Bill DeBaun lives with his wife and child in Columbia Heights. Thanks to Bill for taking the time to write this up.
“Last night there were about 20 attendees at the ANC 1A Public Safety Committee meeting at District Bridges in Columbia Heights. The panel last night consisted of representatives from the Department of Human Services (DHS) and the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. A representative from the Department of Behavioral Health was supposed to attend but couldn’t make it. Notably there was no MPD representative (it appears that was last month, next month will be representatives from community-based organizations engaged in the ANC). During introductions, half or more of the attendees noted they were there out of concern for Columbia Heights’ recent shootings. Attendees identified homelessness, public substance abuse, stop and frisk, underfunding of the NEAR Act, and concerns about MPD training exchanges with Israel, among other issues, as concerns.
Judy Williams ([email protected]) was the DHS representative and discussed her and her team’s work with homeless engagement and meeting those living on the street where they are and connecting them with available resources. She noted there are currently two members of her team on homeless outreach (for the whole city!) and two focusing specifically on opioid outreach and K2 monitoring/prevention (also for the whole city). There was some discussion about whether or not an additional three positions on these teams were funded and just not filled yet or whether funding was pending (I wasn’t clear on where that shook out from my notes, apologies.) K2 (“spice”) is a big problem in Columbia Heights’ plaza, and she noted that they try to keep tabs of what the K2 “hot spots” are to try to put cold water on them by being present as a deterrent and monitoring those who have bad reactions to the drug.
ONSE launched about a year ago as a result of passage of the NEAR Act. The representatives last night talked about the different programs ONSE has. These include the Pathways Program, violence intervention/interruption, and critical incidence response.
The Pathways Program right now is serving about 25 per cohort. It aims at “getting to those most vulnerable for participating in or being victims of violence.” Participation in the program is voluntary, and criteria for participation include, for example, previous gun charges, not being engaged with any kind of structured activities, previous incarceration. Referrals come from CSOSA (the parole system) and “credible source referrals” from community partners or staff members. Those in the program focus on workforce skills and changing mindsets. It’s a nine-week program followed by six months of DC-subsidized job placement followed by, ideally, full-time employment. There have been two cohorts so far, about 50 individuals total. The next cohort starts May 13. The first cohort had about 18 graduates, 17 or so were placed into permanent employment, a few within the Pathways office itself. The second cohort saw 24 of 25 members graduate, and they started their subsidized employment in February. The ONSE representatives noted that of those placed from the first cohort many are now within the DC government earning a livable wage. This isn’t a direct quote but it’s close: “For people who really want change, this is the opportunity for a different lifestyle for them.” There has not been an incident of those from rival communities getting into a dispute inside or outside of the program. Pathways is currently meeting number of referrals they’re currently getting, and it seems like the issue is developing a pipeline of people who are ready to commit to the intervention. Many of those in the first two cohorts are now referring their neighbors/community members/others who they think would benefit. Where there would be any overage above cohort capacity, ONSE refers these people to other programs (e.g., OSSE adult education, DOES, etc.)
ONSE also operates violence intervention/interruption programs in all Wards to try to either prevent or de-escalate conflicts where they’re about to arisen or have arisen. ONSE will soon be starting a program that will work within schools to mediate issues with and between students and do programming.
One thing ONSE said last night that they “don’t chase shootings.” They view their work as building a foundation of trust and relationships within the fabric of a community and neighborhood, so they can’t just get plopped into a new neighborhood and try to do prevention in a new place in response to shootings. Their theory of change is to get embedded into the neighborhood fabric and build relationships rather. Asked about what they think might be causing the recent uptick of violence in Columbia Heights, they noted a few causes: social media gripes, petty robberies among crews that escalate into serious violence, a lack of conflict resolution skills, closing of housing developments that are causing people to mix and generate new conflicts.
The third program ONSE talked about was “critical incidence response” or “family and survival support services.” They respond to each homicide in the District and a large number of violent shootings within 24 hours or by the next business day. After each incident, 14 government agencies convene to figure out the services the family may need and to get an idea of what was going on in this family. They try to contact the family and see what they can assist with, whether that’s social services or coordinating candlelight vigils and providing police protection/support at said vigils.
The meeting then turned to where the gaps are in social services. The panelists identified housing as the major gap. They noted most of the housing stock in the city’s programs is centered on homelessness. There’s little “safety stock”(?) for families in unsafe communities who need to be moved. There are also few boarding houses where low-income individuals can just have a room to sleep in, which keeps them off the streets. Walmart was identified as the key driver behind the increase in tents across the city (tents are cheap at Walmart). The District is looking for landlords who are willing to house residents that come along with vouchers and case managers and panelists urged those with empty units in their buildings to consider going this route.
Other ideas kicked around included:
– Should there be a sanctioned encampment in the city for the homeless that would include laundry, sanitation, food services, pest control, etc.? Maybe by Saint Elizabeth’s?
– Should there be more co-ed shelters rather than gender-separated?
In terms of advocacy asks, there was some discussion of making sure the NEAR Act is “fully funded as envisioned.” Rather than a concrete dollar figure, there was discussion about shifting the legislative conversation to address mediation, public health services, diversion programs, housing, and homelessness. More is needed on the public health piece and advocating for more people doing that important work. Councilmember Nadeau’s representative noted that the CM has a $30m request for more affordable housing and DHS services and is also pushing MPD to do the actual data collection on stop and frisk. Something like 47% of city is Black, but an estimated 80+% of those stopped and frisked are Black. “We need assistance from the community to push for that data collection.”
There will be a public safety summit at the beginning of May with MPD, District agencies, community members, etc. Some discussion about community members needing to install security cameras and be more vigilant. “Know your neighbors, sit out on the front porch instead of the back porch to keep an eye on things,” etc.
I tried not to editorialize in the above (though my minutes necessarily reflect what I thought was important to jot down). Let me do the editorializing here a little bit, if I can though. This was my first Public Safety Committee meeting, so that’s on me for just now getting involved, but there wasn’t a lot of discussion about near-term work in Columbia Heights to prevent or address the recent uptick in shootings. It was great to hear about the various services out there (and the hard work going into them), but I also left dissatisfied because I don’t feel like my immediate concerns were addressed (and judging by the attrition over the course of the meeting, I wasn’t alone in that.) I believe in the theory of change for the NEAR Act, but this is work that takes a long time to show impact and make change. In the meantime, afternoon and early evening shootings in Columbia Heights continue and, unfortunately, are likely to continue to do so over the summer. “Just wait for the NEAR Act to work” is a pretty bitter pill to swallow. Particularly sad and frustrating for me last night were the trio of Tubman Elementary teachers who came out of concern about the shooting that locked the school down in the afternoon recently. They said it stresses the kids out because they hear adults talking about this violence and in some cases can’t get back to their houses because of police investigations of the violence. Kudos to them for coming, but these teachers work hard every day educating our community’s kids, and now they need to go above and beyond and come to community meetings to advocate for more public safety on top of it?”