Economy

‘I Don’t Deserve To Die On The Street’: Inside A Funeral For The Homeless

CREDIT: Alan Pyke/ThinkProgress

Activists and the homeless commemorate National Homeless People's Memorial Day with a symbolic funeral for the dozens of people who died on the streets of D.C. in 2014.

WASHINGTON, DC — It’s a cold, grey Friday morning in Washington, D.C., and Schyla Pondexter-Moore is standing next to a coffin, asking the assembled homeless activists and non-profit housing advocates to get radical.

“Regardless of how much money I have, my education level, whatever I’ve been through, I don’t deserve to die on the street,” the energetic Empower D.C. activist shouts into the microphone in a small tent set up across the street from the building that serves as the District’s city hall. “We need to go back to sitting in there,” she says, pointing across Pennsylvania Avenue, “not leaving, house protests, find out where they live and go to their houses!”

At least one of the city politicians she’s referencing is in the crowd that hovers in and around the tent, listening to Pondexter-Moore and another dozen speakers from the local activist community. Most of the elected officials stand stage right of the coffin, a simple grey-blond shape of wood set atop a table in the center of the tent.

Friday is National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day. The program handed out here today lists 44 people who have died homeless in the D.C. metro area in 2014. But in the middle of the speeches, word comes in that 11 more names have to be added to the list.

When the speeches conclude, the group will carry the symbolic coffin representing those 55 deaths just up the street to a nearby Presbyterian church.

“We don’t have a scientific number for the country yet, but last year’s vigils reported about 2,000 deaths,” the National Council on Homelessness’ (NCH) Michael Stoops told ThinkProgress. It is the 25th year that homeless advocates around the country have held vigils for lives lost to cold, exposure, and other threats that most Americans don’t have to worry about. This group has made progress in that time.

Nobody is better positioned than John McDermott to appreciate both how far things have come and how long a journey remains. McDermott became homeless in 2007, and says he nearly died seven different times between 2008 and when he was placed in a permanent housing program. He soon helped found the People for Fairness Coalition (PFFC) that put on Friday’s vigil, determined to help lift others up from the streets.

“When they closed Franklin School [shelter] down, it went from my brain to my heart that we’ve got to do something,” McDermott said. “We’ve got to have homeless people standing up for their rights.” He convinced a local homeless charity to give him a space and time to hold a meeting to organize his fellow indigents, and PFFC was born. “Since then, 30 people have gotten housing,” he said, “just by sitting around the table and talking about what we’ve gotta do to get housing for everybody that is homeless.”

McDermott has since handed off day-to-day leadership of the group to Robert Warren, another formerly homeless man who is committed to helping end the problem. His experience enables PFFC to reach people who other groups might not be able to find. “Being as we have some folks who have actually been homeless,” Warren said, “we have some knowledge of folks in the community who otherwise some service providers might not be able to reach. We’re excited about that process and being able to reach individuals who otherwise might fall through the cracks.”

Warren and McDermott are proud of the connections they’ve forged with the city’s various homeless shelters, food providers, and social service organizations, and the co-founder knows that people with direct experience of life on the street are key participants in this campaign. “It’s hard,” McDermott said. “They lost trust in the city government. They lost trust in social workers because they think they’re making money off the backs of the poor. It’s hard, but it’s working little bit little.”

As the two describe their work, a speaker in the tent behind them begins chanting, “No more deaths! No more deaths!” The crowd takes it up, and for a moment our conversation is drowned out and the technical details of housing programs and efforts to lobby city officials seem insignificant.

“I think it’s just hard for people year after year seeing people die without the dignity of a home. And I think the point of today is that we know solutions that are out there that work,” said Kurt Runge, advocacy director for a local charity called Miriam’s Kitchen. “Let’s do those so that we don’t have to continue coming together in this way, and instead we can come together and celebrate.”

It is a heavy day, then, but it is also a hopeful one. The District has a new mayor-elect, and several of the advocates who spoke to ThinkProgress on Friday are optimistic that when Muriel Bowser is sworn in next month, they will have a powerful new ally.

“I think ending homelessness is a priority of Mayor Bowser, and I think that she’s gonna wanna do something to try to address the problem,” said Runge, stressing that the problem’s size is entirely manageable relative to the scope of the District’s overall growth. “There are thousands and thousands of people moving into DC each year,” he said, and “when it comes to ending chronic homelessness, we’re only talking about 1,700 people. That’s how many people probably move into the District in a month.”

As winter begins to bite, huge shortfalls in the District’s efforts to address homelessness are starting to show. The Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH) warned back in September that the city should expect a 16 percent jump in homeless families, and that the District has fewer than half as many shelter units for families as it would need to meet the demand this winter. As private developers launch scores of luxury condo projects around town, the city has already leased hundreds of hotel rooms to make up the affordable housing shortfall for homeless families. The rooms are out near the edge of town, inaccessible by mass transit and far from where the families who need them would normally be found.

Other cities have shown that it is possible to merge private development energy with the public interest in providing permanent supportive housing to the homeless. Los Angeles recently opened a large, stylish building on Skid Row with 100 units for homeless people and both social services and health facilities on the ground floor. New Orleans is just weeks away from eliminating homelessness among veterans, using a combination of hotel rooms for the short term and investment in permanent housing for the long haul. The programs can still fall prey to local bureaucratic squabbles, as a group of families in Atlanta learned last summer when the dissolution of a long-time partnership for providing services to the homeless caused them to be evicted from their housing. It costs three times more to leave a homeless person on the street than to simply put someone in a house and provide them services they need to regain their footing.

But as a general rule, efforts to end homelessness are now centered on permanent housing. “Forget about the ’80s when we thought that shelters would do the trick. The number one cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing, so that’s what we need to tackle,” NCH’s Stoops said on Friday. “We need local, state, and federal officials to make ending homelessness a priority. Because the money’s there but it has not been prioritized by many cities.”

In the eyes of several of Friday’s speakers, D.C. is one of those cities that’s failing to prioritize homelessness and martial resources properly. Many people mention the recently-approved plan to use public funds to build a stadium for D.C. United, the District’s Major League Soccer franchise that is loved by many of the young professionals and gentrifiers of the nation’s capital. The city’s leaky rent control laws and rapid redevelopment of once-affordable housing spaces near the District’s core also feature prominently, especially in that fiery call to action from Schyla Pondexter-Moore.

“All I have is public housing,” Pondexter-Moore said, wrapping up her effort to give the proceedings a radical edge. “All of my friends and families that I live around, my community, that’s all we have. So we’re asking to improve it, fully fund it, stop tearing it down and selling it to private developers.”

“DC is not a Monopoly board. It’s our home.”

UPDATE

This story initially identified John McDermott as the founder of the People for Fairness Coalition. He is a co-founder. We regret the error.

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