top of page

Is Shelter a Basic Human Right?

By Rebecca Dunn, Washington and Lee University (2016)

There is a truly a housing crisis in our nation’s capital. This crisis is multifaceted and relates to the increased gentrification in the District in the last couple of decades, the decreasing number of Section 8 subsidized housing units, the seemingly discontinued housing voucher program by the Public Housing Authority, the inflated living costs in D.C., and presumably many more complicated factors. Now I may be biased – encountering frustrations with lack of affordable housing in D.C. and constantly apologizing on behalf of a flawed system can do that to a LIFT Advocate. However, my Shepherd internship has given me a lens through which I can consider the flaws in D.C. housing and advocate for improvement, which is undoubtedly an important step in addressing the low-income population’s housing struggle that permeates across the District.

LIFT staff

In the summer of 2015 I was fortunate enough to intern for LIFT-DC through the Shepherd Consortium. In short, LIFT’s approach is founded on furthering and achieving our clients’ (hereafter Members’) goals. LIFT calls its clients “Members,” short for community members, to highlight that the organization’s one-on-one approach is first and foremost a partnership, where Advocate and Member are working side by side. Through my role as a Community Advocate, I met with four individuals per day in hour-long sessions that are “Member driven” and are not only aimed to help achieve the Member’s desired outcome(s) but also function to emphasize and buttress each individual’s dignity. Thus, the relationship between the Member and Advocate is a helping relationship, consisting of giving the benefit of the doubt, remaining open-minded and focusing on individuals’ strengths to highlight their resilience.  Each Member’s goals look very different and could be almost anything he or she personally wishes to achieve; many include getting a job, education, affordable health care, child care, housing, securing public benefits or being connected to sources that can provide free or low-cost food or clothing. LIFT’s approach not only taught me about the inner workings of government assistance programs but also allowed me to empathize with LIFT Members and understand their struggles, like affordable housing, which many impoverished families in D.C. face. Working side-by-side with community members fueled my fired-up attitude about public and affordable housing and helped me personally answer the question: “is shelter a basic human right?”

A couple of instances arose throughout my summer as a Community Advocate that highlighted this struggle and piqued my newfound passion in housing advocacy. During my training to become a summer Advocate, the LIFT volunteers and staff took a trip to a local non-profit, Bread for the City, to attend their Housing Access Workshop. I was shocked to find that the rhetoric that there is “affordable” housing in D.C. is a myth. In that packed classroom I learned that subsidized housing wait-lists are not just months but years long. It became apparent that, as a BFTC intern noted, that the D.C. government quickly came to answer the question of “are we, as a society, responsible for providing shelter for everyone?” With the answer that “immediate shelter is a luxury rather than a right. In fact, unless the temperature is higher than 96 or lower than 32 degrees, emergency shelters have no trouble turning people away once maximum capacity is reached.”

This heartbreaking news and harsh reality check has stuck with me since that day. Throughout my eight weeks at LIFT, I worked with many Members seeking a stable place to call home, or even just somewhere safe to sleep at night. I had many conversations with Members about how market rate single-room apartments in D.C., even in the less-desirable neighborhoods, average $800/month – a price almost certainly out of their income range. I listened to Members speak about the risks of moving their children to high-crime areas with inadequate public schools as well as the struggles that come along with securing a job while homeless or sleeping on someone else’s couch.

Rebecca Dunn

Even outside of my hours at LIFT, a time where I was occupied with thoughts about my southern Virginia college or my Texas hometown, I was not able to escape encounters with D.C. housing. I began reading the Washington Post Express on the metro and one gloomy morning I came across an article regarding D.C.’s rapid gentrification. In it I read about Museum Square’s rally and the tearful reactions of roughly half of the city’s Chinese Americans as developers plan to demolish a Section 8 apartment complex in Chinatown. My accompanying anguish made me realize that LIFT impacted me in ways that I could not previously have foreseen. I have not only gained practical knowledge about the lack of housing options in D.C., but LIFT gave me the opportunity to empathize with Members so that I could better understand their obstacles in and outside the office.

I don’t think that the housing crisis in D.C. can be fixed overnight and I do believe that government actors, like Mayor Bowser, are working to mitigate homelessness in the District. Additionally, organizations like BFTC and LIFT can act as sources of information, aids, and places of hope through these tough times and hopefully into a brighter future. Again, as an intern from BFTC noted, we as a society “cannot build an infinite number of homeless shelters, we cannot promise our clients immediate housing, and we most definitely cannot change government policy in the blink of an eye.” But I do believe that if all the constituents come together and listen to the voices and stories of individuals like the ones who come to LIFT, we can all work towards a common goal of bettering society, diminishing poverty and providing shelter to a population that desperately needs it in the near future.

My Shepherd internship provided invaluable first-hand experience with the bureaucratic system, such as the paperwork and process of applying for subsidized housing or SNAP benefits, and perhaps more enlightening for me, with the individuals these bureaucratic programs serve or fail to serve. Through working at LIFT, I got the opportunity to connect to individuals on an individual human level. I know that the lessons I learned about the struggles of the homeless population in D.C. and the passion I feel for housing advocacy will stick with me far beyond the summer of 2015. Although I am saddened by the situation in D.C. for the impoverished and homeless population, I am hopeful for a brighter future for the District, especially as Shepherd interns in the proceeding summers learn about the District’s segregation, homelessness problem, and the lack of affordable housing. I believe that with my newfound experience, or even the knowledge one can get from reading like-minded news articles and anecdotes, we are called to creatively brainstorm solutions to the age-old and growing predicament of affordable housing in the United States


bottom of page