Defending the Franklin School Shelter

While the Congress sits in the Capital working on a $700 billion dollar bail out plan for the rich, a couple blocks away, the downtown homeless population is being abandoned, left to freeze to death on the streets as winter quickly approaches. For the past two years, members of the homeless population with the support of local residents, collectives, and NGOs have fought to stop the unjust closure of the last emergency homeless shelter in downtown Washington, D.C. The Franklin School Shelter is located on 13th and K street, a wealthy and powerful part of the city, and has been targeted by two successive D.C. mayors, first Tony Williams, then Adrian Fenty, to be closed down and handed over to private developers.

The location of Franklin Shelter plays a major role for both sides in this particular struggle. In fact, the location of the shelter is the main reason why Franklin finds itself under siege by Mayor Fenty, and for the same reason, why its closing has roused such a strong resistance by the downtown homeless community.

The price tag on the building is around $12 million dollars, making it quite a valuable asset to the city. Similarly, its prime location in the heart of D.C.’s downtown business (lobby) district makes it a very enticing, albeit pricey, piece of real estate for developers. Franklin’s location is also of huge strategic value to the homeless community, who rely on it to survive the winter, and use it as a focal point in the everyday struggle to better their lives. The majority of the other shelters, and more specifically, the shelters that Mayor Fenty is forcing the residents from Franklin to go to, are located almost six miles away, on the other side of the river, in Anacostia.

The distance of these fallback shelters from downtown is a huge issue for the people who are being dumped onto the street from Franklin and forced to try (all shelters are at capacity) to get a bed in Southeast D.C. Not only are those shelters located in dangerous and drug-filled areas, they are also four to six miles away from most of the soup kitchens, medical centers, and other vital social services located downtown, which most of the homeless community relies upon on a day to day basis.

Given this, the four to six mile trek they will be forced to make, without money for public transportation, will have an undeniable crippling effect on their ability to get back on their feet, and get medical attention. Perhaps even worse than this is the obvious impediment of the trek on those who have managed to find work: it will become difficult to make it to work on time, let alone have food in their stomachs once they reach their job.

One of the residents of Franklin talked about this very issue, saying that they have park and recreation buses that go to the shelters but they are “never reliable, so people end up sleeping outside on the street downtown so they can get to their jobs on time, rather then stay in a shelter [across the river] and loose it.”

Another resident at Franklin, Mike Coleman, 66, a retired construction worker unable to hold down a job due to physical aliments, lives off social security, and talked about the reality of being forced out of Franklin. “They put us in a dangerous neighborhood, if it impairs your health or well being — hell your not going to go. I spent the night in the park.” He went on to say that the most important issue concerning the closure of Franklin is its centralized location, stating “we gotta come into town to eat, they [the city] are trying to stick everybody in ward 6,7,8. You got eight wards and your only using three. If you’re going to give someone housing you need to give everybody housing.”

The five-mile trek also creates a higher risk to those who must walk the distance everyday. Issues concerning residents range from walking across bridges that have no sidewalks, which forces them to walk in the road at night, to having to walk from the medical center to the shelter, which creates an anxious situation for them in regards to their safety. For instance, according to Franklin resident Lewy Cannao, 66, a single percocet (the heavily-abused painkiller) on the street goes for “$30 dollars, so if your walking with a prescription full, you’ll get hit — and that’s it, your done. It makes you scared to walk the streets.”

As it stands, the reality of the policy Mayor Fenty is pursuing has thrown 300 people out onto the street as winter, and with it, hypothermia season, quickly approaches. Fortunately, the resistance spearheaded by Franklin residents, with the help their supporters, has borne some fruit in the form of a piece of legislation called the “Franklin Shelter Closing Requirements Emergency Act.” It is described on Franklin’s website as follows:

On September 16, 2008, the D.C. City Council passed emergency legislation requiring the Mayor to certify to the Council that no fewer than 300 men have been placed into housing before the closure of Franklin Shelter could take place, and that Franklin continue its operations as a 300 person shelter in the meantime. The legislation also requires the Mayor to provide the Council “with a report on any proposed closing of the Franklin Shelter that includes a description of the current capacity, current availability, and location of replacement shelter space, and the ability to seasonally increase capacity to reduce incidences of hypothermia among the homeless population prior to closing the Franklin Shelter.” (Franklin Shelter Closing Requirements Emergency Act)

The D.C. city council voted unanimously (12 to 1) in favor of the bill. The overwhelming support for the bill came as a result of the many rallies, protests vigils, and volunteering (for council person’s campaigns) that both D.C. and Franklin residents participated in over the past 2 years. Since the bill won a majority, Mayor Fenty has 2 weeks (the deadline being September 30th) to either sign the bill or veto it. If he chooses to veto the bill, then the bill will go back to the council for a re-vote. Nine votes from the council would override the veto and keep Franklin open. At the end of a letter to the “Honorable” Mayor Fenty, concerning the report, chairman Vincent Gray wrote, “I look forward to your response, recognizing that the goal we share is permanent housing for all, but until that is achieved, we cannot imperil homeless people by removing immediate shelter options.” Regardless of the possibilities the bill leaves open, or the overwhelming support by the D.C. city council for Franklin residents, Mayor Fenty continues to push forward on every legal leg he has left, to kick those same residents out.

