This bold statement, made by Robert Hess, opened the most recent Friday in D.C. policy talk. Fridays in D.C., a unique and valuable element of the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy (TJPPP), offer students the opportunity to participate in discussions with experts in varying policy fields of interest, from energy to defense, education to foreign policy. Friday, November 2 presented the second such opportunity of the Fall 2007 semester, and a group of students traveled to Washington, D.C. to engage in discussions on homeless and poverty policy.
Robert Hess, New York City’s Commissioner of Homeless Services, was the first homeless policy guest expert. Second-year TJPPP student Dave Sitcovsky was hired by Mr. Hess for a previous position and has maintained a close mentor-student relationship with him, and so was able to invite Mr. Hess to speak to TJPPP students. This benefited all the student participants because Mr. Hess spoke at length about New York City’s dynamic and innovative response to homelessness and it’s goals to slash homelessness in the city by two-thirds by the end of his term on December 31, 2009.
Robert Hess elaborated on New York City’s rental strategies to move homeless and low-income residents into shelter, and the four groundbreaking programs currently being implemented with great success. Mr. Hess told the students of his 100 Day Initiative—his goal for the first 100 days in office—to move New Yorkers who had been receiving Department of Homeless Services (DHS) aid for over five years into permanent housing. As he described the Initiative’s remarkable success, students learned that thinking beyond commonly-held practices, combined with excellent leadership and management skills, can bring success to the most lofty of goals.
Mr. Hess presides over DHS’ nearly $1 billion budget, and is held responsible for the implementation and outcome of all DHS programs. Mr. Hess remarked—with good humor, despite the brevity of the statement—that since New York is the only city in the nation with a right to shelter under law, he can be arrested if just one person who desires shelter is forced to sleep on the street for even one night. Hess’ experience tells him that homeless shelters create a vicious cycle of homelessness and poverty, and discourage responsible saving and tenantship, so Hess’ approach has been to enable communication between New York departments of Homeless Services, Mental Health, and other social service agencies so that even the most vulnerable residents receive coordinated care to help them fulfill their maximum potential. This approach seems to be working; as of now, New York City’s rate of housing homeless individuals is double the nation’s average.
Students had many questions for Mr. Hess, and peppered him with them for nearly an hour before they were required to go to the next part of the policy discussion on homelessness. The second half of the day was spent at N Street Village, a long-established and well-reputed homeless shelter specifically for Washington, D.C. women. N Street Village was established in 1973 when a local church refused to be overwhelmed by their neighborhood’s crumble into decay, populated by homeless individuals, drug-traffickers, and prostitutes. Luther Place Memorial Church opened its doors over 30 years ago to homeless women, and in the time since then, has gone through numerous changes—including making N Street Village independent of the church—and have even changed the environment of the neighborhood from blighted to bustling.
N Street Village is a homeless shelter, though not an emergency shelter, and provides transition shelter and housing for residents prior to their finding and maintaining permanent housing. The Village has expanded to include mental health services, rehabilitation and employment services, a wellness center, and even medical services including dental and chiropractic services. N Street Village offers a flexible program designed to be malleable enough to fit the needs of a diverse population with a variety of issues and
demands. “Graduates” and alumna of the program frequently return to N Street Village for activity programs in order to maintain a point of stability in their lives.
Students toured the shelter after speaking with Mary Funke, the Executive Director, and had numerous questions for both Ms. Funke and their tour guide. Astonishingly, N Street Village has not only revolutionized their neighborhood, they won The Washington Post 2006 Award for Excellence in Nonprofit Management—which proved to students again in one day that, with transformati
ve vision, excellent managerial and leadership capabilities, and enough passion, positive change can happen anywhere.
This Friday in D.C. inspired TJPPP students to explore different options not only related to homeless and social policy, but all their policy endeavors. The two exciting speakers left participants with lots of ideas, questions,
and goals of their own to end homelessness, a “failure of our country”, which is exactly the goal of Friday in D.C. policy talks.