Monday, August 26, 2013

The Waiting (room) Game: Long lines all too familiar in Ward 8

Originally posted 5/27/13. 

Update: Earlier this month (August 2013) I have learned that 2100 MLK Jr. Ave SE now houses a new government agency --- The Office of Returning Citizen Affairs. No idea if the new office has indoor waiting space, I would hate to see more people being forced to wait outside. FYI - the ground floor offices of 2100 MLK Jr. Ave still remain vacant despite TANF consumers still being forced to wait outside (with a direct line of sight into these vacant offices).  There also appears to be no update on the waiting room situation for the homeless shelter (run by Catholic Charities) on the Saint Elizabeths East campus. Loitering continues on the street, in front of local businesses, and in the small "neighborhood" parks.  Not the most appealing situation for two neighborhoods desperately trying change the negative perception of their communities.

And so the waiting game continues. :(

 All too familiar: Long lines at the TANF office at 2100 MLK Jr. Ave in Anacostia
The line snakes around the corner down W Street SE

Two weeks ago the Washington Post did a story on the long lines at the Congress Heights Service Center for parents seeking childcare subsidy. The article was disturbing on so many levels, the inefficiency, the lack of resources, and the complete lack of consideration for families struggling on the path to self-sufficiency.  As disturbing as the article was it really was only the tip of the iceberg of a scene that plays out in Ward 8 on a daily basis.

Anyone who has driven or walked past 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE in Anacostia around the first of the month has seen the lines snaking down MLK Avenue and around the corner down W Street SE. Some days there are 200 hundred - 300 hundred men, women and children waiting in line trying to get service at the Anacostia TANF office. Many of those people in line will be there for hours if not all day.  The building's security guards only allow three people into the building lobby at a time. The line remains outside, regardless of the weather.

People should never be treated this way.

Not only is this treatment a DISGRACE but it totally unnecessary  The people who are standing outside in the lines at 2100 MLK are lined up in front of windows of EMPTY offices. Those offices have been empty for years. Why are the offices empty?  Why aren't the empty offices being being converted into a waiting room for the people seeking TANF services? Why is it okay for people (many with small children) to be lined up outside on the street like a cattle call or a bread line? Why is okay for the Anacostia business district to be presented in this way when this would not be acceptable in more affluent neighborhoods? This is one of the major buildings in Anacostia. It is home to the Councilmember Marion Barry's constituent services office and the DC Department of Environment (DDOE) office that provides energy assistance for people in need.  Why isn't anyone doing anything about this?! 

TANF office at 2100 MLK Jr. Ave SE in Anacostia

Anyone with two eyes and a speck of compassion and good sense can see that the conditions at 2100 MLK Jr. Ave SE are not conducive to the services that they are providing. If the Department of Motor Vehicles made people stand outside in the freezing rain for hours (and sometimes days) just to renew a driver's license there would be hell to pay. Why is it okay for people who are in dire need of city services to be treated as if they don't matter? In Anacostia we ask local business owners to be good neighbors. Perhaps we should be asking the District government to be good neighbors as well?

In Ward 8 the lack of proper waiting areas is all too familiar. As people drive down Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE in Congress Heights, past the Saint Elizabeths East campus, they are often struck by the scores of homeless men lined up along the fence. Sometimes these men are sitting, sometimes they are huddled in groups, and sometimes they are sleeping on the sidewalk. Often transporting their limited possessions in torn trash bags, battered suitcases, and repurposed shopping carts. Visitors unfamiliar with their story and with the  Congress Heights neighborhood just assume it is just further proof of the deterioration of Ward 8. They use it as another tragic anecdote, another depressing example that Congress Heights is "the ghetto" and that Ward 8 residents don't want more for themselves.

That could not be further from the truth.

Little do most commuters know that those men lining up along MLK Jr. Ave SE and in the park on MLK and Malcolm X Avenue are the District's homeless -- not just Ward 8's homeless.  Many if not most of those men are bussed in from all over the city to spend the night at the homeless shelter on the Saint Elizabeths East campus. Come morning, those men will be pushed out of their beds and out of the door to either ride the buses back downtown or to loiter on Congress Heights' main street or in the residential neighborhood until nightfall. Rain or shine, heat wave or snow storm,  we see them outside, waiting. There is no interior space for them to go, no waiting room for them to wait for the shelter to reopen,  no place for them to escape from the weather, and definitely no place for them to retain their dignity and respect. With no other alternative those men claim the streets, sidewalks, and parks of Congress Heights as their informal waiting room. As the loitering continues, and the trash piles up and the public drinking goes unchecked the perception of Congress Heights as a "bad" neighborhood persists. This state of disfunction also has a very real and very negative impact on economic development in Ward 8. 

Neighborhood park at the corner of MLK & Malcolm X Avenues has become the city's waiting room for homeless
seeking shelter at 801 East on the Saint Elizabeths East campus
Not to sound like a broken record but this would never be allowed in Georgetown, Dupont Circle, or the Golden Triangle.

Why is it okay for Ward 8? Because we all look alike?

So it is for that reason (and many more) that my neighbors and I get extremely nervous upset when we learn (often after the fact) of another social service agency or residential facility being moved into our community or on our fledgling business districts. The city hasn't had the best track record of providing basic accommodations (such as waiting rooms) for their current projects. Why would we expect any different?

In 2012  Anacostia residents and advocates protested plans to open
a women's shelter in the heart of the Anacostia business district. The shelter opened anyway.

There is a general lack of respect, consideration and dare I say planning. I invite the Mayor, members of the DC Council, and agency directors to go stand in line for one day to see what it is like. To see if this is how they would want to be treated.

But until then, I suppose we will all just wait. We know how well that has turned out.

In case you were wondering I am including a list of District Service Centers that are authorized to accept applications for enrollment and eligibility for social service programs. I pulled this list from the DC government website.

Anacostia and Congress Heights
2100 MLK Jr. Ave SE

51 N Street NE

Fort Davis
3851 Alabama Avenue SE

H Street
645 H Street NE

Taylor Street
1207 Taylor Street NW

3917 Minnesota Avenue NE

Photos taken outside of 2100 MLK Jr. Ave SE at 10:45am on May 28, 2013.

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Anonymous said...

I have called 311 to complain and I was told its nothing they could do.
After standing in line just to drop off a paper for hours the waiting room only had 10 people inside. There were times that I parked outside and offered women with children to sit in my car just for heat when it was cold. The service there is terrible

Anonymous said... has the updated list. Eckington and NE offices have been closed for years.

Note: while people can go to any office to apply for benefits, if they go to the an office not zoned to their address DHS is supposed to send the documents to the right office and they often get lost. Or, what often happens is people are wrongly told they have to go to a different office.

But I agree 100% with you that people should be allowed to wait inside.