Second-Class Citizens: How D.C. and Puerto Rico Lose Out on Democracy

Is there a connection between deprivation and a lack of federal representation? The people in territories without a vote sure think so.
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A homeless man eats a cup of chili not far from the Washington Monument in D.C. (Jim Young/Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Fortune is on Malik's side when we meet up outside the Federal City Shelter in downtown Washington, D.C., the place he calls home. It's a respectable-looking three-story job with blue-framed windows and red, white, and blue tiling running the length of the block—not a bad upgrade to the wooden bench on Capitol Hill where I spent the previous night, if you can find a bed. Lunch will soon be served through the delivery entrance in back, courtesy D.C. Central Kitchen. The yard and street out front have started filling up with a motley assortment of men and women, shopping carts and bags, wheelchairs and bikes.

Finding me confused by his cheerful demeanor in this not-so-cheerful place, Malik exclaims, "My spirit is not down ... I gotta thank the Lord!" His reason to give thanks? Word has just come in that his long-awaited disability check will soon be coming through.

Malik is not your average homeless Joe. A native of the District of Columbia, he looks young for his 56 years and does not have the scars and scuffs that usually come with time out on the streets. His trim 5-foot-8-inch frame is neatly clad in a button-down shirt tucked into his worn but respectable-looking slacks. He talks with the confidence and fluency of a man with a college degree, which he has—in theater arts. He was a counselor for 10 years, assisting people who were abused, neglected, or mentally ill. Usually they were all of the above, he says.

"I worked for group homes for the court building right here, for the public defenders next door, for the D.C. Court of Appeals right over there," he explains, pointing to a trio of dull gray buildings across the Interstate from where we stand on 2nd Street NW. "I used to come through here and see these people [at the shelter]. I had good jobs …"

Then things took a turn for the worse. It's hard to say exactly what it was that sent his marriage of 12 years into a tailspin and landed him out on the streets, but Malik figures some combination of his wife's infidelity and his own abuse of drugs and concomitant depression are to blame. Before long, Malik was himself in need of counseling. "The choices that you make sometimes can be the wrong ones," he says.

Stints in shelters and out on the street—the longest he went without a roof over his head was three months in Atlanta, where he'd gone in search of work that never materialized—were broken up by live-in relationships with an assortment of women. But they never seemed to last. "Some just turned tragic," Malik says, and offers his last relationship as a case in point. Sharing a cramped apartment in a rundown section of D.C. with various relatives didn't make things easy, especially when his girlfriend's 25-year-old son moved in—"a real beater." "Beat his girlfriend up and her brother the next year, at Christmas," Malik says.

Of course, the son had demons of his own: Malik could see from the start that he was bipolar. But Malik has little sympathy for the son, since he refused to take his medications and drank instead. Not long after their final run-in, when Malik decided to pack his bags and leave, the son was picked up by the police and sentenced to three years in jail. Malik doesn't know the charge and he doesn't seem to care—"I'm just glad to see he's locked up."

As for lessons learned, Malik says he's always had a knack for attracting—and being attracted to—women with mental-health issues. If his past experience as a counselor is anything to go by, such struggles are par for the course in the high-poverty, high-stress neighborhoods with which he is familiar. Besides, "When you work around these people, you trying to help them," he says, and he doesn't just mean in the professional sense. Then he offers the textbook response: "You can't do that, though—doesn't work." Having ridden the roller coaster one too many times, he is determined to learn his lesson and move on, even if it means being alone. "I'ma take care of me now," he says.

Speaking of moving on with his life, that's what he plans to do in a few months' time when the shelter is projected to close and he has managed to accumulate enough in disability payments to get into a place of his own. Although things are looking up for him, he's worried about what will happen to the hundreds of other homeless people who call the shelter home and don't have a place to go. "I see people come in here all day," he says. "They come from the prison, [police] let 'em out on that corner .... I see it every day." Free and subsidized housing arrangements can be made through the D.C. Housing Authority, he says, but in a tight market where rents are climbing fast and funding lags behind, the waitlist often takes years to clear.

As if on cue, our conversation is interrupted by Marie, a white-haired lady from the shelter, who happily informs Malik that she's just been approved for an apartment of her own through Pathway to Housing, some 15 months after putting her name down on the list. "I got a roof over my head, everything's gonna be OK!" she exclaims. Malik is thrilled and sober at the same time. "Government could do more of this," he says, after giving Marie a hug and waving her goodbye. "There could be a whole lot of happy stories."

For Malik, the problems of homelessness and housing, depression and domestic abuse are equal parts personal and political. First things first, he says, a person has to take responsibility for himself. He bemoans the fact that "people tell me they're tired, giving up ... when they got no reason to complain." Recalling his former career as a "pretty good ball player" at a Catholic high school in D.C., Malik says, "You gotta bring the ball down court and make the right passes. You gonna win and lose some games, but you gotta take those same defeats and turn it around."

But the conversation doesn't end with "personal responsibility." By this point in his life, the former counselor with a theater degree has seen enough tragedy in his world to know that the physical and emotional circumstances into which a child is born—circumstances beyond the child's control—have a lot to do with who that child becomes and what kind of opportunity she has to succeed. Those surrounding conditions, Malik maintains, are intimately affected by politics. And politics in turn, is all about who can get elected and make their voices heard. When it comes to politics and representation, he has nothing good to say.

Like millions of immigrants and ex-felons, Malik and some 632,000 other residents of Washington, D.C.—together with over 4 million U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the territories—are denied voting equality under the law. Their situation is neatly captured in three explosive words that adorn the bottom of D.C.'s red-and-white license plates: "Taxation Without Representation." Neither the District of Columbia nor Puerto Rico and the other island territories has voting representation in Congress. Their crime is nothing more than choosing the wrong place to call home.

Homeless people camp in Lafayette Square, across from the White House. (Daniel Weeks)

The lack of congressional representation for millions of taxpaying citizens began as a peculiar piece of historical oversight or offense, depending on whom you ask. When the District was first established as the nation's capital in 1790, residents were permitted to vote for U.S. representatives in their former jurisdictions of Maryland and Virginia for 11 years. Then the federal government intervened, establishing a new jurisdiction in 1801 but denying the citizens of D.C. any representatives or senators of their own.

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Daniel Weeks is former president of Americans for Campaign Reform and a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He works on education in low-income communities at City Year.

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