WASHINGTON (WDVM) — According to the People for Fairness Coalition, 180 unhoused people died in 2020. The death of Angela Hill, the 58-year-old mother, and grandmother who was living under the I-295 underpass for over 10 years, was widely publicized.
“We need to all year long push to make sure that we save lives because housing is healthcare and it is a human right,” said the People for Fairness Coalition’s Advocacy Director Reginald Black.
At a press briefing shortly afterward, Mayor Muriel Bowser said the cold contributed to Hill’s death and encouraged unhoused people to call the city’s helpline. Her remarks came less than a year after her administration proposed cutting funding for nonprofits that provide services for homeless people.
Meanwhile, the District of Columbia’s Department of Parks and Recreation is preparing to displace many people who are living in tents at a park on the corner of New Jersey & O Street in Northwest. In January, the DPR presented its proposed “splash park” with a price tag of $1.3 million. Designers plan to replace the current paving and install new landscaping and a pavilion.
The People for Fairness Coalition, which is run by formerly and currently unhoused people and advocates for services, education, and government support, is fighting against the proposal. Black says the demand for services has greatly increased — and continues to increase — since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was very appalled at some of our partners across the city when they actually started to agree that living outside is safer during COVID,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Do you understand that people need housing?'”
“They would rather spend $1.3 million on a new splash park instead of using that $1.3 million to house, maybe, 30 people for about two years with rent being about $1,500 a month,” said Maurice Cook, founder of Serve Your City, which is also against the proposal.
Cook founded Serve Your City to offset the effects gentrification had on D.C., his hometown. “[The proposal] is absolutely tied to white supremacy; it is absolutely tied to the continuous, long-standing structural racism that Black and Brown people have faced in this country since the beginning.”
Cook and Black agree that unhoused people are facing the same limitations as runaway slaves: no money or limited finances, no property, and no land. They’re also being criminalized for their circumstances. They’re facing trauma, financial difficulties, systemic racism, and biases from their government leaders and community members.
“It’s a normalization of dehumanization,” Cook said.
Black says the People for Fairness Coalition found that there are 17,000 vacant units in the District. A third of them are “luxury apartments,” constructed over the last five to six years. Those are welcome alternatives to D.C. shelter facilities, which Black says are largely repurposed. “People who are living outside are saying there’s no ventilation, the sanitation is a concern, the violence and crime is a concern. Those are valid concerns that the city has not put enough resources into for all this time.”