Mayor Fenty has decided to exercise his legal right, with all its callous consequences, of dismantling the shelter bed by bed during this two-week period (the waiting period between the passing of the legislation and the veto). Bed’s started disappearing at the end of July, and more and more of the homeless who rely on Franklin shelter began to be rejected from it. As of August 1st, there were only 270 beds out of the original 300, and by September 25th there were only 50. On Friday, September 26th, the city closed Franklin down and is not allowing any residents back, not even to get some of there possessions that may be left inside. Mr. Coleman noted “we left Thursday and came back Friday and they said they don’t have any beds…people got stuff in there and can’t get it.”

As the struggle to preserve affordable and accessible public housing at Franklin comes to a climax, and as the deadline of September 30th approaches, the power of the resistance of the homeless community and their supporters to stop this gross injustice has been on display. The Franklin residents have received a lot of support from D.C. residents and activists in this struggle. On September 25th, Anise Jenkins, a native D.C. resident, attended the last protest at Franklin Shelter before it was closed down. When asked why she was there she replied: “I’m here to keep the shelter open; I’m tired of seeing my city being sold off and I’m here to stop it.” People attending the rally were making the connection to the $700 billion dollar bail-out plan for Wall Street and the continued assault on public housing in D.C. and around the country with chants like “No Bail-Outs-No-Kick-Outs.” The goal of this organized resistance is to set a precedent that public housing is a right. It seems only right that units be made available before the shelter has been decommissioned, but this has not happened at Franklin, even though in 2006, when Fenty chaired the council’s human services committee, he offered a budget amendment prohibiting Franklin’s closure until downtown replacements were opened.

Earlier this month, Mafara Hobson, Fenty’s spokeswoman, said Franklin’s current condition is “deplorable, and we cannot have residents living in those conditions.” Mayor Fenty has been using this same rhetoric to try and justify the closing of Franklin Shelter under the guise that it’s unfit for human habitation. However, this idea is highly contested by the very people who live there, and for good reason. Over the past two years, the city has poured $2 million dollars into renovating the Franklin School building. The bathrooms and the caseworker’s office have both been renovated: a brand new A/C unit, two new water heaters, and a new fire alarm system have also recently been replaced and installed. Franklin provides residents with hot water, air conditioning, and heat — something that has been missing periodically at some of the other shelters for various lengths of time, making Franklin not only inhabitable as it stands, but better then some of the other shelters, and certainly not more “deplorable” then the act of throwing human being’s into the street as hypothermia season approaches.

Another main argument Fenty puts forth is that he wants to close Franklin as part of a move away from large shelters. It just so happens that the Franklin shelter is the fourth largest shelter in D.C. Eric Sheptock, a resident of Franklin, put it like this: “While he [Fenty] claims to want to move away from large shelters and away from warehousing the homeless, he wants to add 100 beds a piece to two shelters that are each already larger than Franklin.” He goes on to say “What is the REAL reason for focusing on Franklin? Profit for private developers? Removing an eyesore from Downtown?” I’ll be the first to say that the Franklin shelter isn’t in perfect condition, but until there is a solid plan in action that provides downtown public housing units that are refurbished, affordable, and ready to be occupied immediately, then the arguments and actions by Mayor Fenty are simply not justified.

Mayor Fenty came out with his “housing first” plan on April 2, 2008. The plan included the closure of Franklin School Shelter, the creation of 400 units of permanent supportive housing by October 1st 2008 (which has not, as of yet, materialized), and another 1600 units of permanent supportive housing by October 1st 2014. He says that he wants to close the building with no sale or lease. Right… If that is the case, it sure seems odd and even irresponsible that the city has poured $2 million dollars of tax payers money (when the city is already cutting funding to social services and stressed with a diminishing budget) into a building just to leave it unoccupied and dormant.

