The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

A Crisis Not Seen Since the 1980s

Mar 17, 2014

Authorities say there's a homelessness crisis in Washington "not seen since the 1980s."

How ironic! It was in the 1980s that things were supposed to have changed somewhat for the city's homeless. A group of homeless advocates led by Mitch Snyder had set up a "Reaganville" tent camp in Lafayette Park, and staged protests, hunger strikes, and civil disobedience. These actions helped win the use of a federal office building to turn into a large shelter with 1,000 beds. The building had been unused and abandoned for years before the government finally gave in! The Federal City Shelter grew to be the largest homeless shelter in the country, with 1,700 beds. But it still turns people away every night.

The same homeless activists also worked to get a measure on the ballot in 1984. "Initiative 17" was supposed to guarantee the "right to shelter, to all people, at all times." It passed by a landslide 72%.

And then it was systematically dismantled by Democrat after Democrat in the mayor's office and City Council, until it was finally completely rescinded in 1990. The legislation that followed required shelter only during "hypothermia alerts" and only for D.C. residents. A spending cap was added. Restrictions were placed on families, allowing them to be kicked out of shelter sooner. And all this was going on just as rents were climbing through the roof.

And that's not even to speak of enforcement of the law. A "shelter," for example, is required to have beds, clean linens, restrooms, and showers. Yet this winter, the city threw open some unused Metro buses on cold nights and called them a "shelter"!