The mayor’s office takes a sudden interest in a chronic emergency at the Federal City Shelter.
It’s a windy Monday morning outside Washington’s biggest and most beleaguered homeless shelter, run by the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV). Squads of social workers and health inspectors are expected at 10 a.m. The television news cameras start gathering a few minutes before. For the 600 or so residents at the shelter it can only mean one thing: They and the rickety structure they call home are about to become the backdrop for a confrontation between municipal scandal and damage control.
A week ago, a lengthy feature in the Washington City Paper reported on the abysmal conditions inside the shelter, where reporter Jason Cherkis lived for a week (“Helter Shelter,” 2/25). The presence of families with children, Cherkis noted, is a violation of CCNV’s lease, which expires at the end of the year. On the eve of publication, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Child and Family Services Carolyn Graham suddenly vowed to take action. Though Graham promised to send in the bureaucratic SWAT teams the very next morning, they wound up waiting a few more days. But today, after years of inattention, city social workers are descending on the place with clipboards in hand.
The mothers and the children are among the first to file out the doors of the troubled shelter. There’s Angela Barnes, with 6-year-old Brittany and 9-year-old Brenda; there’s Sharon Holloman, with 8-year-old Felicia and 9-year-old Robin; and then there’s Michelle Ragland with her three kids, Ashley, 12, Ashton, 10, and Candice, 8. Most of them are wearing red baseball caps emblazoned with logos saying, “Help the Homeless.”
The families serve as props in a war of words and symbols with city officials who profess to be shocked that the Federal City Shelter—located two blocks from the mayor’s office at One Judiciary Square—is actually occupied by families with children. Never mind that for at least the past four years city agencies have been sending families there, according to CCNV Executive Director Terri Bishop. She also contends that the Coalition of Homeless and Housing Organizations recently heard CCNV’s plans for a new family wing and that even the mayor’s constituent service staffers had sometimes referred hard-luck family cases there. Suddenly, on this Monday morning in February, getting women and children out of this land of leaky toilets and free-roaming vermin has become Public Priority No. 1.
Pardon Bishop if she’s become a little cynical over the mom issue. “This is all a knee-jerk reaction to the City Paper article,” she says, as the mothers continue filing into the brisk morning air. Bishop wonders aloud whether D.C. officials are more concerned with avoiding bad press than with actually helping her clients.
Some of the clients apparently agree. By Monday morning, the mothers were told, they and their kids had to be out. Word is that the city will find them alternative shelter at D.C. Village, near the Blue Plains waste treatment facility in far Southwest. “Isn’t that where all the shit goes?” asks one of the mothers. Others complain that it’s far from their jobs and their kids’ schools.
By the time the city workers get to Federal City—they’re 45 minutes late—most of the mothers are already in the street, the place having been closed temporarily for a demonstration against the evictions. The maneuver has yielded a telegenic crowd. Most wander off, but more than 100 residents and staff gather around a handicapped-access ramp, where a microphone has been set up. About a dozen children play in the park across the street.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” says Barnes, with Brittany tugging at her coat. “So far, they’ve promised us nothing. The social workers just told us we can go to D.C. Village, but I’ve heard there’s a 90-day limit.” Whatever else people want to say about the quality of life inside CCNV’s shelter, it’s been home to Barnes since Dec. 6. “They accepted us,” she says. “They didn’t leave us out on the street. You’ve got to give them credit.”
While Barnes recounts her tale, five District social workers exit purposefully from a white sedan and file into the troubled homeless shelter. They’re there to talk to shelter residents, not to Bishop, and certainly not to reporters. “I’m out of the loop,” Bishop says. “They’re not communicating with me, so I don’t know what their plan is.” Then she adds sardonically: “I’m not sure they even know what the plan is. They’ve just been told to come down here. And when you work for a salary, you do what you’re told.”
