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Forum highlights economic displacement and homelessness

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DC,Amy Seed

Donald Whitehead, Jr. experienced the effects of gentrification three times when he was younger, he said during a panel discussion about the issue last week at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library.

Working on housing and homeless issues for the past 15 years, Whitehead highlighted a connection between homelessness and the term gentrification. Whitehead previously served as the former board president and executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The remaining panel members, Michael O’Neill, director of Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau; Rosemary Ndubuizu, community organizer for Organizing Neighborhood Equity (ONEDC); and Linda Leaks, co-director of Empower DC, expressed the same concern. 

Economic displacement continues to push lower income residents out of higher income neighborhoods, but the actual connection between this and homelessness remains uncertain. While the homeless literally have no place to call home, Whitehead explained gentrification in terms of homelessness and described why he views it is the cause.

“Gentrification, one of the leading causes of homelessness, is the lack of affordable housing,” said Whitehead.  

Whitehead noted during the discussion that after revitalization of distressed housing, some residents unfortunately cannot afford to live in the transformed housing developments and have to move elsewhere.

In an effort to solve the problem, government officials promoted public housing. Established in 1992, the Hope VI program was dedicated to revitalizing public housing that had become run-down. The panel placed its focus on this program and where they felt it failed.

A major aspect of the program (criticized by the panel) was that while neighborhoods are being revitalized, not everyone evicted from the housing is allowed back once it is rebuilt. This, in their opinion, is the link between gentrification and homelessness. The panel stressed that the government has failed to keep records showing where these people go.

“Over 63,000 units of public housing have been demolished through this project and about 20,000 more slated to be demolished,” Whitehead said. “So, that’s another really big impact on the homeless population because one of the things that really frightens me about this particular program is that there isn’t a lot of data about where the residents that leave that housing go.”

The panel brought up the argument that the city has not been doing enough to keep track of those displaced from public housing. It was also argued that the local government does not provide additional housing after the revitalization of distressed neighborhoods, leaving the displaced homeless.

The issue is not a new one to the area. Economic displacement has been occurring throughout the years, and while some might not have expected it, the issue did not surprise others.

The Washington City Paper and The Atlantic Monthly published articles addressing the effects of economic displacement either in Washington or other cities nationwide. Some sources within the articles revealed that not only did they see the problem coming but that housing vouchers are part of the problem.

These Section 8 housing vouchers remain valid for 60 days, giving those displaced from public housing time to find another home or apartment. Annual income certifications under the voucher program offer support for 30% of that person’s income. If someone possessing a voucher fails to find housing in the given amount of time, it is reclaimed and given to someone else in need.

“They simply weren’t displaced from that housing and they were homeless. They had relocation vouchers, essentially,” said Brian Sullivan, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Whitehead added that while mixing residents of varying incomes in a neighborhood has its positive aspects, he was dissapointed that it was difficult to know the outcome of people vacating public housing.

The panel members shared a desire for data and knowledge of where the homeless eventually end up after gentrification has taken place. Panelists commented on the lack of data they were able to find regarding the movement of homeless from public housing into the community.

However, according to a study by HUD, only 41% of nationwide homeless in fiscal year 2008 transitioned from housing to homelessness. Those who became homeless after either renting or owning their housing added up to only 12.5%. Those previously living with family consisted of 16.4% and those living with friends consisted of 12.1%.

Because of the voucher program and data illustrating the transition from housing to homelessness, displacement from public housing is not the cause of homelessness, said Sullivan.

He said that displacement is not the cause of homelessness but that lack of a successful transition into the voucher program can put someone at risk of becoming homeless.

“The government reduced their commitment by 49% so that has to be taken on by socially conscious developers and non-profits because people don’t make money as developers develop low income housing so it has to be a commitment to social justice,” Whitehead said.

The local government has provided the voucher system as a means of helping those displaced from public housing in this high cost area. Those searching for housing in the voucher system are given the option to choose from housing in the 40-50 percentiles of rent costs, so it is not impossible to find housing with a voucher, said Sullivan.

In an effort to raise awareness to the issue, the panel discussed several ways the community can become involved in preventing economic displacement. The main option was to stay up-to-date with the D.C. budget and know how much money is placed in related housing programs.

While economic displacement has been blamed for homelessness, data and differing viewpoints illustrate that the cause is not so simple. Factors like voucher programs and individual circumstances of the homeless play a large role in determining the pros and cons of the current housing policy.

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