Site for the new Ward 5 homeless shelter
Site for the new Ward 5 homeless shelter Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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On the first real day of spring, David Forrest considers his backyard. 

It’s just over 80 degrees, and white butterflies the size of poker chips are flapping across the brush. The sound of drilling, coming from a new condominium building that looms over his yard, sporadically punctuates his speech as he pours servings of green tea. 

“I’ve had to essentially surround myself with this wall, which did not used to be here,” he says, gesturing to the staggered wooden fence lining the perimeter of his backyard. “Folks are just—they seem to feel that they can come in and take stuff if it’s not locked down.”

The longtime Brookland resident is concerned about his “changing” neighborhood, a charming, breezy thread of gated single-family homes adjacent to the 1700 block of Rhode Island Ave. NE. He is concerned about the “gang tags,” the graffiti, the handful of recent shootings. 

His neighbor, 75-year-old Tom Kirlin—the author of a series of recent Washington Post opinions criticizing District leaders for pursuing the development of a homeless shelter in his neighborhood—echoes the sentiment. He talks of the construction workers tied to an affordable housing project nearby who fall asleep on his porch, who have “accosted” him for free meals at the 7-Eleven on 20th and Rhode Island Ave. NE.

It is a specific kind of development that bothers Kirlin. He rattles off a list of buildings on Rhode Island, effectively the area’s main street: a probation office on 9th Street NE; the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center and homeless intake facility; a family court; new affordable senior housing; Brookland Manor; a community resource center for homeless veterans. He says they’re proof that the city has continued to “redline its poverty within this sector of Ward 5.” He’s fighting, as he wrote in the Post, for “Brookland’s soul.” (These buildings serve residents at a variety of income levels, and while many do assist homeless residents, a significant chunk of them are housing affordable to those making less than 50 percent of the area median income. Kirlin himself owns three affordable group houses in Brookland, including one he calls a former “crack house” that he has renovated.) 

A few doors down from Forrest’s backyard is the most recent source of his consternation: a vacant brick building that once housed the Metropolitan Police Department’s Youth Services Division, but was decommissioned about three years ago. The site at 1700 Rhode Island Ave. NE is the city’s Ward 5 pick for a 46-unit homeless shelter, one of seven new sites across the District that will replace the D.C. General shelter when it closes later this year. Barring complications, the city plans to open the Ward 5 site in the summer of 2019.

It’s now the subject of a contentious zoning battle—one that has played out on neighborhood Facebook pages, in the Wilson Building, and in advisory neighborhood commission meetings, and seems to underscore some residents’ frustrations with the city’s strategy for housing the homeless as luxury developments continue to bloom across D.C. 

Along with a cohort of ten other petitioners who live close to the building and call themselves Citizens for Responsible Options (CFRO), Forrest filed an appeal with D.C.’s Court of Appeals in late March, challenging the Board of Zoning Adjustment’s decision to grant the city a series of permits that will allow it to operate 1700 Rhode Island Ave. NE as a homeless shelter. They are protesting the speed with which the city pursued that site, the specifications of the site, and the location of the site. 

They filed the appeal just over one month before D.C. General says it will stop accepting new families into the shelter, and weeks before demolition of certain parts of the campus is set to begin. (“Any further delays are likely to jeopardize closure of D.C. General,” Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie says. “Am I concerned about the timeframe? Absolutely.”) 

1700 Rhode Island Ave. NE wasn’t Mayor Muriel Bowser’s initial choice for the site. In 2016, her administration selected an abandoned warehouse on 25th Place NE to serve as Ward 5’s shelter, but the building—an intimidating brick mammoth behind barbed-wire fences, adjacent to a strip club and waste management facility but not near a single grocery store or bus line—was hardly ideal. 

In short order, after a wave of backlash and decisive testimony from local leaders, the city floated the option of moving Ward 5’s shelter to Rhode Island Ave. NE, and the mayor assembled an “advisory team” of D.C. employees, residents, and advocates for the homeless to walk through the transition. 

On February 23 of this year, the Board of Zoning Adjustment finally granted the Department of General Services its necessary permits to begin construction. To accommodate the shelter’s families, the city will build an additional three floors to the structure, adding about 28 feet to the building. (Forrest laments the prospect of losing his winter sunlight to the shadow of the shelter.)

Opponents call it “a total erosion of the democratic process in D.C.”

