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Moving Violation?

Advocates fear that the mayor wants to move the homeless far away from downtown.

Last April, with the NATO summit imminent, the District engaged in a temporary round of street cleaning, clearing all the homeless from downtown for security reasons. Now, advocates for the homeless fear that Mayor Anthony A. Williams wants to make the street cleaning permanent.

Deputy Mayor Carolyn Graham set advocates abuzz June 28 when she raised the possibility of closing all of downtown’s emergency shelters—and possibly shipping their 1,000-plus residents eight miles away to far Southwest, to a spot right next to the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant.

At the meeting, Graham proposed turning D.C. Village, the city’s shuttered public nursing home, into a “homeless assistance center” (HAC) modeled after facilities in Miami and Broward County, Fla. This spring, D.C. officials Kennedy Khabo, Graham’s executive assistant, and Ricardo Lyles, a homeless-services coordinator with the Department of Human Services, visited the Florida HACs and were impressed with the facilities, which are supported with small local taxes on gas and restaurant sales.

According to those who attended the meeting, Graham said a similar center at D.C. Village would have a whole host of comprehensive services for the homeless, including a day-care center, literacy programs, health-care and mental-health-care services, and business-training programs to help people become self-sufficient. She said the city would spend $8 million rehabilitating the infirmary and creating cabins or cottages for families, and then develop a brand-new transportation network to get folks downtown for job interviews or housing searches. (This in a city that can’t even get a handful of special-ed kids to school on the bus.) Graham even invited the activists to take a tour of D.C. Village to consider the possibilities.

However rosy Graham’s vision of the place may be, local activists have reacted as if Graham had just suggested floating the homeless down the Potomac on the dinner-cruise ship Odyssey. After word of her proposal got around, advocates for the homeless and residents of Ward 8, where D.C. Village is located, packed a meeting last Friday at the offices of the nonprofit So Others Might Eat (SOME), where they delivered furious tirades against the mayor’s alleged scheme. “They know this is just to make downtown better for tourists,” one homeless woman declared indignantly.

“How many citizens want to know that their city created a gulag and sent all their poor people there?” asked Brian Anders, an outreach worker from the nonprofit Neighbors’ Consejo.

Sierra Club representative Julie Eisenhardt pointed out that D.C. Village is a “brownfield,” in need of millions of dollars of cleanup to remove toxins from the soil—a fact that has only compounded the site’s reputation as a dumping ground. The old nursing home was closed in 1996 after Justice Department investigators concluded that 37 elderly and mentally disabled people there had died needlessly because of incompetent care.

The image of 1,000 mostly black, fragile city residents segregated there again prompted Darryl Poston, executive director of the Consortium for Youth Services, to accuse the Williams administration of planning to “build a big concentration camp.”

Ward 8 residents expressed outrage that the city would make such a proposal so soon after they had defeated a well-financed attempt by a private prison to locate on the very same spot. Local anti-prison leader Eugene Dewitt Kinlow is already organizing community meetings on the homeless proposal. “Tell the mayor, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’” said Sandra Seegars, a candidate for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat, at the Friday meeting.

Activists left the meeting with plans to form committees to consider civil disobedience and legal action to block any move. “The only thing this city responds to is a court order,” Poston said.

In an interview Tuesday night, Graham said her June comments have been misconstrued. She now says that the idea of putting a homeless-assistance center at D.C. Village is just that—a “kernel” of an idea. “We are not going to D.C. Village,” she said. “We are going nowhere until we have full buy-in from the community.” When asked why she offered to give advocates a tour of the site if it wasn’t a serious proposal, Graham said, “It is a model kind of site where such a concept could be realized.”

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She criticized advocates for getting so worked up, calling their mobilization “almost irresponsible.” Graham said she believed the real reason for their opposition was not D.C. Village but the assistance center concept itself, which she calls “one of the best practice models I’m aware of.” She said homeless service providers fear a “new paradigm” that might end some of their government contracts. “When you talk about doing something new, you’re gonna get pushback,” Graham said.

Graham said that the current shelter system creates dependency and is “not meeting the restorative needs of the people here.” She added that whatever new direction the administration goes, “the business community will clearly be up front.”

