A "help wanted" sign hangs outside an establishment.
credit: Andreas Klinke Johannsen/Flickr

Why don’t they just get a job? Why don’t they move? Why don’t they?

These questions come up time and time again from well-intentioned people referring to my case management clients: people who are homeless.

The answer is simple: It costs a lot to live in Washington, D.C., and employment opportunities that pay $29 per hour – the salary needed for one person to afford decent, safe, modest and affordable housing without a subsidy – are hard to find.

More importantly, even as the city becomes more diverse in terms of gender, race and ethnicity, some are still unwelcome; you can’t live in Washington, D.C., if you are poor, and if you are poor, others would like you to go unseen. Homeless people wreck the view.

In an effort to broaden the District’s tax base, the city developed blocks and blocks of repetitive shopping and outrageously priced apartments and condos. Over the last 20 years, the trend has become glitzy little neighborhoods with expensive trendy shops, high-end grocery stores, coffee shops, bistros and bike shares. One hundred thousand new residents have flocked to the city over the last 10 years to enjoy all the benefits of hip shopping, good eats and granite countertops, thrilled with the prospect of living at a “nice” address in the nation’s capital: a human rights city. There is so much eye candy block by block, it’s surprising everyone’s not on insulin.

But as housing prices have skyrocketed, lifelong D.C. residents whose families have lived here for generations have been forced out, or worse, forced to live outdoors or in the shelters.

City government made the decision two decades ago to invest in luxury lifestyles rather than poor residents. Years of misplaced priorities have compromised the real issue of income inequality, inclusive of gainful employment and safe affordable housing. The city neglected the needs of its poorest residents and went full steam ahead with developers, many of whom don’t even live in Washington or have a personal investment other than loads of cash and property in marginalized neighborhoods.

The needs of the District’s poor were ignored then and now, and poverty spurred by greed has multiplied. Rent control options have dwindled, and some units aren’t even made available to low- or moderate- income residents. Development companies now often place their employees in affordable units as a perk. The result is an increase in homelessness and housing insecurity. City officials are scrambling to stop the bleeding.

Rather than hold developers and businesses accountable and demand businesses coming into the city address the issue through affordable housing units and gainful employment opportunities, respectively, and proportionate to the actual need, the city administration began enforcing ridiculous mandates like encampment sweeps and the construction of narrow park benches with a midline barrier so people can’t sleep. Businesses installed spikes in window storefronts so people can’t sit. WMATA, with all its financial woes, altered bus shelter seating so people can’t make a bed for the night. In some places, seating is removed altogether.

Criminalizing homelessness or making poor people feel unwelcome doesn’t remedy the problem of housing insecurity, underemployment and unemployment. Furthermore, this is certainly not consistent with the philosophy of a so-called human rights city. What if the resources used to install gates, spikes, reinvent metro benches and police encampments were focused on bringing people in rather than keeping people out?

The gates in the former Foggy Bottom encampment cost over $500,000. This figure alone could provide subsidies for numerous individuals or families for one year or operate a cooperative partnership between businesses and providers able to initiate substantive employment and housing needs. Adding additional barriers separate from the outrageous, already existing bureaucratic gridlock is downright mean, doesn’t solve the problem, sends the message that human rights is a luxury and only gives housed neighbor’s an unobstructed view of the Potomac.

In a political climate of walls and isolation, we need a bridge between all residents, business associations and labor. The remedy is very simple: gainful permanent employment and affordable housing. Business owners, residents and developers who enjoy the comforts of a nice warm bed in a secure building and a full bank account need to partner with programs and services connecting individuals to gainful employment solutions and housing opportunities that are affordable, safe, clean and near amenities that meet daily basic life needs. Social workers and outreach teams can saturate every quadrant of Washington, D.C., but without solid employment and housing resources, there are no measurable or lasting results.

We don’t need another study, another 10-year plan to end homelessness or a well-paid policy wonk from Peoria who has no institutional memory, no substantial connection to labor or is unfamiliar with the city’s geography to solve problems that are now sadly woven into the fabric of the city. And, we certainly don’t need gainful employment and housing to become another agenda item on the third or fourth 10-year plan in 20 years to end homelessness in the District.

We need a good dose of reality combined with cooperation, compromise and empathy between providers, businesses and resident associations. We need labor to step up to help navigate opportunities in the trades and service industry. We need local business and companies moving into the District to participate in job training programs and offer positions to District residents first. We need transitional housing to help individuals maintain employment. We need rent control.

But most importantly, we need an opportunity to dispel myths about homelessness and poverty so we can be creative and come together with permanent and lasting solutions that afford people the opportunity to “just get a job”. We need to stop being a city of clutch-your-pearls liberals and take the human rights stuff seriously.

Julie Turner is a social worker and activist, tasked part-time to Street Sense clients.