Jamila?s Corner: "Dear D.C. Councilmember, Step Up to the Plate!"

Release Date: May 19, 2010

Budget Cuts

Homeless children and families speak out to city leaders about budget cuts in our nation's capital

"Dear D.C. Councilmember," the child carefully wrote on yellow lined paper. "I am 10 ½ years old. I live with my family at the shelter. When I grow up, I want to be a singer. I think you need to find more money to help families find housing because people is in danger without a home.  So please, please find more money. SO STEP UP TO THE PLATE AND FIND MORE MONEY. Thank you for listening."

"Nobody's going to read that letter," an older boy laughed. "Those rich people don't care about us."

"We don't know unless we try," the little girl responded, as she carefully signed her name.

Which child is right? And how does a homeless American ten-year-old become a part of the protected class of constituents whose needs are prioritized?

boy with suitcase

"The Mayor wants to cut housing and child care; are you interested in writing a letter?" I interrupted the weary parents at the shelter, balancing babies on one hip and a load of laundry on the other. On the long, slow climb out of homelessness, who has time for politics? Every single parent I asked enthusiastically stopped to write a letter, all at least a whole page long, some even more. We delivered stacks of them to the City Council, each one describing the human cost of cuts to social services in a city ravaged by twice the rates of family homelessness this winter.

"I live with my mom and my two brothers. We have been homeless for almost a year now," another child wrote. "I'm only seventeen and I'm tired of not being able to help my mom out. Every day, I look into my mom's face, I see how tired she is of living in here. She is working a double shift in order to get us the things we need. But she barely can do it so if you cut the budget for housing it will only make it harder for my mom to provide a roof over our heads. I'm asking you to put money for affordable housing back into the budget."

As city and state budgets face massive shortfalls, elected leaders across the land are turning to the more politically safe option: to cut programs that help families in dire poverty rather than raise taxes on those of us who are least effected by the recession. In our nation's capital, where unemployment has doubled in the last two years, the shelters are filling with families who are homeless for the first time in their lives.

"Due to hard times and cut backs at work," one mother wrote, "I lost our home that I had for 20 years. When coming to the shelter, I found families just like mine."

The Councilmembers looked at the letters, thanked us for the work of the Playtime Project, and said times are tough. They have to cut somewhere and most said they don't believe in raising taxes, especially in an election year. They won't raise the $100 per year minimum tax on small businesses because there would be an outcry. They won't start taxing services like dog grooming  because that would look like a tax on small businesses. How did cutting funding for child care, domestic violence, affordable housing, and homeless services become politically routine?

"Dear Councilmember, I've been homeless for almost four years now and to be very honest with you, I am so tired of living this way. I want better for my family. Within those four years I have been trying to find housing that I can afford. I am the head of my household. Do you know what it feels like to not be able to provide for your family like you're supposed to?"

I often wonder what would have happened if the participants in the civil rights movement would have been too tired to wake up and march, didn't think writing letters would make a difference, or didn't want to be seen in front of city hall carrying a sign. What excuse could we possibly have to explain to homeless children why we are not making our voices heard at city halls across this nation?

"I am a veteran, American citizen, taxpayer and father. I have been staying at the shelter for a year now and working thirty hours per week but can't afford to pay market rate rent. When I heard about the Mayor's cuts for housing I was really disappointed. Please give me some direction; I really need help."

"Dear Councilmember, I am working very hard to complete my housing program, taking life skills classes and furthering my education so that I am better able to provide for my son and myself. I am very scared of how these cuts will impact my family's future. When I complete this program how will I be able to find housing and child care that I can afford?"

The children who took time to write these letters expect someone on the other end to hear them. What answer will the ten-year-old girl in the homeless shelter get to her plea to step up to the plate? We won't know until we try.

Jamila Larson
Jamila Larson, LICSW, is the President and Co-Founder of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project (HCPP) in Washington, D.C and has been running the Playtime Project as a volunteer since its founding in 2003 and assumed the role as first fulltime Executive Director in September 2009. The Playtime Project provides children's programs in five D.C. shelters where volunteers give children the opportunity to engage in activities designed to nurture healthy child development. For the previous five years she served as the Community School Director for the National Center for Children at the J.C. Nalle Elementary School in southeast Washington where she managed a mental health and after school program. In 2005 she was awarded "Employee of the Year" as a "Voice for Children" by the agency whose 180 staff provides comprehensive child welfare services in the D.C. metropolitan area.
While a college student in Minnesota, Jamila founded a program similar to HCPP at a Minneapolis homeless shelter which earned her the "Social Work Student of the Year" award in 1995 and continues now in its sixteenth year. Jamila originally came to Washington to work for the Children's Defense Fund where she researched and wrote about best practices for strengthening low-income families for four years before getting her Master's degree in Social Work. She then served as a Clinical Social Worker at Bright Beginnings, a Head Start program for homeless families, and then as Regional Director and Consultant for LIFT. She serves as a mentor to two children and writes a regular column for CDF and Media Voices for Children.

Read previous columns from "Jamila's Corner".