Some of the mothers have already interviewed with social workers since the City Paper story. Those mothers tell the others out in the street that if they don’t leave, their children could be taken away from them. That gets the fighting instinct flowing in more than one mother. “I don’t know where I’m going to go,” says Holloman. “But I know that if they try to take my kids, I’m going to have to open up a fresh can of whup-ass.”
By early afternoon, the social workers and health inspectors have fanned out through the building at 425 2nd St. Television crews follow through the corridors, snatching interviews with confused residents when they can. Nobody from the city is publicly taking charge, so there’s general confusion about what’s supposed to happen next. “By now, I was expecting to see some vans or a bus pull up,” says Barnes, who’s heading outside for a smoke.
While they’re at it, the inspectors decide to pay a visit to the D.C. Central Kitchen operation, in the basement. “I’ve never seen this many inspectors at once,” says volunteer coordinator Gary Adler. But Adler, for one, doesn’t mind the added scrutiny. “A lot of advocates are sorry to see what’s happening here in the interim, but they’re not sorry to see some investigation [at CCNV] and get some momentum going for something to change.”
Out on the street, meanwhile, people are carrying placards warning against getting “Eggerized,” a reference to Central Kitchen Director Robert Egger’s reservations about CCNV, quoted in the City Paper story. Bishop says CCNV is solving the only problem that matters in the short run. “Whoever is out there homeless and needs to come in, we let them in,” she says. “The lease is not going to keep them out.”
There are 17 mothers at the shelter Monday, with 30 children among them, according to Bishop. Regardless of the conditions of CCNV’s occupancy, she has no plans to tell them to leave, she says. That’s up to the city. But by 3 p.m., residents see a bus pull up behind the building, and the moms and their kids climb in. After nearly a week of posturing by CCNV and the city, the women are being relocated to D.C. Village.
About four hours later, the mayor’s office releases a statement from Graham that terms the forced move part of a “much larger process that will look at dilapidated buildings all across the city whereby more situations like CCNV may be uncovered and will be quickly addressed.” The statement goes on to say that the move was necessary because the shelter is supposed to serve only single men and women.
Among those on the move is 2-month-old Wendell Taylor, whose mother, Storm Taylor, gave birth to him two days before she moved into the shelter. “I came here for the sake of my child,” she says. “It’s the first time I’ve been anywhere near a shelter. Now it feels like home.”
“This protest is against hypocrisy, apathy, indifference,” declares Bishop in a statement posted on a wall inside the shelter. As long as she’s had space, Bishop claims, city agencies, from the Metropolitan Police Department to Child and Family Services to the mayor’s office, have dumped families like Taylor’s at her door when they had no other place to put them. “Everybody’s known what I’m doing,” she says. “I don’t do anything undercover. The city could have stepped in at any time. But they didn’t.”
In the meantime, she complains, the city has shortchanged CCNV by providing money for only the most superficial of repairs, though everyone’s known the Federal City building is falling apart. Until Monday, she says, she’s never seen so much as a fire or building inspector inside the place, though the health department regularly inspects D.C. Central Kitchen. And she’s certainly never seen so many social workers out in force at once. “The city’s just putting a Band-Aid over a bullet hole,” adds John Baggett, a homeless staffer at CCNV.
In any event, say advocates, the real issue lies beyond the scope of regulatory quibbling. “Is some place better than no place?” asks Mary Ann Luby of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “The broken-down building is not [CCNV’s] fault. Who’s at fault? The city’s at fault.”
But why, if it could jeopardize her lease, did Bishop continue to allow children in Federal City? Why didn’t she tell the city about her concerns before? “Why should I?” she says. “If I’m in the business of housing women and children, it’s because women and children are homeless. What’s the issue? They should be concerned about what’s happening in the community that drives these people to the shelter.”
At the end of the day, the cycles of life—and death—return to normal at Federal City. Come 2 a.m. bed check, 58-year-old Marshall Ishmell, a resident who had been in and out of the hospital, is found unconscious in the men’s wing. He’s rushed to Howard University Hospital, where he’s pronounced dead, the ninth fatality at the shelter in the last year. CP
Jason Cherkis contributed to this story.