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In June, Mayor Anthony A. Williams announced, with some fanfare, an ambitious “Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness.” But only a few months later, the plan is already in trouble: Before the end of the year, with no fanfare, one of the city’s largest homeless shelters will be closed—replaced by, among other artsy features, pottery studios and a glass-blowing plant.
In July, the D.C. Council approved a $40 million financing deal for the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The package is mostly devoted to the renovation of the Corcoran’s 17th Street NW museum and the addition of a new Frank Gehry–designed wing, but part of the deal sold Southwest’s historic Randall School to the Corcoran for use as a studio and exhibition space. But the school is no empty shell—part of it is occupied by a homeless shelter.
On an unseasonably cool August evening, about 30 men mill about a concrete court outside the Randall Shelter’s entrance. In about an hour, they’ll be allowed inside for a hot meal and a place to stay until 7 the next morning.
Rudolph Saunders, a 52-year-old who has stayed at Randall for the past seven months, isn’t too keen on being replaced by wine-swilling art-lovers and cheese cubes on toothpicks. He likes the shelter for its full meals and appreciates the quiet space it provides. “People don’t bother you; you don’t bother them,” he says. And “the food’s eatable….You can’t beat it.”
Randall serves 170 homeless men—40 in an inpatient transitional program, the rest in a traditional emergency shelter. It is the largest shelter in the city besides the mammoth, and notoriously dangerous, 1,350-bed Federal City Shelter in Judiciary Square. It has occupied the gymnasium and other parts of the 1876-vintage building that sprawls across the unit block of I Street SW for nearly two decades. But by the end of the year, the lodgers will have to move out as painters, glass blowers, and potters, as well as people who come to see their work, sweep in.
Actually, artists have occupied other parts of the school since 2000, when it became home to the Millennium Arts Center, host to local artists’ studio and exhibition spaces (“MAC Daddy,” 1/30; Show & Tell, 4/2). MAC had its own problems with the shelter, including unpaid rent, says Bill Wooby, the center’s director. And neighbors have long complained about the crime and trash near Randall.
Yet despite the constant wrangling, the shelter has survived until now. The Corcoran wants the entire building, gymnasium and all, in its possession by the end of the year.
The financing deal, which allocates gains in tax revenue generated by the project to servicing its debt, does not require the Corcoran to relocate the shelter, says gallery spokesperson Margaret Bergen. “[The city] funds the shelter; it’s their responsibility to replace it,” she says.
The task of locating a replacement space has fallen to city officials; the offices of Deputy Mayors Neil Albert and Eric Price are jointly leading the search. Albert, deputy mayor for children, youth, families, and elders, says the city is cautiously optimistic that a temporary replacement will be found by year’s end. But so far the search has encountered “a little difficulty.” “Open space is at a premium,” Albert says, adding that a replacement may not be found in Randall’s vicinity.
The shelter, though funded by the District government, is operated by Catholic Charities. Chapman Todd, the regional director in charge of the facility, says the shelter has been operating in a state of uncertainty for months, between the long-running MAC drama and the Corcoran sale. In the past year, he says, he’s received several informal dates for the shelter’s closure, all of which have passed.
The most recent estimate was sometime in September, though that date also looks increasingly unlikely. Todd says the city has agreed not to close Randall without a replacement shelter. But as the year-end deadline for the Corcoran’s move-in approaches, he worries that a replacement may not be found before winter hits, leaving 170 homeless people freezing on the street. (The city’s official hypothermia-emergency season begins on Nov. 1.) That dozens of works of art may instead have a warm home doesn’t seem to lift his spirits.
Todd stresses the importance of finding another site in Southwest Washington, rather than somewhere in the city’s periphery. “A number of the clients down [at Randall]—this is their neighborhood,” Todd says. “We want to keep them here.”
Another Randall resident, 40-year-old Mike Johnson, says that the shelter’s location is convenient to the many residents who venture to 2nd and D Streets SW to pick up day-labor jobs. Having Randall clients day-laboring as docents or resident outsider artists “is not on [the Corcoran’s] radar screen right now,” says Bergen.
Todd says the shelter is informing its clients of their options. “We’re basically in limbo,” says Roger Davis, a residential counselor at the shelter. “Operations day to day are still the same,” he says. “That’s all we can do.”
Mary Ann Luby, outreach director for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, says the city can scarcely afford to lose any more shelter beds as winter approaches. “We are bursting at the seams,” she says. “That’s not easy to replace.”
Luby says she considers herself an art lover. “But if it’s culture over people?” she asks herself. “I don’t know.”CP