Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Residents of the District’s richest ward are struggling to defend their objections to a proposed shelter near the Metropolitan Police Department’s Second District station that would serve up to 50 families, part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to replace the deteriorating D.C. General family shelter with smaller ones throughout the city.

“It’s very easy to confuse a reaction concerned about the size with a reaction that does not want any shelters—not in my backyard, NIMBY,” says Victor Silveira, a neighborhood commissioner whose district abuts the site. “This is not a NIMBY attitude. This is: There’s an elephant coming, can we cut it in half or in four so we can better digest it?”

Nearly 100 Ward 3 residents attended a Tuesday night meeting at The Washington Hebrew Congregation, just steps from the site in question, to discuss the plan. Some worry that a new shelter on part of the parking lot at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW would impede the operations of MPD and emergency responders and complicate traffic, parking, and school capacity—the usual suspects of anti-development sentiment. Though few would admit to opposing a neighborhood homeless shelter in principle, many have decried its planned height as too big for the semi-suburban area. They want impact studies and other assurances that the facility won’t undermine their quality of life.

The proposed shelter is one of seven across the District that officials hope to build by 2020. The plan emerged after conditions at D.C. General, which houses 260 families, were so wretched that residents were regularly hospitalized for excessive insect bites and treated for fungal infections and scabies. Multiple residents have also reported sexual advances by staff. And worst of all, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared from the former hospital in 2014 and is still missing.

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The Ward 3 shelter would include private bedrooms, (mostly) shared bathrooms, a dining area, meeting spaces, a computer lab, laundry and recreational equipment, and plenty of natural light. There would be 24-hour security plus social workers, who would provide “wrap-around services” such as financial and educational counseling. A tiered parking structure for MPD would be built behind the station, next to an existing community garden and tennis courts. Additionally, fencing or a wall would buffer a playground attached to the shelter from single-family houses on Idaho.

The matter is so controversial that it has become litigious. About a dozen Ward 3 residents filed suit against the District in August, claiming city officials had shirked neighborhood commision input in choosing the shelter site, thereby “defaulting on [the city government’s] obligation to give ‘great weight’ to any of [the ANC’s] recommendations.” A hearing for the case is scheduled for January.

Ward 5 neighbors later filed a similar lawsuit, and the District has moved to dismiss both. The plaintiffs seek to prevent officials from developing “short-term housing” proposed in their wards. 

The stakes are high: If one shelter proposal fails, D.C.’s entire plan could collapse. 

Dave Brown, an attorney for the Ward 3 residents, including a nonprofit group called “Neighbors for Responsive Government,” says the lawsuit is fundamentally about respect for process. “This may or may not result in a different site choice by the [D.C.] Council for Ward 3,” he notes, “but at least those concerns will have to be addressed, not ignored. … We have done everything we could to accelerate this case to an early decision.” 

The D.C. Council amended Bowser’s proposal in May so that no shelter would sit on private land, thereby saving money. (Ward 3’s was first set for Wisconsin Avenue NW.) When the suit was filed, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh argued that the council’s action did not “eliminate, in any way, the ANC or community’s involvement.” Chairman Phil Mendelson agreed, pointing out that months of discussion informed the legislation, and typical zoning hearings would apply. 

Nonetheless, at Tuesday’s meeting—one of three this week—reaction to the project was mixed. Audience members applauded after an older white man said there had been “precious little community input” regarding the Idaho Avenue site, while another offered the bizarre suggestion that homeless children could be at risk during a terrorist attack on the Second District police station. “I feel like I’ve been left out” of the process, a woman named Nancy said. “[It’s] a fait accompli.”

A woman named Sarah spoke up to say that many neighbors support the shelter. “We’re arguing over petty things when these people don’t have access to basic necessities,” she said, describing the concerns of opponents as “first-world problems.” A third man asked what residents could do “to help expedite” the project.

“It’s not like people are against helping the homeless,” says Angela Bradbery, an incoming neighborhood commissioner. She notes that the District “should be applauded” for the proposal but believes that the discussion surrounding it is “more nuanced” than simply pro-shelter and anti-shelter.

Bowser’s administration is forging ahead on implementing the plan, though the land needed for the Ward 1 shelter remains in negotiations. D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger says that, by law, each shelter floor cannot house more than 10 families. “We’ve tried to be honest about what’s up for discussion and what isn’t,” she says.“If neighbors prefer a lesser height, for example, it’s not that we’re deaf to the feedback, but there are lines drawn for us that we don’t have the discretion to change. We’re working within the bounds of legislation.”

Silveira characterizes the input the administration has solicited as “cosmetic questions requiring cosmetic answers.” “What they’re seeking is: ‘Tell me what color or material you want,’” he says. And if it weren’t a homeless shelter? “We would have focused on other things, but one is just the sheer size of it. The area was not zoned for this. Any project has impacts on services around it.”

In an urban context, Zeilinger counters, a mix of residences and government facilities is normal. Shelter architects will revise draft designs according to the feedback at the community meetings, and the District expects to send required documents to independent zoning officials next month.

Outgoing commissioner Margaret Siegel says “everyone she talks to very much feels that we should do our share,” such as setting up tutoring programs for children living in the shelter. Siegel says Idaho Avenue, with its access to transportation and retail, is preferable to the old venue. “I think it’ll all be OK as long as it’s sited in a way that the neighbors have some privacy,” she says.

Beyond the individual shelters, the District’s success will in large part depend on how effectively it connects homeless families to affordable housing. Zeilinger concedes as much, saying families need smooth exits from shelter. “If all we were doing is closing and replacing D.C. General, that would be nowhere near enough,” she contends. “Our efforts are first and foremost preventing homelessness. When that’s not possible, we need to be able to provide the right environment.”