working-class neighborhoods east of the Capitol. It has always caused me some measure of discomfort to run past them as if they were just another feature of the scenery, and frankly, I did not look forward to seeing this again over the weekend.

But this year, strangely, I did not see a single homeless person. Although I hoped for an optimistic explanation (“Breaking News: D.C. Solves Homelessness!”), I suspected a less cheerful reality. No doubt the race organizers considered the negative PR of exposing 40,000 out-of-town visitors to the “unsightliness” of homelessness and “sanitized” the area accordingly with a beefed-up police presence. One problematic consequence of the Occupy Movement has been that more and more urban areas choose to “deal with” their homeless problems by sweeping homeless individuals out of sight and passing laws that criminalize their visibility. It seems that the easy short-term quick-fix options are almost always selected over the harder long-term solutions, even though “easy” comes at a heavy price – both financially and in human costs.

So I had to conclude that the race organizers had consciously and callously prioritized my need to run guilt-free through a sterilized landscape…at the expense of the hundreds of individuals for whom homelessness is an ongoing nightmare. I felt a little discouraged about all this as I headed back down 95. Now more than ever, research is telling us that we know how to end homelessness, especially the most persistent form: chronic homelessness. Consider this excerpt from page 13 of the above-mentioned 2012 State of Homelessness Report:

Another notable decrease was the 3 percent decline in chronic homelessness. This decrease is consistent with a trend that began in 2007….A primary reason for the downward trend in chronic homelessness is the increasing use of permanent supportive housing, an intervention shown to be effective and cost effective in ending chronic homelessness.

But then I stopped to get coffee in Garrisonville and a Washington Post headline caught my eye: “Home At Last, For Good: District Opens New Permanent Housing Complex for Women on the Streets At Least a Year.”  For us at Virginia Supportive Housing, the article chronicles a familiar story – and a hopeful one.

Speaking about D.C.’s growing dynamic of chronic homelessness, Human Services administrator Fred Swan says, “We wanted something more sustainable….The long-stayers just kept coming back, and it was a cycle that needed to be broken.” The article continues: “With that in mind, officials implemented a ‘housing first’ model, focused on offering long-term sustainable housing first and then treating health or social issues – a concept that has been used nationwide.” The article concludes with a quote from one of the featured tenants, Gail Faulkner: “You see these,” she said, dangling the silver apartment keys next to her face. “Nobody can take them away.”

So while no American city – Richmond and Washington D.C. included – has succeeded in solving homelessness (yet), there is good news on the horizon, and that good news, for Gail Faulkner and so many of the people served by VSH, is permanent supportive housing. Study after study concludes that increased availability of and access to permanent supportive housing will be absolutely critical to our efforts to reduce and end homelessness once and for all.

I don’t know how many years I will continue running the D.C. half-marathon, but I like to think that one day in the not-too-distant future, the absence of homeless individuals will not be because we chased them into the shadows….it will be because there aren’t any. By taking slow deliberate steps in the right direction, we can win this race.

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