Three candidates for DC Mayor convened virtually Tuesday evening to discuss homelessness in the District.
The forum was hosted by Miriam’s Kitchen, a DC based social services organization that aims to eliminate homelessness, and featured a discussion moderated by Dana White about key issues as well as video testimonials from Miriam’s Kitchen Leaders, all of whom had experienced homelessness.
While on the June 21st ballot, incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser and Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Sr. did not appear. The candidates who participated in the forum were James Butler, former civil rights lawyer and former ANC commissioner, Andre Davis, former public school educator, and Robert White, current at-large DC Council member.
The three candidates participated in a civil discussion about their priorities and differences, if elected, in their approach to the issue of homelessness.
The Root of the Problem
All three candidates spoke about the need to address the root causes of homelessness rather than simply addressing the current problems facing unhoused residents of the District.
“We can prevent homelessness,” White said. “We’ve got to get serious, we’ve got to stop taking these broad, one size fits all approaches and we have to target our programs the way they were meant to.”
Butler spoke about the importance of secure housing for all and ending the cycle of temporary housing for the District’s residents.
“My goal is to end the cycle of purgatory we call shelters and transitional housing and to ensure that we provide permanent, stable, supportive housing for every District resident experiencing homelessness.”
Butler also explained that the District has the resources necessary to provide housing to these populations focusing on the city’s housing stock.
“I believe there’s not a single person in this city that does not deserve housing, and we have enough housing in the city’s housing stock to provide that “What we don’t have is the will, desire and compassion to take that housing stock and put it over the heads of those who are experiencing homelessness.”
White noted that through visits to encampments the vast similarities that he, and all others, have to those individuals and the importance of taking responsibility to address these ineuqities in a humane way.
“There’s not much difference between the people living in these encampments than me, and frankly than you,” White said. “Depending on the orientation of your faith, it is either luck or blessings that we are here and they are there.”
White emphasized the importance of addressing homelessness through working with at risk communities in addition to improving the tools and services available to those currently experiencing homelessness.
“We’ve got to fix the problems to stop this from happening in the first place,” White said. “But we’ve also got to fix the tools.”
Davis echoed White’s call for addressing the root cause of homelessness, and said his perspective as a school teacher gives him a unique insight. Davis emphasized a need for funding for vocational programs and other social services in order to avoid exacerbating the situation.
“Just saying that we are going to have great ideas is not enough,” Davis said. “We need people on the ground, we need to initiate an outreach program and volunteers on the street communicating with them and giving them tools and information so they know where to go.”
The candidates each spoke out adamantly against the destructive clearing of homeless encampments around the city. Butler recognized the need to remove encampments, but emphasized the need to ensure that all individuals are accounted for and housed.
“A good leader would run this city with his mind as well as his heart,” Butler said. “And that’s the kind of leader I will be. We understand these encampments can’t be out there forever, and we are going to try to do something to get them permanent housing. What that looks like under a Butler administration is having a task force tasked with literally counting every head and knowing who’s out there.”
White also emphasized the importance of a compassionate and informed approach to not clearing encampments, but to housing individuals.
“I will focus on housing people, not clearing encampments,” White said. “Clearing encampments you show up with bulldozers and you may accidentally bulldoze a person. When you are clearing encampments you show up with the police and dump trucks in a way that is going to further traumatize people that we have already failed.”
Davis focused on the financial side of homelessness and providing the tools that people need to access housing, particularly affordable housing.
“If we want to increase housing, we also need to increase the way that people access housing, the pathway programs, we need to increase the financial literacy programs,” Davis said. “…At this rate, if we continue doing what we’re doing, we’re looking at 500 square feet being $1,500 a month, and as you go up people can’t afford that.”
Davis also discussed the limitations of rent control in the city and expressed concern about the unaffordability of the new housing being developed.
“We have a situation where there are retail spaces in the bottom (of buildings), and the people who work in the retail space cannot afford a one bedroom unit atop the place that they work,” Davis said.
The Upcoming Election
You can watch a recording of the candidate forum here. The democratic primary election for DC Mayor will take place on June 21, 2022. You can read more about the election and how to request an absentee ballot here.
Sarah Payne is a general assignment reporter for Capital Community News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.