Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser doubled down on a promise to shutter the city’s largest homeless shelter by the end of 2018. The city plans on replacing the facility, which on any given day can support nearly 800 people, with one smaller site in each ward.  

And for Keisha*, a resident of D.C. General, the decaying shelter’s imminent closure is something to be grateful for.

The 32-year-old mother of four says she has been homeless for three years, time she’s spent oscillating between different shelters around the city. She spent time in the notorious string of motels, semi-converted into overflow homeless shelter space, along New York Avenue NE. In her first stay at one of those, her then-3-year-old son managed to open the flimsy latch at 7 a.m. while his family was asleep, toddling down New York Avenue NE past a series of security checkpoints stationed outside of the property. 

She says that others she knew living in those motels have been victims of theft, coming back to their rooms to find belongings missing. 

D.C. General, she thinks, is much better than the motel facilities, which are cramped, often dangerous, and lack the same resources families receive at D.C. General, where she says she’s been for a year. But that’s still a pretty low bar. “People can’t see from the outside that it’s terrible in here. Staying in these four walls—it wears you down,” she says. 

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The shelter is a notorious horror, wracked by infestations of rodents, parasites, and bugs, frequent outages of hot water and heat, swaths of mold and rotting walls, and sexual misconduct. The site was also the home of Relisha Rudd, a D.C. General resident last seen in 2014, when she was 8 years old, with 51-year-old D.C. General janitor Kahlil Tatum

Keisha’s issues with the facility are similar to those that have been reported time and again. Her caseworker is largely absent; she’s had pipes burst in her rooms, flooding the unit and weakening the walls; her children can’t shake respiratory illnesses. (Also, she says, the food is very bad—she used to receive molding bread.) One of her sons, now 4, “loves hugs,” she says. But she describes a handful of the shelter’s security guards as cold, often filled with disgust when he reaches out to them for affection.

“The problem is that they judge you on your situation. They judge you for being homeless but they don’t know what got you there,” she says. “And the people who are supposed to help don’t. It’s just disappointing.”

So she and her kids are trying to get a new start. She’s applied for permanent supportive housing, and is waiting to hear on the status of her application.

About three months ago, she says, staff at D.C. General held a meeting to tell residents that they’d settled on a timeline for moving people out of the shelter. In Keisha’s telling, it was scant on details—she just heard that the shelter would try to start re-homing families in April, and stop allowing new families in altogether by early May. 

“They said we have to leave; they said it’s about to close,” Keisha says. “They’re trying to get people out by April—but April is next month.” I asked her whether shelter staff or city officials gave her a specific date she’d have to be out of the shelter. The answer was a crisp “no.”

Sean Barry, a spokesman for the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services, clarifies the timeline: While the city began putting up fencing and removing “hazardous materials” from vacant parts of the complex this year, deconstruction of building 9, an empty space about 200 feet away from the family shelter, will begin in April. And in May, the city will stop placing new families in the shelter. But none of those developments will affect families already living in D.C. General, Barry says.

The confusion among residents has been exacerbated by the fraught public narrative of D.C. General’s closure. At a hearing this month on DHS plans for the shelter, Bread for the City’s Aja Taylor accused the Bowser administration of “manufactur[ing] a sense of urgency,” expediting the closure and demolition of D.C. General to incentivize Amazon to build its second headquarters in the District. There’s been unconfirmed chatter that the city wants to begin demolition on the shelter by October.

Melanie Hatter, a staffer at The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, notes that because “there’s been talk of closing the shelter for several years, [it] came as a shock to many families when the announcement was made that it was really happening this year.”

Other advocates for the homeless expressed concern that, if the city proceeds in its work on the surrounding buildings before residents completely move out, it risks exposing children to lead poisoning. (Barry says the city is “confident this work can be done safely [in] a way that’s not disruptive to families.”)

If and when the city does close D.C. General this fall, it’s possible that none of the planned replacement shelters will have opened by that time. Only three of them are scheduled to open later this year.

It’s hard to plan when you don’t know what you’re planning for. But despite the tangled logistics, Keisha is ready to leave. I ask her if she’s frustrated or saddened by the shelter closing so soon. “No!” she trills, laughing. “I can’t wait to get out of here.” She’s perched on a chair, speech briefly punctuated by frustrated sighs, telling two of her sons—who are very busy running in circles around her, screeching and cackling and playing with toy robots—to calm down.

As dusk settles in on the shelter, she walks her kids to the playground across the street. The one erected in 2014, months after Rudd disappeared.

*This name has been changed to protect the privacy of the individual.