The Crummell emergency shelter was never intended for long-term occupancy. A series of run-down trailers connected by a wooden deck at 1901 Kendall St. NE, it didn’t have the nicest bathrooms or kitchen, nor the most comfortable beds. The Crummell shelter was a temporary fix for as many as 150 men who couldn’t find something better. Still, when word got around in April that the District was going to shut it down at the end of the month, it didn’t sit well with Crummell’s residents.
“Those last few weeks were a very difficult time,” says John Shetterly, executive director of New Hope Ministries, the group that managed the shelter. “Especially for some of the guys who had been around for a while. They were very concerned about where they were going to be staying and how they would be treated.”
That may explain why some of them haven’t left. As afternoon turns into evening, former residents congregate around a diseased-looking love seat out front and pass lit cigarettes without being asked. Some head to a shelter on New York Avenue when it finally gets dark. Others will sleep outside. But anyone who wants to can still stay in Crummell.
Crummell’s unofficial reopening occurred almost immediately after its official closing, according to former resident James Seeger. As many as 30 or 40 of the men who used to live there have spent the night since the shelter locked its doors, he estimates. “They didn’t have no place to go,” he says.
Nobody really enjoys discussing the recently slept-in accommodations inside or how nearly every door in the shelter got unlocked. “There’s a lot of people scared of staying in [Crummell] because it’s trespassing,” says Vic, a former resident. “But if it’s raining out, why not go find a place to go lay your head down? People go in there, they sleep, they get up and go do what they’re going to do. It’s not like you’re breaking into cars.”
There are other options. The 360-bed New York Avenue shelter is only two blocks away, and the departing staff advised Crummell residents to relocate there when their own shelter closed. “The department is not using trailers anymore for shelters,” says Debra Daniels, spokesperson for the Department of Human Services (DHS). “We’re improving shelter space.”
Even Crummell’s most devoted advocates admit that the New York Avenue shelter has its advantages: The beds come with thicker mattresses, and the kitchen turns out food more culinarily advanced than Crummell’s signature sandwiches.
But it’s just not like Crummell, they say: It frequently gets too hot to sleep on the first floor of the New York Avenue shelter. And the staff gives away the beds first come, first served theremeaning, former Crummell residents say, that you’re liable to be turned away when the weather turns sour and the demand for beds is highest.
At Crummell, the residents got to control the air conditioning in their trailers. At Crummell, the staff held your bed for you every night until 9 p.m. and offered food to take with you in the morning. But the biggest difference, according to the men who used to live there, is that it was home. “You had the same guys in the trailer every day. Even if you didn’t know people’s names, you’d at least recognize them when you saw them,” a man who goes by the initial E says. “It was pleasant. You could get along.”
Nobody who knew Crummell is too surprised that some residents might not be in a rush to leave. When told that some people had moved back in, former shift supervisor George Harrison sighs. “We figured that before we left. Some of those guys didn’t want to go on up to New York Avenue,” he says. Leaving was especially difficult for the shelter’s long-term residents. “Some of the guys had been there before I got there, and I was there for five or six years,” Harrison says. “We gave them plenty of notice, a month to know what was going down. But they didn’t want to believe it. Some of them stayed to the last horn blow, hoping that somebody would change their mind.”
“If I didn’t have any place to go and I didn’t know anybody, quite honestly, I’d go back in that place if I could,” says Gary Henderson, another former shift supervisor. “It doesn’t take much to jimmy a lock, if you know what I’m saying.”
Since the shelter staff’s departure, maintenance has predictably stopped. Plastic sacks of neatly folded government-issue-style blankets have been torn open, weeks-old sandwiches rot on empty bunks, and hundreds of hotel-size bars of soap lie spilled on the deck outside. In the shelter’s ransacked offices, old client-intake and medical records are strewn across the desks. Someone broke a water pipe soon after the shelter closed, feeding a pond that grew for days before WASA finally disconnected the pipe on the morning of May 16. Crummell’s front gate is still locked, and a ladder now serves as the primary entrance to the raised facility.
“We were assured that DHS would be boarding up and securing the facility,” says Shetterly. “It’s not ours.” The DHS’s Daniels says that her agency’s staff discovered that Crummell was still being occupied last week and has plans to board up the trailers immediately. She can’t explain why people would rather stay in abandoned trailers than District shelters, but notes, “Change can be scary to some people.”
All the same, she says, the closure of Crummell isn’t anything to regret. “You ought to compare New York Avenue to those trailers. For heaven’s sake, we’re making improvements here.” Daniels says that the DHS shut down Crummell in order to improvenot consolidateits shelters, but suggests that this can sometimes be the same thing. “In the larger shelters you do have more space for offices,” she says, “so you can offer services.”
But self-sufficiency is harder to come by at the New York Avenue shelter, says one former participant in Crummell’s transitional-housing program. “There is no way in the world you can be looking for a job here,” says Michael Moss, who moved to the New York Avenue address after Crummell closed. “[At Crummell] we had TVs, refrigerators, a phone, a table, and everybody was courteous of each other. We had everything you could have needed to go forward in your life.”
Larger shelters such as the one on New York Avenue will drive some of Crummell’s former residents away, Shetterly believes. “Some of the most vulnerable guys, they’re not going to go into a place like that,” he says. For those who do, it’s not always an easy switch. “A roof over your head is a roof over your head,” says Moss. “It’s the people that’s in it. If you needed to catch a bus, [the people at Crummell] would give you a token.” CP