The Injustice of the Inaugeration

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Feb 3, 2009, 3:53:57 PM2/3/09
to Mennonite Poverty Forum
An excellent essay:

Treating Homelessness for the Long Term, By Scott Schenkelberg,
Executive Director, Miriam’s Kitchen
A Problem That Can’t Be Swept Away

"Ironic” isn’t a term often used to describe the recent inauguration
of Barack Obama. But it was, in my opinion.

Despite the event’s prevailing message of diversity and inclusiveness,
there was one population that was left out: the homeless.

To ensure a safe inauguration, many of DC’s streets were closed,
fences were erected around the Mall, and security sweeps were made
throughout the city. While these measures were an inconvenience for
many of us who work in the nation’s capital, they were devastating for
the homeless men, women, and children who call those areas home. The
places where they sleep — parks, bridges, and streets downtown — were
swept “clean” to ensure security; but, perhaps more insidiously, they
were swept to present a “clean” image of America’s capital to rest of
the world: one that doesn’t include desperate poverty and grinding

These men and women were forced to abandon their homes and belongings
in a way that none of us with more conventional homes would have
tolerated. While we may not like thinking of their homes as the city’s
streets and parks, they are. And they were ordered to leave those
homes and spend the night before inauguration in a shelter.

Some might say that this seems like humane, if not generous, treatment
for folks who don’t receive this kind of service every day. The city’s
ten shelters are not normally open all day. And the city doesn’t
usually provide free storage for men and women who have no place else
to keep their worldly possessions. But they did for inauguration. And
perhaps did it in an effort to hide the image of DC’s growing homeless

Just like any of us have our routines, so too do those who are
homeless. Where they sleep, where they eat, and where they go for
services are all part of their routine. But those are a much bigger
part of their lives than just being a routine, they are methods of
survival. By uprooting our homeless neighbors from their homes and
taking away their possessions, we negatively impacted their lives—and
their chances of surviving.

This may all seem perplexing—the city gave them shelter, warmth, and
food during one of the coldest days of the year. How does that
negatively impact them? On its face, it all seems fair. But when you
consider that many of these men and women were shipped off to shelters
on the outskirts of the city, that shuttles to and from the shelters
were suspended on the day of the Inauguration, and that they had no
access to their belongings, it begins to take on a different

Unfortunately, these injustices aren’t limited to inauguration day.
They happen every day in cities across America. The “cleansing” of the
city on inauguration day is emblematic of the little consideration
that is given to the trials and tribulations of people living on the
streets. Rather than looking at them as a temporary blight on the
American cityscape, it is time we addressed them as a population that
isn’t going away.

We need to lower barriers to services for the homeless and reach out
to those in need, instead of waiting for them to come to us and making
it difficult for them to receive services when they finally find us.
Both the expunging of the homeless from downtown DC during the
inauguration and the persistent treatment of homelessness as a
temporary crisis with a fixed solution is insidious because it allows
us to become complacent. We can’t think of homelessness as temporary;
we have to think long term.

We here at Miriam’s Kitchen believe that much like hospitals serving
sick patients, agencies like ours serving homeless men and women will
continue to exist. They will have to. As advocates for our guests, we
believe that homelessness is not going away. Therefore, we need to
focus on providing the best services for those who experience
homelessness on a regular basis.

The thought that homelessness isn’t a solvable problem will rankle
many who are very well intentioned. Certainly, there are things we can
do to help alleviate many of the problems associated with
homelessness. Cities and organizations can invest more in permanent
housing, make mental health and addiction treatment services more
readily available, and provide basic income supports to those living
on limited means. However, there are two strikes against ending
homelessness through these reforms—the laws surrounding how those with
persistent mental illness are engaged in treatment and the ongoing
cycle of homelessness that those who find themselves newly homeless
inevitably fall into.

The current laws surrounding how those who have severe and persistent
mental illness are engaged in treatment are in part born out of the
civil rights movement. Concurrent with the closing of state mental
hospitals, patients’ rights also changed to rightly allow patients a
say in their treatment. These laws counteracted the abuse that many
patients faced in a mental health system that effectively held them as
prisoners throughout their lives. Now, unless you are endangering
yourself or others, you cannot be treated against your will. This high
litmus test comes with a caveat, though: those who are held forcibly
may only be held for 72 hours, after which an administrative hearing
is held to determine whether the patient is meeting this standard for
hospitalization. In three days, many patients have stabilized to a
point that they no longer meet this standard, and they are released.
For many of these patients, this means they are released to the
streets. Unfortunately, this often begins the cycle of moving from
hospital to street to jail and back again. And no matter how well
constructed our safety net is for these patients, some are going to
fall through it.

So what can we do?

By treating homelessness as a permanent need rather than a temporary
crisis, we can build lasting institutions to serve these men and
women. What are needed are downtown spaces that aggregate numerous
services for those who are homeless. Instead of asking those with the
least ability to travel to go numerous places for services, we should
be working to consolidate services and make them geographically
accessible. Service providers of all stripes—mental health
professionals, addictions counselors, attorneys, medical doctors, job
counselors, public benefits agencies, life skill coaches, and housing
providers should all be available in these centers to meet people
where they are rather than making them travel.

Permanent service centers such as this also allow people to develop
trust in service providers. Creating a warm and inviting environment
with competent professionals and caring volunteers goes a long way to
convincing vulnerable people to take the next step to recovery. It is
only through long-term commitment — not measured in weeks and months,
but in years and decades — that we can start to deal with the
persistent needs of those who are homeless.

The inauguration swept away homelessness in DC for a few days, but it
is time we faced the reality that homelessness isn’t a temporary
problem with a fixed solution. It is a fixture in American society
that deserves long-term solutions for long-term needs.

Scott Schenkelberg is Executive Director of Miriam’s Kitchen, a
homeless services provider in Washington, DC. Each year, they provide
healthy meals, comprehensive case management services, therapeutic
groups, and transitional housing to more than 4,000 homeless men and

For more information, please visit
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