Among the complainants is Forrest’s wife Dina Mukhamedzhanova, who launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for the appeal, posting the link in her neighborhood’s Facebook page last week. A Council staffer notes that the “clap-back was so fast and one-sided that [she] couldn’t keep up with deleting comments before she had to delete the whole thread.” In a comment within the since-deleted thread, Amber Harding, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, called the effort “quite a toxic combo of privilege and chutzpah.”

“I came from Russia, from Soviet Union, from land where there is no law. I know what it is to live in lawless environment,” Mukhamedzhanova tells me from Forrest’s backyard, growing so frustrated she stands up to gesture. “It’s just sneaky! I’m very emotional but I’m very sincere. It starts with little—you suppress people, you suppress democracy, and it gets bigger, bigger.” 

The drama is not exclusive to this site. A separate challenge to Ward 3’s shelter, filed in 2017, has threatened to destabilize that project. The same lawyer, David Brown, represents both wards in their zoning appeals. 

On February 5, advisory neighborhood commissioner Angela Bradbery, 3C, sent an email to her list communicating her ANC’s concerns about the Ward 3 shelter. It included this colorful indictment of its construction from a Ward 3 resident who Bradbery says lives behind the shelter located on Idaho Ave. NW: “[My] storage room door flew open. The blinds started shaking. The floor rumbled. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park where the little girl’s bowl of Jell-O jiggled as the T-Rex was approaching the building.”

CFRO contends that the city waited until the eleventh hour to notify residents of the site selection, preventing people from participating in a robust conversation about the particulars of the city’s plan. Henri Makembe, co-chair of Ward 5’s advisory team and an ANC 5B commissioner, concedes that while “there were certainly mistakes made at the beginning in terms of involving the neighborhood,” residents “had enough time to draft letters [to D.C. officials]—which suggests that there was enough time” to oppose the plan.

Kirlin has several qualms with the site. He says that the planned playground is too small for children to properly enjoy it; that a since-resolved 1999 city report indicates that a storage tank underneath the Rhode Island Ave. site once leaked petroleum; that there aren’t nearly enough parking spaces.

But these complaints mounted into broader criticisms about what the selection of that site would represent for D.C.

“I’ve talked to business people along here who are saying, ‘We’re having trouble surviving.’ A transient, impoverished population is not going to make use of your new D.C. flooring company up here, you know,” Kirlin says. “You’re not going to have them looking at a lot of the amenities, necessities, whatever you want to call them. You’re going to have, instead, what I’ve heard from one of the pharmacists at Rite Aid: That is, ‘We have in the evenings, we sometimes have to drive people out of the aisles for stealing bags of potato chips off the back wall.’”

District officials have called out the criticism as classist. “People are not bombs, and they are not weapons, and they are not there to damage anybody around them. They are simply individuals who have experienced something that has caused them to be without,” DHS Director Laura Zeilinger testified during an eight-hour hearing over the Department of General Services’ zoning applications. Makembe notes that the only time residents interrogate the intentions of new neighbors is when they’re not moving into luxury apartments. 

And McDuffie points to the scores of retail establishments, coffee houses, restaurants, shops, the “millions budgeted for streetscaping” as evidence to the contrary. “I don’t subscribe to their opinion that there’s a concentration of poverty,” he emphasizes. (McDuffie’s communications director and fellow Ward 5 resident, Nolan Treadway, is more direct: “Kirlin makes [that stretch] sound like Skid Row, when if you were to walk by it looks like luxury apartments.”)

I ask Kirlin and Forrest what they make of the knowledge that the appeal could displace dozens of families, if not delay the closure of D.C. General altogether. Are residents right to be frustrated by their efforts?

Kirlin gives a resounding “no.” He asks me to do some math: The city’s eight replacement sites will offer 311 units; D.C. General serves 280 families. He tells me to subtract those 31 extra units from the 46 the city wants to build at 1700 Rhode Island Ave. 

“So you’re now talking about 15 units,” he says. “We’re depriving the city of 15 units they claim it needs. Fifteen units are easily accommodated in other facilities they have, including the ones they now use. So they’re not even—that is an invalid argument. Because first they’re saying, ‘We need 270 to 280,’ then they said, ‘But we’re going to build 311,’ then they say, ‘Any opposition is not acceptable because you’ll leave a whole bunch of people homeless.’ Well, no, we’re not.”

“They paint us and Ward 3 as a bunch of NIMBYs,” Kirlin says. “We’re not. Ward 5 is incredibly generous. … But we are the stubborn cousins. Yes, we can sue. And we’ll continue to.” 

This article has been updated to reflect the names of the petitioners.