Credit: Morgan Baskin

Less than three months after they moved in to a brand-new homeless shelter in Ward 4, residents at The Kennedy, an “apartment-style” shelter on 5th Street NW, say maintenance issues have persisted in the building for weeks.

Growing pains at the 45-unit shelter, where District officials held a ribbon cutting at the end of September, include issues with elevator service and water leaks. The shelter was the first of seven planned spaces of its kind to open as part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to close DC General, once the city’s largest family homeless shelter, and replace its capacity with smaller shelter sites around D.C.

But maintenance issues at The Kennedy have frustrated residents, who say that they have reported these issues to shelter staff multiple times over the last month. 

One resident, a mother of two who requested anonymity out of fear of retribution from the shelter staff, has difficulty walking up and down the stairs. She has asthma and osteoarthritis in her spine, but lives on the third floor of the shelter. Over the weekend, when the shelter’s single elevator was out of service, the resident says she had difficulty accessing food that’s served in a small cafeteria on site. 

Children “must be within eyesight of their parent(s) at all times,” according to a handbook of the shelter’s rules produced by the National Center for Children and Families, the service provider contracted by the city to manage The Kennedy. The resident says that her children, one of whom is 18, waited several hours for a shelter staff member to accompany them down to the basement level to get dinner while the elevator was broken. She says that the shelter staff have told her “that I can go to another facility if I’m not happy.”

“The fact that [the elevator] has broken down countless times since this place opened with great fanfare is really concerning… Literally every other day it sounds like the elevator is going out,” says Ann Marie Staudenmaier, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “The fact that [it’s] falling apart indicates that it was not constructed in a way that’s meant to withstand years of use. These are the brand new shiny shelters that the city’s touting as a replacement to DC General.”

The shelter also mandates a curfew of 9:30 p.m. from Sunday through Thursday, and 11:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.

“I’ve never been to prison, but I’ve watched prison shows. And it feels like I’m in prison here,” the resident says.

It’s not uncommon for District-contracted homeless service providers to mandate curfews, or require that parents accompany their children at all times on a property. At motels like the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE, where dozens of D.C.’s chronically homeless families live, similar policies are in effect. That policy was also in place at DC General before it closed in October.

But advocates for the homeless have criticized the idea that kids shouldn’t have any independence, arguing that these guardianship policies over-police families and treat facilities like a prison. (“I felt like I was signing in to see an inmate at the jail,” Staudenmaier says of her visit to The Kennedy last week.)

The resident says that she knows a handful of others with physical disabilities who live on the upper levels of the building. “The first floor should be for people with disabilities,” the tenant says, referring to maintenance issues like the elevator outages. “This place is not disability-friendly at all.” 

She adds that a neighbor on the third floor reported a plumbing issue that caused water damage in one of the bathrooms in that hallway, and also alerted staff to a water leak on the fifth floor. (By design, certain bathrooms in the building have wheelchair-accessible showers. But not all of them do, and they’re scattered throughout the building.) And she says that, despite rules against smoking in the building, the smell of cigarette and pot smoke pervades the hallways, agitating her asthma.

A spokesperson for service provider NCCF sent City Paper an emailed statement, saying in part that any maintenance issues that tenants of The Kennedy have submitted “have been reported directly to the contractor and are in the process of being formally submitted to the appropriate partners in the DC government offices.” 

The spokesperson added that NCCF has “received no report of a burst pipe or flooding on the 5th floor, however there was a concern over the weekend regarding an outside door to the roof and water entering the building due to the extreme weather the D.C. area experienced. Proper precautions including water clean-up, signage, and formal documentation for the building services providers were taken immediately.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Human Services says that a contractor was dispatched on Monday to fix the elevator, and that the agency has been assured it’s a permanent fix. The spokesperson also says that DHS has directed the shelter’s service provider to notify the agency of any other maintenance issues. 

Two other shelters, in wards 7 and 8, opened in October and November, respectively. Construction on shelters in wards 3, 5, and 6 is ongoing, and District officials plan on opening them between the summer of 2019 and spring of 2020. A shelter in Ward 1 is slated to open that summer. DC General closed in late October, shortly after The Kennedy opened, but before shelters in wards 7 and 8 opened.

During a September tour of the Ward 4 shelter, DHS Director Laura Zeilinger estimated that while the average length of stay for families at DC General was about 180 days, DHS has set a target length of 90-day stays for families at the smaller shelters. 

“We committed to replacing DC General with smaller, more dignified programs that can provide the services, support, and environment that our families need to get back on their feet,” Bowser said in a September press release, “and with these community-based partners, we’re doing just that.”