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After 16 years and $15 million, is it time to turn out the lights at the Federal City Shelter?
Photographs by Charles Steck
Marsha Gordon didn’t get to sit for an exit interview when she finally left the shelter. There was no unloading of her locker, no packing of her personal effects, no returning of the donated wool blanket, no waving goodbye out the double doors of the three-story Federal City Shelter, the place she had called home for three months. The Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), which staffs the building, will never find out that she liked to sing in the morning, treat herself to breakfast at Burger King before heading over to the methadone clinic, and then spend an afternoon window-shopping through Chinatown. And the workers will never find out that Gordon had finally kicked a big-time heroin habit.
All that remains of Gordon is a four-page intake sheet. She moved into the shelter Nov. 1. Her bed number was C6. Her signature glides confidently across the appropriate lines, after the appropriate sobriety pledges and insurance clauses. No reason is listed for her coming to live among the 150 other hungry women and children on the 2-South women’s floor.
The staff can only muster “She had a sweet smile,” and “She was a beautiful person”—nice words, but descriptions as generic as carnations.
Gordon would probably understand. She had enough street smarts to know the score at the place her former bunkmates refer to as simply “inside.” The slate-gray-and-blue shelter at the corner of 2nd and D Streets NW is filled with bottomed-out souls: the addicts, the abused, the St. Elizabeths vets, the in-debt, the infirm, the crooks, and the ex-cons. The threadbare staff, made up mostly of formerly homeless individuals, barely has time for lights out and the nightly bed count.
Federal City residents come and go: Some get kicked out. Some leave in ambulances. Few others ever notice or regret their absence. Serving as a shelter of last resort is grim business.
It became grimmer at about 5 a.m. on Jan. 26. According to staff reports, Gordon fell onto the gray-tiled bathroom floor unconscious, her ankles still hugging the toilet, blood running from her mouth and nose. As Gordon, 48, lay there, she was allegedly robbed of $500, money she had won from a court settlement, according to residents. Cordea Brown, 7, found Gordon’s body. Gordon was pronounced dead at Howard University Hospital. An autopsy report is pending, according to Dr. Jacqueline Lee, who is overseeing the case at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Not long ago, the death of a resident might have been big news. CCNV staff would have attended her funeral, perhaps hosted a memorial service inside Federal City. Back in the shelter’s heyday in the late ’80s, the activists would turn unclaimed bodies into political symbols—martyrs who personified the District of Columbia’s crummy social services. CCNV would hold fake funeral processions leading down to the mayor’s office. Federal City even has its own makeshift pauper’s grave, a bookshelf next to the staff’s pool table on the third floor, which holds the ashes of dozens of unclaimed bodies.
But that was when Republicans were in the White House and homelessness wasn’t just a state of being—it was a fundamental part of political discourse. That debate is over. Homeless people won, sort of. And what they achieved was the right to occupy a massive, decrepit building as long as their luck holds out.
Now that the crusade is finished, CCNV has a shelter to run. Lights come on at 6 a.m. There are shower stalls to scrub, beds to be made, floors to sweep.
The day after Gordon’s death, a staff member announces her passing over 2-South’s PA system. A moment of silence is quickly offered up.
That’s all. Chore time commences. “Meet in the utilities room: You must do your chores!” the staffer bellows. Less than a month later, Gordon’s bunkmate, Lucy Porter, will die, too. According to Lee, that autopsy report is still pending as well.
Cordea won’t be coming across any more dead bodies at Federal City. As this story went to press, bureaucratic SWAT teams were set to swarm all over the shelter and pull children and their families out. The first wave, due to arrive on Thursday, Feb. 24, is to include officials from the D.C. Department of Health, the Department of Child and Family Services, and the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
Their mission, according to Deputy Mayor for Children and Youth Carolyn Graham, is to remove children from the shelter because they are there in violation of the agreement with the federal government that originally conveyed the building to the city. That document specifically states that the shelter is to be used for adult men and women only. According to Graham, the children and their parents will be temporarily housed at D.C. Village, in Southwest. But as long ago as last October, the health department was aware that there were dozens of children at the shelter, many of whom had been diagnosed with whooping cough.
Asked why the Williams administration was acting now, Graham says, “This is part of a whole assessment of properties….We felt that we had to begin in our own back yard.” (Federal City is located just two blocks away from the mayor’s office at One Judiciary Square.)
