In no other place in America are the heights of power and depths of severe poverty separated by only a few city blocks.
This sprawling encampment is expanding in Washington D.C.’s historic McPherson Square. Sharon Brown lives here in a tent, just five minutes from the White House.
When I ask her why folks are living here, she’s understandably frustrated. “We’re homeless people. Where do you want us to go?”
Daniel Kingery also lives in the encampment. He says hunger is not the problem, since multiple non-profits drop off food almost daily. But he asks a good question: “Wouldn’t it be great if one of these homeless organizations actually got a homeless guy not only a job, but a residence?”
Vincent Perrone is a social worker visiting from the Boston area. He says reasons for homelessness are complicated, but “some are common, like mental health or drug addiction.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Robert Marbut and I went to see it all for ourselves. Marbut, a senior fellow at Discovery Institute, has worked for three presidents — most recently serving as the nation’s homelessness czar.
He notes, “This is a federal park a block and a half away from the White House.”
I ask him, “How does the white house reconcile this…in their back yard?”
“Well, the best I can tell is that no one at the White House proper is talking about this at all…even though you can see this from the White House window.”
The latest data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development shows a dramatic increase in homelessness across America. Surveying the bleak situation, Marbut comments, “This breaks my heart.”
The COVID pandemic didn’t help. But Marbut says this is primarily caused by a failed public policy called “Housing First,” which has been in play now for nearly a decade.
Marbut notes that when we “just say we’re going to give away free housing, subsidized housing, with no requirements, no treatment program, this is what you get.”
Advocates who still believe in this model argue that it’s about stabilizing people through permanent housing, with no strings attached.
Marbut counters, “That’s why the numbers are sky rocketing.”
In response to this dire situation, Marbut and his team crafted a new report with recommendations to tackle the crisis.
He believes housing is part of the answer, but says mandating treatment for mental illness and drug addiction at the same time will actually change this trajectory: “If you link required services with housing, this really does work.”
Marbut wants Congress to consider the plan and says the national media needs to scrutinize all aspects of the homeless crisis with more in-depth coverage.
John Fund, columnist for National Review, puts it this way: “The question out there is, what do I do in Nashville…What do I do in St. louis? How do I solve the problem locally?”
While lawmakers and journalists digest the report, life goes on in the homeless encampments.
Tony Robinson and his daughter Keshauna Massenburg say outreach workers regularly come to this park. That’s why they’re here also – hoping to connect with the right services and to eventually get off the streets.
Massenburg explains, “I’m not illiterate or dysfunctional or disabled or anything. But some people just have misfortune of events that happened.”