The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library Credit: Darrow Montgomery

A chapter in D.C.’s story of homelessness closed when theMartin Luther King Jr.Memorial Library shuttered temporarily for major renovations on March 4. But another has opened: Visits to the city’s far-flung day center for the homeless have ballooned over the past six months.

About four miles away from the downtown library in an industrial area of Northeast D.C., the day center saw 3,332 total visits last March: the most the center has ever witnessed since it opened in 2015, and two-and-a-half times the visits it had in March 2016. In July, there were 2,856 visits to the center, and August’s numbers are on track to surpass 3,000, according to data provided by D.C. Department of Human Services, which manages the center.

Intakes for new clients are up, too. In March, the center saw a record 112 intakes, and, in April, another 101. (In June and July 2016, there were only four and 30 intakes.) So far in 2017, there have been more than 520 intakes, which DHS tracks by asking new visitors to complete a form.

The library is expected to reopen in 2020 after its $208 million redevelopment transforms the modernist building into a “world-class” facility, as D.C. officials have said. It had long served as a popular gathering spot for men and women who do not have daytime employment or a place of their own to stay. They lost a secular sanctuary.

Eric Sheptock, an advocate for D.C.’s homeless who is homeless himself, says more than 150 homeless people would typically visit the library during business hours. According to him, they came for various reasons: to escape the elements in winter and summer, to use the bathroom, to look for jobs online, and to read books. “We use it for all the normal reasons, but have a few additional reasons as well,” Sheptock notes. “I’ve even seen guys washing off in the restroom.”

Today, the ripple effects of the library’s closure are evident at other libraries as well. SpokespersonGeorge Williamssays D.C. Public Library has noticed an increase in visits to branches within range of MLK, like the Shaw Library and the Southeast Library, which is located in Capitol Hill. Those libraries saw 22,595 and 14,044 visitors, respectively, in March, or about 30- and 18-percent increases over their February totals of 17,170 and 11,935.

“What we can’t say with specificity is if that increase is solely or exclusively due to customers with or without homes,” Williams says. “We don’t ask people whether they have a home or not when they visit us.”

Bryan Park is a regular at the day center. A white 45-year-old from Houston, Texas, he says he arrived in D.C. last year and sleeps overnight at the Adams Place NE shelter next to the day center. He uses it to do laundry once a week and notes that the center becomes “packed” when it rains. 

Park was a frequent patron of the MLK Library, but now he tends to go to the Woodridge Library on Rhode Island Avenue and 18th Street NE. It’s a 20-minute walk from the day center on 2210 Adams Place NE.

“Mostly, it’s a place to chill, so we’re not on the sidewalk somewhere,” he says of the day center, praising its staff and services but adding that he wishes it were open on weekends and holidays. “A one-stop-shop would be better downtown … I’m at the [Woodridge] Library when I’m not here.”

At least three-quarters of the day center’s patrons are men, and the overwhelming majority are black. It operates from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. five days a week.

On a recent morning, visitors sat in the lounge area while waiting for lunch at noon or for their turn to use one of the center’s half-dozen laundry machines, stored in another room. A TV on the wall played the news. Sign-up sheets lay on the front desk, as did condoms, juice boxes, animal crackers, and muffins. Five men used as many of 10 available computers.

A hallway flanked by motivational posters (“A positive attitude is a powerful force,” one states) leads to rooms for case managers and a room for haircuts. Another room hosts group events like movies, and a clothing room is filled with shoes, shirts, hangers, and shelves. But most of the clothes are for women, frustrating the center’s predominantly male clientele.

In all, there were over 30 people at the center that day. On busier ones there can be double or triple that.

Although the center is located near two homeless shelters for men—one on New York Avenue NE, the other directly adjacent to the center—it can feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Lots that supply truck parking surround the dead-end street, which includes a waste-transfer station. Concert venue Echostage and notorious D.C. strip joint Stadium Club are both down the block. Within eye- and earshot, trains zoom behind the center. Trash is strewn about on Adams Place.

The Langdon neighborhood is one of D.C.’s most industrial areas and is commonly perceived as a dumping ground for activities that would be undesirable in more-residential neighborhoods. Shuttles run by the United Planning Organization pick up homeless people from service sites, a downtown church, and shelters before dropping off anyone who wants to visit the Ward 5 day center.

But until D.C. can identify space for a downtown homeless day center, this location will probably remain its best bet. Officials and their nonprofit partners, including the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District, are working to find a conveniently located spot, yet such space is limited.

Williams reports that the MLK Library itself is now in the “hazardous abatement” phase of development. Workers are removing materials like asbestos and lead. It first debuted in 1972 and became a landmark in 2007. When it’s remodeled, it will feature more open space, a grand reading room, a new auditorium, a makerspace in the basement, and more—for all visitors. 

Whether MLK’s closure has significantly affected D.C. nonprofits that administer day centers isn’t completely clear. Kim Cox, the president of the Father McKenna Center located in NoMa, says their facility hasn’t recorded any growth in visitors since the library’s closure, whileSchroeder Stribling, the CEO of N Street Village, says there’s been an “uptick” at its Bethany Women’s Day Center near Logan Circle since spring 2016—when its Pat Handy shelter opened—but is not sure if that is linked with MLK. Thrive DC, based in Columbia Heights, says much the same.

“We have seen only a slight uptick in our numbers since the closing of MLK, and this ebbs and flows on a weekly basis,” explainsAlicia Horton, Thrive DC’s executive director. But “on most days, we are operating pretty much at full capacity, serving approximately 200 people [per day].”

All agree that the library served as a refuge for D.C.’s homeless, though. “[It] offered a daytime place to be after the shelters closed in the mornings,” Horton says. “Clients will utilize the facilities that they can access, given transportation challenges. MLK was convenient for many.”