“On December 2, we did a census after advocates told us that there were children over there. It’s a cesspool. It’s a mess,” Graham says in a phone interview. She added that the team will “assess the children for any health needs that they are presenting with, and make the referrals that they need to.”
Next Monday, another team of city officials will arrive at the shelter to look into the physical structure and do what Graham called a “preliminary assessment to see whether that building is a livable, functional place.”
In a sense, the D.C. government is investigating a mess that it funded. The shelter is set to receive $5.6 million in city funds for renovations, $500,000 of which is approved to be spent this year. Part of the $5.6 million is scheduled to be spent in the next three years on building a women’s and children’s wing. But Graham says that isn’t going to happen.
“That [funding] decision was not made a couple of months ago. Those decisions had been made before [the Williams administration] got here,” Graham says. Asked whether she had fundamental questions about whether Federal City continued to be a viable place to send homeless people, she says, “I do.”
Effective immediately, families will no longer be allowed to enter or stay at Federal City. Because family shelters and public housing have extensive waiting lists, it’s hard to say where else they might go. Given the fact that a major story concerning the shelter was about to come out, the sudden urgency on the part of the city seems curious, but Graham will only say that she is under strict orders from the mayor to move swiftly when problems arise. “We are doing something because we are concerned about the health of the children,” she says.
CCNV Executive Director Terri Bishop says that the mayor’s office had not told her about the fact that it will be sending in people to pull children out of the shelter.
“That’s fine…if they have somewhere to go better than where they are,” she says.
Shortly after Federal City opened its doors, on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in 1984—it wasn’t yet a holiday—Federal City held up well against District-run shelters. Most shelters at the time were places where homeless slept in urine puddles or roach-infested hotels like the Pitts, where families were crammed in at a cost to the city of more than $3,000 a month. Compared with those hellholes, Federal City was the Four Seasons.
The homeless got the run of the place because of Mitch Snyder, a man whose myth continues to haunt the building. It was his idea, and a good one, at least in theory: Activists and formerly homeless persons would take charge of the 1,350-bed former college facility, putting their stubborn concern for poor people to practical use.
The concept—and the hope that gave birth to it—hasn’t aged well: Millions of dollars in renovations, Snyder’s suicide, one 60 Minutes expose, one convicted executive, three presidents, and three mayors later, Federal City is a fossil of better intentions, a progressive antique that seems just as out of step with the times as massive high-rise public housing projects.
The shelter has downsized considerably, to a capacity of 700 beds, and even those aren’t being filled. There isn’t a line of homeless men and women waiting to get in the door. The shelter has closed its hypothermia drop-in center, and intake on the working men’s floor averages roughly 15 new residents per week. Many staffers concede that a lot of the city’s homeless are choosing to go elsewhere. Federal City has become a place whose value even the staffers are beginning to rethink.
The reality of housing the homeless, as opposed to the politics of agitating about them, is the business that CCNV now finds itself in. Of course, no matter the agitprop wrapping paper of the past—the fasts, the marches, the Thanksgiving dinners on the Capitol lawn—CCNV’s day job has always been Federal City. It’s a difficult job, which the staff does—and doesn’t do—about as well as anybody else would. Which is to say, badly.
Between CCNV and the District government, which oversees the maintenance of the building, the shelter has piled up a list of problems that would make a slumlord blush. The roof leaks, pipes expel waste onto the basement floors, mice feast, roaches gorge, sinks don’t work, and the air conditioning—well, you get the idea. Health inspectors have started to circle the place, many CCNV workers continue to fail drug tests, and clients are staying away in droves.
Federal City, which used to be a wide point of entry for the homeless, has become a tangle of rules, restrictions, and edicts. What had been a chaotic melange of homeless and near-homeless people self-governing in a common space has become just one more bureaucracy. Although new residents are allowed to stay at the shelter for a year, most don’t last that long. They quickly find themselves in violation of one of the shelter’s many rules.
At the same time, residents are dying more often at Federal City than at other facilities. Eight residents have passed away in the past year. Michael Ferrell, executive director for the Coalition for the Homeless, says there has been an average of two or three deaths in a given year among 560 residents in the facilities he manages.
And now another in a series of costly Band-Aids is scheduled to be applied to a facility that seems to be bleeding from all its major arteries. With Mayor Anthony A. Williams set to pony up millions for another round of renovations at the shelter and the lease expiring at the end of the year, the question hangs like the smell that comes from so many bodies stacked into the same space: Is Federal City the best we can do?
