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Neighbors to Ex-Cons: “Trust Us—You Don’t Want to Live Here!”

In the annals of D.C. community politics, it’s not a novel scenario: Ward 5 residents are voicing opposition to a halfway house set to open this October along the New York Avenue corridor.

But this conflict doesn’t play out along the usual lines. Some opponents say it’s not the effect the inmates will have on the health of the neighborhood that stokes their opposition—it’s the effect the neighborhood will have on the health of the inmates.

“It’s a very isolated place,” says Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Martha Pappano, whose district includes the location. “You [wouldn’t] want your mother, sister, father, brother, uncle, anybody to be put into that situation. It’s just not a healthy environment.”

The site, at 2210 Adams Place NE, is part of an industrial hive off New York Avenue. The building in question appears ready-made for lockdown: It has thick grates over the windows, and neighboring buildings are protected by barbed-wire fences and, in some cases, razor wire.

Just around the corner, there’s a trash-transfer facility run by Waste Management Inc.

Dorn McGrath, professor of urban and regional planning at George Washington University and chair of the Solid Waste Transfer Facility Site Selection Advisory Panel, which targeted potential transfer sites in the District, says that when garbage from the facility collects on the premises, it’s “sitting there like a cafe for the rats and birds and the roaches.” (Waste Management’s corporate office could not be reached for comment.)

“Why would you want halfway-house people to live in a lousy environment?” McGrath asks.

Waste Management is not the only trash-transfer facility in the area. Browning-Ferris Industries operates a facility less than a mile away, at 1220 W St. NE.

Nearby, Rodgers Brothers Service Inc. processes waste from construction and demolition work.

Pappano acknowledges that her constituents also oppose the halfway house on grounds that Ward 5 bears a disproportionate share of such facilities. “But they first maintain that a halfway house ought to be a healthy situation for someone—mentally, physically, the whole nine yards,” she says.

Local Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Timothy Thomas adds a new concern that anyone relocating in the neighborhood—from inmates to yuppies—should take into account. “Trains are coming by carrying toxic fumes,” he says.

Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent B. Orange Sr., however, doesn’t appear to share neighborhood worries about prisoner safety. A pair of letters sent last year by Orange to the Federal Bureau of Prisons make more traditional arguments against the plan. For starters, they contend that the ward already has too many halfway houses, with three of the District’s six halfway houses either bordering on or located within Ward 5.

The letters reflect a greater concern with the safety of neighbors than prisoners: “In some instances, the offenders did not return to the halfway house and went on to commit violent crimes,” Orange’s Nov. 5 letter reads. “There tends to be loitering around the facilities, and the facilities have substantial and real impacts on property values.”

And then there’s money. Orange’s letter cites “detrimental impacts on the economic development plans” for the New York Avenue corridor, such as a planned retail plaza on Brentwood Road.

Orange’s letter also expresses fear that the halfway house would interfere with a daytime program for the developmentally disabled that uses an adjoining space. It’s identified by a sign on the property as Wholistic Day Services, a program providing “Commitment, Service & Growth.”

Wholistic Day Services declined to comment on the issue.

When asked about residents’ health concerns about the facility, Orange Chief of Staff Estell Lloyd says that his boss “wants to make sure that it’s sanitary, clean, [has] no health care violations, and is environmentally safe and sound.”

Not everyone opposes the plan. “At this moment, I haven’t developed any objection because these are our people. [They] have to go someplace,” says local Advisory Neighborhood Commission Chair Norma Broadnax, noting that the facility would house people who had lived in D.C. She adds that she might reconsider her stance if there were a report documenting potential health hazards.

She acknowledges that constituents do tend to oppose halfway houses. “They think of all the negatives they think are associated with these establishments,” she says, “so I guess overall most people would have an objection.”

At its April meeting, the local commission voted to seek reiteration from Orange of his position on the house. Broadnax abstained; the seven other commissioners present voted in favor of the action.

“Nobody is disputing the fact that we need to have decent halfway houses,” Pappano says. “We maintain that a warehouse district, one that has environmental concerns, is not a place to encourage people to re-enter society.” CP