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As the year winds down and winter inches closer, the District’s human services officials prepare for hypothermia season, making maintenance fixes to shelters in the city’s homeless services system and finalizing contracts for overflow space in motels.
After a series of construction delays pushed back the opening date of a homeless shelter in Ward 8, District officials hosted a ribbon-cutting for the 50-unit site—called “The Triumph”—last week on 6th Street SE. It was the last of three shelters scheduled to open in 2018, part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to close the ailing DC General shelter and replace it with smaller counterparts in almost every ward.
The Ward 8 shelter will open to families in about two weeks, while close to 50 families now live between the other two sites in wards 4 and 7. Its opening comes shortly after the beginning of hypothermia season, when temperatures begin to drop, making conditions dangerous for unsheltered homeless people. (D.C. guarantees a legal right to shelter during hypothermia season.)
“You walk into a throwaway place, and it feels demoralizing,” Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger says. “We are able to balance this really difficult tension between creating a space that feels intentional and dignified and really supportive, yet is also a setting that is temporary, so we can support a family’s movement toward permanency, and have the capacity to serve the next family.”
Zeilinger says there has been no noticeable spike in demand for the city’s homeless services since hypothermia season began on Nov. 1.
The opening in Ward 8 comes as building maintenance issues hit the Patricia Handy Place for Women, a 213-bed shelter in Ward 2 for single women. An elevator outage in the building, which serves dozens of elderly and physically disabled women, forced human services officials to coordinate the transfer of 30 women to the Adams Place Day Center in Langdon.
Women who human services officials would normally place at Pat Handy, but who are physically unable to climb stairs, will stay in Adams Day until Pat Handy is repaired. (District officials don’t plan on opening a new family homeless shelter in Ward 2 as part of the DC General closure.)
And in Ward 6, on 2nd and D streets NW, about two dozen women say they were unceremoniously evicted from the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the decades-old, volunteer-run homeless shelter with 1,350 beds and a low barrier to entry. The District contracts 48 beds for hypothermia season at CCNV. (When City Paper called CCNV, longtime case manager John Cleveland refused to disclose how many people were staying in the shelter, saying only that he does not trust the media. Cleveland denies that anyone was evicted, and noted that “you don’t hear any men complaining.”)
The group of women who were evicted say they were asked to sign contracts upon entering the shelter that required residents to leave the site on Nov. 1, the beginning of hypothermia season. When City Paper visited CCNV that day, residents were clustered outside with garbage bags full of their belongings.
One woman, 56-year-old Iris Hicks, told City Paper that she was looking for bus fare so that she could move to another shelter, but wasn’t sure where she would go. Shortly into that conversation, a male employee of the shelter came over to Hicks to tell her that the event had been a misunderstanding. The staff had just been cleaning their rooms, the employee said, before telling Hicks that she could return that evening.
District officials are also in the process of renegotiating the contracts for two motels on New York Avenue NE, which for years have served as emergency overflow shelter space for DHS clients. D.C. has placed families in at least five different motels, including Howard Johnson, Holiday Inn Express, Motel 6, Days Inn, and Quality Inn and Suites.
The city also has “letters of intent” with other motels, or pre-negotiated rates for blocks of rooms, should it need to contract the beds for shelter. “Our hope is that we’re not placing new families in hotels,” Zeilinger says. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to keep pace with need in our new programs, and we will be, over time, continuing to reduce the number of families who are served in our overflow locations in hotels.”
Zeilinger tells City Paper that DHS is not currently making new placements in motels where there are letters of intent, and that DHS plans on renewing its contract with only two of the motels, the Days Inn and Quality Inn and Suites, next year.
The next big project on the District’s agenda is the construction of family shelters in wards 3, 5, and 6, which are all tentatively scheduled to open by the end of 2019. Legal challenges to those shelters, filed by neighbors, delayed the contract procurement phase of their development. And in mid-November, Bowser officials announced that then-director of the Department of General Services, Greer Gillis—who oversaw much of the development of shelters in wards 4, 7, and 8—would be replaced by Department of Parks and Recreation chief Keith Anderson.
“Keith is always a director who, whenever I reach out to him, is always willing to assist, and that’s certainly been true so far. I have huge respect for Director Gillis, and she’s also been a tremendous partner as we’ve been through this incredible journey together around getting these buildings from concept to really, actually here. I have no doubt that Keith will continue that work,” Zeilinger says. “I don’t have concerns.”