On Super Bowl Sunday, less than a week after Gordon’s death, Larry Wilkins moves in. We meet under the glow of the big game. A father, husband, lapsed Muslim, and ex-Pep Boys employee, he smoked his last rock Friday, drank his last 40-ouncer (“Bull”) on Saturday, stashed his favorite hunting knife, and came into the shelter early this morning. He wants to get sober—and stay sober.
“This is the first kickoff I’ve seen all year, man,” Wilkins, 43, says, leaning in to me. He played football for Norfolk State University, says the team even voted him Offensive Lineman of the Year. But he left school three semesters shy of graduation.
In the third quarter, Wilkins heads to the small library on the second floor. He wants a Koran. Needs it bad. Unfortunately, he’ll have to settle for an old Jet article on Queen Latifah’s carjacking for bedtime reading. It’s a nervous first night. “You stay scared [here],” Wilkins says later. “All I have to do is pray to God.”
Gordon’s death still lingers on the women’s floor. It’s not the fact that she died—people die here often enough that it’s part of the fabric of the place. But the fact that she was robbed while she lay there, perhaps fighting for life, takes the breath away from those who remain. Judith Shade, 47, an old partying buddy of Gordon’s, worries about when her time might come. We meet in the back of the floor, at a table in the cafeteria. No one yet knows what really happened to Gordon. Two residents have been questioned and searched, but nothing has come of it.
“It’s survival,” Shade says about life in Federal City. “You just have to be able to survive.”
If the residents feel as if they’re close to the edge, the building they live in is even closer. Federal City wasn’t supposed to still be here. Both the federal government, which owned the facility, and CCNV agreed in 1983 that it would serve as the shelter’s home for just that winter. CCNV’s staffers had toured the place clandestinely in the fall, and they couldn’t argue with the logic. It certainly wasn’t a building worthy of a fight. They all—except perhaps CCNV’s fearless leader, Snyder—realized that they were walking through a shithole.
Since its founding in 1972 by Catholic priest Ed Guinan, CCNV had graduated from protesting the Vietnam War to engaging in the still-silent poverty war at home. After setting up some of the first soup kitchens and free clinics in the Washington area, CCNV was soon overwhelmed by desperate people in desperate need. The group’s motto became “Feed the Hungry, Clothe the Naked, Heal the Sick, Shelter the Homeless,” and the organization stuck to its word.
In 1973, Snyder joined CCNV fresh from a midlife crisis that had taken him out of corporate management and across the country in a stolen car to his subsequent conviction in Los Angeles and full political resurrection via a Danbury, Conn., prison. He came down to CCNV at the request of radical priest Daniel Berrigan, whom he had met behind bars. Guinan says he was more than happy to have another body to fill up the ranks: “It sounded good to me. We had dozens and dozens of people coming.” But Snyder was not just one more body—within a few years, he had put the homeless on the Washington Post’s front page.
Snyder, a cross between Gandhi and a mule, played rabble-rouser in the best tradition—creative and passionate, he knew how to take some indignation sprinkled with hype and turn it into a legitimate protest. By 1984, Snyder had crafted a power base out of the righteousness of his cause—and the fact that every nook and cranny of D.C. contained someone who needed a place to stay. He earned respect from the homeless citizens he served and the city administrators who feared coming into his gun sights.
Until the founding of Federal City, Snyder’s mission expressed itself episodically, with tent cities on the Mall and in Lafayette Park, housing takeovers, fasts, and various suits against the District and the federal government. There were drop-in centers, food pantries, and clinics across the city.
But the building at 2nd and D Streets, a place CCNV went to war to win, became its cross to bear. Built in 1944 as one of the dozens of temporary facilities erected for cheap during World War II, the structure originally housed the Reconstruction Finance Corp. Within a few years, the Securities and Exchange Commission moved in; in the late ’60s, Federal City College took over. But before the school even got settled in, the federal government had to spend $1.5 million on repairs and renovations. The building still wasn’t ready when the doors first opened for classes. Federal City left in the late ’70s when it merged with other area schools to form the University of the District of Columbia.
By the time CCNV arrived, the building had been turned into a shooting gallery. CCNV was granted its temporary use by the federal government after the organization was displaced from a nearby site. It didn’t get much. The place looked like a bombed-out barn. One corner of the building literally had separated from the rest of the structure. Windows were broken. Inside walls were missing, the Sheetrock shot through. Paint and ceiling clumps dotted the floor like confetti. Water had flooded the building, leaving pools and soaked carpets. The whole place stank from mildew.
