Credit: Darrow Montgomery

On July 5, Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White circulated a draft of a bill that aimed to delay the closure of D.C. General, the city’s largest family homeless shelter. City Paper reported in June that two homeless shelters intended to partially replace it in Wards 7 and 8 faced significant contracting and construction issues.

White’s proposed delay to the existing shelter’s closure would “require, on an emergency basis, the Mayor to begin demolition at the current D.C. General site only after the new short term shelter locations have been opened in Wards 4, 7, and 8.”

That’s what the first draft said, anyway. While getting nine votes on the bill appeared unlikely, it garnered strong support from social advocacy organizations and health experts, nearly 50 of which signed onto a letter drafted by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless that urged the Council to pass White’s bill.

But over the next five days as the vote grew closer, White’s office circulated a series of wildly different drafts. While he initially intended to pass a bill that mandated the city not close D.C. General until three smaller replacement shelters in Wards 4, 7, and 8 opened, a final versionthe one introduced Tuesdaylooked much different.

Instead of legislating around the demolition of D.C. General, White’s new bill merely introduced a set of environmental impact reporting requirements. The measure, passed unanimously, requires the mayor to “provide a report to the Council beginning on July 20, 2018 and weekly thereafter, indicating the current number of families continuing to reside at the D.C. General Family Shelter, the number of exits detailed by program, and the number of families confronting significant barriers to lease-up.”

Advocates who initially supported White’s effort called later iterations of the bill toothless, and some announced shortly before Tuesday’s legislative meeting that they would withdraw support for it.

“Due to active opposition to his original bill by @MayorBowser, including a $950k fiscal impact for delaying demolition, he couldn’t move the original forward,” the Legal Clinic tweeted. “But now the bill does nothing, and allows other Councilmembers to pretend that they are taking action today, when they are not. We just cannot support that.”

In introducing his bill on Tuesday, White took a swipe at the Legal Clinic and other advocacy organizations that withdrew support for the bill after he circulated the final version that morning. “Somebody said that this doesn’t do anything,” White said. “I beg to differ. Not receiving timely and accurate information” about the shelter’s progress “put the Council at a disadvantage,” he told the room.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the Council committee responsible for overseeing the Department of Human Services, initially announced that she would not support White’s bill, claiming it would harm ongoing discussions with “advocates.” But she voiced support for the revised bill, saying that she “empathize[s] with the fact” that there’s been “less clarity and transparency than everyone would like.”

“The system isn’t perfect,” she said. Referring to a series of public hearings on the closure of D.C. General, she said, there have been “things raised that we need to keep working on, and I’m committed to that.”

But not every councilmember was so circumspect. At-Large Councilmember Robert White reiterated his discontent with how members of the Bowser administration––including the directors of both DHS and the Department of General Services, responsible for overseeing the construction of the replacement shelters––have communicated with him.

Robert White has long complained that it took nearly four months for DGS to send his office a hazmat report for the demolition of building 9 on D.C. General’s campus. But on Tuesday, he vocalized again his concerns with what he described as a system of opacity. The Bowser administration has “repeatedly misled the Council to move the demolition forward, even as the process departed from the original plan … they’ve prioritized arbitrary deadlines and talking points ahead of the needs of families.” He also said that Bowser’s administration claimed it “wouldn’t increase reliance on hotels, but then the executive reversed that process.” 

“Now,” he says, “we’re demolishing portions even as we remove families, then we’re moving families” into shelters that aren’t the planned replacement shelters. He then expressed concern that he found out about the shelter delays through newspapers, and chastised DGS for informing the Council that the maximum price for each shelter had increased by $3 to 4 million, and then gave the body less than a week to approve it.