by Madeline Merrill
I stepped off the 7 AM Amtrak from Charlottesville, and made a beeline for the Union Station McDonald’s for a cup of coffee. As I waited in line with the other under-caffeinated commuters traveling to and from our nation’s capital, a man with a tattered jacket, scuffed shoes, and ripped jeans approached me and asked me to buy him a cup of coffee.
I hesitantly obliged. I was already running late for a meeting, and living on a graduate student’s budget. Wasn’t there another stranger he could ask? After a moment’s reflection, my generosity won over. After all, it was the holidays, and aren’t we all supposed to be a little nicer around these times? But when I reached the counter, he ordered over my head, and instructed the cashier to get him a large house coffee, extra hot, with sugar and three creams, and she might as well add a breakfast sandwich to his order, on me.
It was obvious I wasn’t the first traveler to acquiesce to his request for breakfast. All my holiday goodwill instantly disappeared – this gentleman was clearly a regular loiterer, and I had just furthered his dependence on strangers, on my already stretched dime.
But after the gentleman had collected his sandwich and coffee, during my hundred steps or so from the McDonald’s to the Metro, I contemplated why a seemingly capable man would be unable to secure stable work, and resort to asking strangers for handouts. Why was an able-bodied, middle-aged D.C. resident sleeping on the grates outside of the train station? Why was D.C., a city bloated with opportunity for young political aspirants, be a region so bleak for the working class, and those trying to break into the working class?
Washington, D.C. is a city of privilege and power, but a different scene unfolds merely steps from our nation’s Capitol. The average unemployment rate nationally regularly sits around 4.8%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the District of Columbia, our capital and the hub of our political discourse, the unemployment rate is 6.5%. The District of Columbia officially has the highest rate of homelessness among the 32 largest U.S. cities, as of December 2016. For every 10,000 residents of the District, there are 124.2 homeless people.
For all the lobbying money and think tanks and bright minds that flow into Washington, we have yet to transform the capital into a city of opportunity for the chronically homeless, and other residents struggling to make ends meet. Mayor Muriel Bowser and her administration trace this hike in homelessness to a lack of affordable housing within the city’s borders, and stagnant minimum wages.
Homelessness, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and as authorized under the Hearth Act, is defined as “individuals and families who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; individuals and families who will imminently lose their primary nighttime residence; unaccompanied youth [under age 25] and families with children and youth who are defined as homeless under certain other federal statutes who do not otherwise qualify as homeless under this group of four definitions; and individuals and families who are fleeing, or attempting to flee, domestic violence, sexual assault, stalking, or other dangerous or life-threatening conditions that relate to violence against the individual or a family member.” 
Between the years of 2009 to 2016, the D.C. homeless population increased 34.1%. Chronically homeless individuals are just one segment of that population. On any given night in the District, roughly 1,500 individuals are experiencing chronic homelessness, as contrasted with the approximately 8,000 families and households that experience homelessness over the course of a given year. An overall count of the D.C. metropolitan region, not limited to the city’s borders, listed 11,623 people without permanent shelter in the Washington area over the 2014-2015 winter season.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Davis writes, “For the first time since the annual [District-wide homelessness] census began in 2001, homeless children and their parents in the District outnumbered homeless single adults, a population beset by mental illness and disabilities that historically has loomed as the larger and more intractable problem in cities nationwide. On one day in late January, officials counted 4,667 homeless children and their parents, compared with 3,683 single adults.” 
The loitering gentleman outside of the Union Station McDonald’s is now in the minority of the District of Columbia’s homeless population. The shifting reality is that most families experiencing housing insecurity are crowded out of their neighborhoods and their homes because young professionals – like me – are willing to pay exorbitant prices for high-rise studios and front the inflating real estate costs. We write off the $1000-plus per month rent, knowing that our college diplomas and K Street salaries will be able to pay off our mounting loans and student debt. Gentrification is occurring footsteps from the White House and the Capitol, and the minimum-wage worker cannot keep up. The most substantive portion of homeless individuals in the District are not those sleeping on the grates off K Street or outside Union Station. According to Mayor Bowser’s administration, they are families who are priced out of their neighborhoods and their apartments, rerouted to homeless shelters, churches, or family friends’ homes. 
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments publicly stated that the “single greatest barrier to ending homelessness” in the D.C. region was a “diminishing number of affordable and available permanent housing opportunities for the lowest-income households.” The council also said a shortage of living-wage jobs has prevented the 39 percent of working homeless parents counted in this winter’s tally from earning enough to provide housing for themselves or their families.  Lower-income families are watching their neighborhoods transform right under their noses, as there are diminishing prospects to live and work within the District’s borders with stagnant minimum wages.
There may be a glimmer of hope for the homeless population in the District – Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has made great strides. The District of Columbia now has one of the lowest proportions of homeless youth and unsheltered homeless individuals. Furthermore, her team goes above and beyond in housing homeless veterans, and has made an “unprecedented $100 million annual investment in the affordable housing fund.”  D.C. General - a former hospital in Southeast D.C. that has been used for years to house homeless families - is being replaced by seven smaller, neighborhood-based facilities that would be distributed across the city and make accessing homeless shelters easier for D.C. residents.  There is work yet to do, but Ms. Bowser and her team remain focused on their goal to make D.C. a more affordable community.
The American public, however, remains unclear of the positions held by Dr. Ben Carson – the new Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. We need to know more about his stances on housing vouchers, on Section 8 Housing, and on how he plans to assist Mayor Bowser in ensuring that D.C. is an affordable capital city with opportunities for all.
The fate of our nation’s affordable housing rests in the hands of a surgeon – here’s to hoping Dr. Carson treats housing policy with the same exactness and precision as his scalpel.