Just days ago marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I Have A Dream Speech,” ushering in an era of massive progress in the civil rights and living conditions for millions of Americans.
The festivities are now over. The Lincoln Memorial is empty. The pundits are quiet. The visitors have returned home. But does the dream remain?
If “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [i],” the way the District of Columbia treats the one-third of its children who live in poverty means that there is no justice to be found. Today, only steps from where leaders and advocates were gathered to commemorate the March and assess how much further we have yet to go, DC families are once again being left out on the street.
On the morning of the anniversary, we received a phone call from a grandmother who, along with her daughter and two grandchildren, recently applied for shelter after she lost her home to foreclosure. “It tears me to pieces that the government I’ve paid into my whole life is allowing my 2 year old and 7 year old grand kids to stay on the street,” she said.
There is no legal right to shelter in DC other than when it is freezing outside, and there is no right to affordable housing. And despite the recent press around the Mayor’s new rapid rehousing initiative, heralded as the new solution to family homelessness, the Gray Administration has stopped processing applications for that program for the foreseeable future. Until the temperatures plummet to freezing, we will be telling families that they have little to no hope of getting any assistance with a safe place to sleep at night—not because it is impossible to provide these services, but because the Mayor has made a choice that it is not a priority to assure their safety.
Another mother called our office from the motel room in which she’s been placed by the District’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA), but the funds for that room are running out, and her checkout date is in less than a week. “Where am I to go?” she asks. She’s a good mother and she’s terrified of having to be separated from her children. Will the system take them from her, she asks? She’s trying to get a job, but needs child care first. “I need guidance. I need a social worker who will help me navigate my options. I can’t even think straight I’m so scared of being put out on the street.”
The calls pour in and we listen to their stories and feel angry on their behalf. We feel the injustice of a system that will not offer these children a chance to succeed. How can we be leaving children out on the street in the year 2013? How much longer must we have to share these stories before even the idea becomes unconscionable? How can we discuss spending money to build a new soccer stadium without raising any new revenue for it, when there are children who don’t have a safe place to sleep at night? When there are parents who are forced to become separated from their children? While children miss meals and school because their government refuses to prioritize their needs?
At last week’s March, President Obama spoke to the need to change our priorities, “We can continue down our current path in which the gears of this great democracy grind to a halt and our children accept a life of lower expectations, where politics is a zero-sum game, where a few do very well while struggling families of every race fight over a shrinking economic pie. That’s one path. Or we can have the courage to change.”
We have been fighting this fight for years, and we’ll continue until we realize a right to housing. To paraphrase Alan Van Capelle of “Bend the Arc” who spoke last week at the March on Washington Anniversary, the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice ONLY because we bend it.
We challenge our elected leaders to find the courage to stand with us, bending the arc faster and deeper, giving DC children a chance to live Martin Luther King’s dream.
[i] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963