Still, if the mayor is serious about his desire to bring the city together after the racially divisive school board referendum last month, the homeless proposal isn’t doing the job. It’s reminiscent of a move early in his administration, when Williams—apparently without asking anybody east of the river—hatched a scheme to move the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) to Anacostia and sell off its Van Ness campus. Some residents viewed the plan as a ploy to dump UDC’s largely black students in a poor neighborhood and turn the Northwest campus over to the rich. More were livid that the mayor didn’t even know that the campus wasn’t D.C.’s to sell.

Now, Williams is being rapped for what critics call another ill-researched trial balloon. “This was not a well-thought-out proposal,” says George Brown, a former deputy mayor for economic development under Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly and current president of the Far Southwest/Southeast Community Development Corp.

Brown, who attended last Friday’s meeting, says that D.C. Village has been slated by other city officials for industrial development. He wonders what kind of message the city is sending when it solicits business development for a site, only to then propose sending homeless people there. “How do we look as a government?” he asks. “How much planning are we really doing?”

Nonetheless, the city does have some legitimate reasons for wanting to close the downtown shelters. A rash of well-reported troubles at the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) shelter at 2nd and D Streets NW (“Helter Shelter,” 2/25) has raised doubts about the facility. The group’s lease on its city-owned building is slated to expire in December, leaving the fate of its 700-some residents in limbo. In addition, the 120 homeless residents of the aging trailers that constitute the Open Door Shelter at 3rd and L Streets NW now sit on prime real estate that some city officials would like to see dedicated to the construction of a new baseball stadium (“A Trailer Odyssey,” 9/17/99).

These are the folks Graham is (or was) talking about moving to D.C. Village.

The Rev. Linda Kaufman, director of the Downtown Business Improvement District’s service center for the homeless, applauds the mayor for at least broaching the subject. She says advocates have long asked the city to be more proactive. “Now, they’re stepping up, and all we’re doing is sniping at them,” she says. “We ought to give them credit for thinking about it.”

Although almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the trailers and CCNV, few of the advocates at Friday’s meeting seemed to believe that the HAC model is the answer. “What works in Florida may not work here,” said Mary Ann Luby, an outreach worker from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who also met with Graham in June.

What’s being proposed here is a far cry from what Florida has, anyway. None of Florida’s facilities accommodate anywhere close to the number of people the mayor’s office is talking about. The Miami center houses only around 350 people. The Broward County facility is even smaller, with 200 people.

As is typical of large institutions, though, both centers are brutally expensive—and have soaked up resources for other programs, according to Legal Aid lawyers in Miami. The Miami HAC costs $250,000 a year for security alone, according to news reports. And the shelters have welfare-reform-type requirements that are often a huge deterrent to the mentally ill, who make up a good chunk of downtown D.C.’s homeless population. For this reason, Luby says that on any given Sunday in Miami, 200 folks can be seen sleeping on cardboard a couple of blocks from the HAC—even when there are beds available.

Then there is the larger question of whether D.C. ought to be using Florida as a model at all. For the six years prior to opening its HAC, Broward County—where Graham was the director of human services in the mid-’90s—had been housing the homeless in tents on a parking lot across the street from the Fort Lauderdale city hall.

Lawyers had filed suit on behalf of homeless people who were being arrested for sleeping in public parks. The court ruled that the county couldn’t arrest people for sleeping in public if it didn’t offer any alternatives. So county officials put up the tents and continued to legally arrest the people on park benches.

The District is marginally more progressive, thanks to the longtime work of late CCNV leader Mitch Snyder and others. The city’s network of homeless services isn’t perfect—but it is good enough to get the city cited as offering one of the best 20 programs in the country by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In the end, the District may indeed be able to bring lawyers, doctors, and social workers to D.C. Village, but it may still have a tough time getting the homeless there. If there were any doubts about the feelings of the homeless, a voice in the back of the room at SOME last Friday put it most succinctly. As meeting participants discussed the plan, a homeless woman named Cheryl quietly said, “I’m not moving anywhere.” CP