Sunday afternoon, Ward 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Paul Trantham contacted a handful of reporters in D.C.: A friend of his, a Lyft driver, called Trantham that morning to let him know that she was shuttling residents of DC General out of the shelter. They refused to stay.
Some said they’d stopped receiving hot water Thursday night and others said the building’s heat had stopped working as well; some people were reportedly using propane to boil water in their units. Compounding the issue, there was at least one officially acknowledged case (but multiple others reported) of scabies, which prompted the shelter to pass out pamphlets advising residents what to do should they become infested.
There was, as Fox 5 DC reporter Van Applegate noted, “frustration among the residents I spoke to. They had complained for days and felt the issue wasn’t resolved. […] No one really knew what was going on or if anyone was looking into their complaints until I showed up.”
Applegate spent the better part of Sunday afternoon interviewing residents at the shelter and making constant calls to D.C.’s Department of General Services, live-tweeting his reporting and updating readers with the city’s response. By that evening, DGS restored hot water to the building. (It was an exercise in both making the mechanics of local reporting more transparent, and in true service journalism.)
But what really happened over the weekend? When City Paper called DC General and asked for an update on conditions, a woman who answered the phone declined to confirm whether residents had hot water, or what her name was. (“What’s your name?” she asked this reporter.)
Sean Barry, spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services, told City Paperon Monday morning that “there were two separate issues and, I think, some confusion.”
Saturday morning, he said, the city was made aware that hot water wasn’t serviceable to the shelter and that the heat hadn’t been working since Thursday night or Friday morning. (Joia Jefferson Nuri, a spokeswoman for DGS, said the office received official word on Saturday, at which point it took the agency about two hours to fix; the low that day was 36 degrees.)
The issue stemmed from the steam plant that serves the shelter, which was “offline” through Saturday afternoon, Barry said, causing water temps to drop precipitously. (Residents have testified in years past that, when the heat goes out, water feels “like icicles.”) It impacted the whole building.
Not even a day later, DGS again received complaints that the water at DC General was cold. Sunday’s issue was similar, caused by a “disconnect between the faucets and the steam plant.” Barry called the water “lukewarm,” while Nuri said it was only “tepid.” In either case, DGS resolved the issue before midnight.
Issues like these have persisted for years: reports of women and small children sleeping in snow pants to stay passably warm, while some have historically gone without heat or water for weeks at a time.
Trantham, meanwhile, is asking the mayor to transfer DC General residents out of the shelter even before the first batch of replacement shelters open later this year. “The mayor has a responsibility to make sure they’re transferred,” Trantham said. “It’s inhumane that they’d be subjected to this. The [Bowser] administration is failing the families over there and creating health issues. The mayor ought to be ashamed of herself and the administration that she’s running. How does that happen [at DC General]? It doesn’t just happen in one day.”
This post has been updated to reflect the time the city says it learned of the heat and water issues.