Fenty’s plan, which was supposed to provide 400 units of permanent supportive housing by October 1st, 2008 hasn’t come to fruition, yet he still is trying to close Franklin, and throw 300 people on the street. It’s important to note that the struggle to keep Franklin open, is just one example of the many battles being fought all over America to keep public housing both functional and alive. A similar battle took place just this year, in New Orleans, when the city began demolishing 4,500 public housing units that were deemed structurally sound. Like Franklin, the residents of the public housing units there tried everything they could to keep their homes. Ultimately, however, the demolition went forward, even though New Orleans was experiencing an acute housing crisis, and a severe rise in the rate of homelessness post Katrina. When looking at the facts, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than the city’s actions are a direct assault against the working poor and all disenfranchised Americans, and their right to affordable public housing.

In fact, the working poor and disenfranchised living in America have been under attack for the last thirty years, resulting in the largest gap between the super-rich and the poor since the Great Depression of 1929. It doesn’t take much research to find out that a bulk of the money that could be allocated to the public sector and social services, is in fact being used to fund both the prison and military industrial complex. Amazingly, the United States spends more money on our military then the whole industrial world combined, including China, the Middle East and North Africa. We spend three times more money per person on incarceration (2.2 million people are incarcerated in the U.S. — the most in the world) than on public education per pupil, and believe it or not, the U.S. spends nearly four times more money ($7 billion dollars annually) to arrest and imprison marijuana offenders then on homelessness and affordable housing initiatives ($1.92 billion dollars)!

Meanwhile, the United States has over 50 million Americans without healthcare, 200,000 homeless veterans on the street any given night, between 1 and 1.5 million teenagers experiencing at least one episode of homelessness each year, and nearly 13 million children living below the poverty line, with an additional 28 million living in abject poverty. Moreover, 600,000 families with 1.35 million children experience homelessness in the United States each year, making up about 50 percent of the homeless population. As you can see, there is a clear crisis in this country, and the assault we’re seeing on both the middle and working class in America is intrinsically tied to the rise in homelessness and with it, the dismantling of affordable housing in America. This grotesque trend must be stopped.

As the D.C. homeless and their supporters fight to save Franklin School

Shelter and with it, the lives that will be lost this winter, Barack Obama and John Mccain were at the White House coming up with the best way to sell a $700 Billion dollar bail-out to the American people. That $700 billion dollars will go to the richest among us while the disenfranchised in this country continue to suffer from the same economic system and policies the rich have created. As economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research Dean Baker put it: “So the idea that the administration is proposing is that the people who were engaged in incredibly reckless behavior, who made out like bandits, getting tens of millions of dollars in salary and compensation over the last few years are now going to get this $700 billion blank check from the American taxpayer. It’s just unbelievable.” Economist Nouriel Roubini, who has served in various roles at the Treasury Department, and was a Senior Economist on the Staff of the Presidents Council of Economic Advisors, described the Treasury plan in a recent blog as “a disgrace: a bailout of reckless bankers, lenders and investors that provides little direct debt relief to borrowers and financially stressed households and that will come at a very high cost to the US taxpayer. And the plan does nothing to resolve the severe stress in money markets and interbank markets that are now close to a systemic meltdown.”

While Wall Street works with their buddy Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson a.k.a. “Mr. Risk” (ex-CEO of Goldman Sachs–who holds $540 million in GS stock) to save themselves, and their net worth, working and middle class families continue to loose their homes, equity, and overall livelihood. Something needs to be done in this time of economic crisis, but the people who really need the $700 billion aren’t the one’s who already made tens of millions of dollars. The $700 billion dollar bail out should be going to the over two million homeowners that are going to loose their house this year, the millions of families living off $20,000 a year, the fifty million Americans who are without healthcare, and the residents of Franklin Shelter who now find themselves back on the street.

Sadly, its seems that those in power, including both our presidential candidates, are willing to give pennies to the people, and with smiles on their faces, hand billions to the banksters. It’s up to us to take back and defend what is rightfully ours.

Andrew Thomaides is a freelance writer and activist. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Andrew, or visit Andrew's website.

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  1. Hilary Nalven said on October 5th, 2008 at 9:30am #

    Thanks for this well-researched, informative article that importantly brings attention to those who have consistently been, and, unfortunately with this newly passed bail-out, still will continue to be left behind. Despite an “economic crisis”, it’s amazing how much money exists for the USG to appropriate. Yet funding allocations will remain concentrated in the few hands of the extremely rich and focused on ineffective “wars on terror and drugs”, rather than taking care of people in this nation, especially our children. Foreign assistance to improve the livelihoods of our impoverished global citizens is also disgustingly and disproportionately pathetic- less than .2% of US GDP.

    When will the political will- amongst governments and the general public- be shifted sufficiently to change the flow of capital so that it actually reaches the people that need it most? Who knows, if it ever happens. But I do have hope that through others’ political actions (e.g. Andrew’s above article), we can all become more aware of current injustices and each figure out some way to do something about them.