Eric lives at the shelter for the homeless at 424 2nd St NW run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV). CCNV was the product of a campaign of direct action led by Mitch Snyder. The building was built in 1940 as an army barracks and was later used as a college, before falling into disuse. In the early 1980s, hundreds of homeless people started to squat in the building and resisted attempts to evict them in a campaign that included Snyder going on hunger strike. On the eve of his election as President, Ronald Regan promised to allow the building to be renovated and opened as a permanent facility, but later reneged, leading Snyder to go on a further hunger strike. In 1988 Regan caved in and signed a 30 year lease, but residents are now concerned that the hostel may be threatened in 2018, with deliberate disrepair used as an excuse to close it, forcing over 1,000 people on to the streets. Mitch Snyder died in 1990, found hanging in the CCNV.
GR Eric, you’ve been living at CCNV for three and a half years. What was your journey?
ES I first became homeless in 1994. I’d been working at a hospital in Gainesville, Florida for six years, but I had a falling out with my supervisor and I walked off the job. So I took my last cheque and went back to Atlantic City, New Jersey where I’m from. I became homeless when my money ran out and since then I’ve landed several jobs and gotten out of homelessness several times, but fallen back in. I got caught in the homeless rut where you work day after day, but you don’tmake a living wage. I’ve bounced back and forth between farm work and day labouring, hitch-hiking between jobs up and down the east coast. Before you know it, it was 2005 and I’d been working for eleven years. I arrived in DC on July 31st 2005 and got involved in protesting against the war in Iraq which I believed was based on lies. In June 2006 I got involved as an advocate for the homeless, protesting against the closure of a hostel and demanding permanent housing. By 2008, some of the most vulnerable people had been rehoused, but I wasn’t one of them.
GR Since then, and the economic crisis, has DC entered another cycle of homelessness?
ES The Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires cities to count their homeless at the end of every January. In 2006 we counted 6,157 homeless people, the number went down a bit in 2007, but since then it’s gone up every year. In 2012 we counted 6,954, but I’m sure it’s over 7,000 by now. We’ve passed that grim mile-stone. The fastest growing segment of the homeless is families. In the latest count there were 1,014 families, which included 1,600 children.
GR So how has the recession affected the homeless?
ES We’ve had severe budget cuts. Noone had any practice at this stuff and it’s been a real fight. DC came up with a ten year plan to end homelessness in 2004, but that didn’t include anything to connect homeless people to jobs when the economy was good. The city was lavish with shelters and other things, but they missed an opportunity to make a real difference and when the tide went out in the fall of 2008 they announced cuts of $200 million to human and homeless services and that’s really hurt. They’ve pulled the rug from under us and now the economy has collapsed all they say is ‘get a job’. History has shown us that doesn’t work. We learned that in the Great Depression, but governments have very short memories. It’s just become a cycle of fighting for concessions, but they’re decreasing every year. This time around they’ve included $7 million of funding for homeless services on a ‘wish list’, but the city says there’s no money. Many homeless people will lose their shelter places. DC law requires that people are housed during the coldest months from November to March and things are going to get really bad. We’ve never gone this far into the year without knowing what services will be available for the homeless.
GR So if the budget cuts are enacted and I come back in 12 months, what will I see?
ES We’re in a new place. The crisis is deepening. You’re going to see more homeless people sleeping on the street at nights. When people are in dire need, they have more of a tendency to commit crime. Folk commit crime just to survive. People will be stealing in order to eat and more people will go to jail.
GR But I’ve also heard you say that a lot of homeless people do have jobs.
ES Yes, but they don’t make a living wage. I know people who have been working, but living in a hostel for years. Here in DC the average rent is $1,600 a month. They say you shouldn’t spend more than 30% of your income on rent, so you’d need to earn $64,000 a year. That’s $32 an hour, but the minimum wage here is $8.25 an hour, about a quarter of what you need to be able to afford to rent a home in the private market. Some people share or take two jobs, but otherwise it’s impossible to make ends meet and that’s why people become homeless. The cost of living needs to relate to the minimum wage, but we also need to campaign for more affordable housing in the private rented sector, particularly when public housing is being cut. We need to make the landlords bring the rent down. But it shouldn’t be ‘either or’, it should be ‘and also’. We need to campaign to preserve government housing programmes and we should also be fighting for affordable housing in the private market. We need to link up different issues and join them together. We can’t campaign in silos. The landlords will resist it, but if there’s 500 of them, we need to make sure there’s 50,000 of us