“I’m not sure the word ‘horror’ quite covers it,” recalls Cliff Newman, one of the first CCNV organizers to move into the building. “There was literally pieces of ceiling falling on the floor. It defies description…#I thought we should have Mitch committed. He kept talking about all the wonderful things he envisioned in it. It was a bit like living in a coal mine.”
Nonetheless, CCNV arrived with great expectations and 500 guests. There were 11 working toilets and three shower stalls, Newman says. People camped about the place willy-nilly: Red Cross cots lined the halls, inhabited storage closets, took over basically any nook available.
In April 1984, with its temporary permit about to expire, CCNV balked at vacating the facility. Newman says the activists had started to achieve real political momentum inside and outside the building. Federal City represented the next step: a permanent home for the homeless.
“We never were faced with so many people we had to put out on the streets,” explains Carol Fennelly, a CCNV activist and Snyder’s girlfriend at the time. They couldn’t leave.
Federal City quickly became a focal point of endless debate, protests, and a tug of war between the Reagan administration and Snyder. In August, Snyder began a fight to the death over his shelter, commencing a 51-day hunger strike. He ended up in the hospital, barely able to talk or move his limbs. On Nov. 4, 1984, the feds finally blinked and agreed to renovate Federal City.
“It was an incredible thing,” Fennelly says. “Mitch and I negotiated all night long. By morning on Sunday, we had a tentative agreement. Reagan signed it on Air Force One.”
That same month, after much lobbying by CCNV, District voters passed Initiative 17, the Right to Shelter Act, which required the city to provide shelter for every one of its homeless citizens.
Unfortunately for Federal City, the Reagan administration had no intention of adhering to its agreement to fix the building. It would take roughly four years of protests by CCNV, a made-for-TV movie starring Martin Sheen titled Samaritan: The Mitch Snyder Story, several eviction notices, and another hunger strike to convince the feds to fix the shelter. By then, the District had put in $250,000 in emergency repairs, including patching up the roof. In 1988, renovations were finally completed at an additional cost to the feds of $14 million. The shelter was at capacity, with 1,350 residents.
It was to be CCNV’s last major local victory. In 1990, D.C. voters repealed the Shelter Act, believing arguments that it was too expensive to enforce. The new shelter laws erased the city’s responsibility and enacted stringent new regulations regarding homeless facilities. The regulations—such as length of stay requirements and residents’ duties—were upheld by a citywide referendum that fall.
Between the tougher political climate and a breakup with Fennelly, Snyder lost it. On July 5, 1990, he hanged himself with an electric cord. A few weeks earlier, he had written a missive to supporters, dated June 17 and addressed with his usual greeting, “Dear Friends.” It began in all caps: “PLEASE READ THIS LETTER. WE NEED YOUR HELP. AS MUCH NOW AS EVER BEFORE.”
The letter went on: “All of these new provisions, coupled with mandatory drug testing and compulsory background checks, sends a very clear message to homeless people: We don’t like you, we don’t respect you, and we really don’t want you to come inside.”
Ten years after Snyder’s suicide, some Federal City residents say the words could be applied to the place they live today.
“John!” hollers Tracey Griffin, calling after her sons. “Come here! Cordea! Sean! Now!” The boys are playing a one-sided hide-and-seek game with their mother. It is nearing 7:30 p.m. on a Monday on the women’s floor. It’s easy for them to disappear: Imagine half a block full of beds, strange women, piles of clothes, a TV room, and a kitchen area to worm around.
Griffin’s done this routine every night since she arrived at Federal City three months ago. It doesn’t take long for the three boys—Cordea, 7, Sean, 4, John Jr., 5—to join their mother at a table in the makeshift lounge that separates the two banks of bunks. Their bedtime is in a half-hour.
Sleep will be hard to come by between the noise, the foul microwave and body smell, and the fact that the lights will still be on. Cordea and John Jr. are restless, anyway. John Jr., who shares a bunk with his mother, wets the bed every night. Cordea, the child who found Marsha Gordon’s body, has been complaining about nightmares.
Griffin can’t wait to get out of here. But she has to wait: Sit out those minutes, nibble those seconds. You need patience in here. On the outside, Griffin isn’t a mother with three kids—she’s numbers on various waiting lists, which she has memorized like winning lottery numbers: 595 for the family shelter, 6,000 for Section 8, and—well, public housing, she’s not even bothering with that number. That number is years away.
After two deadbeat ex-husbands, stints at three jobs—Cluck-U-Chicken ($6.15 an hour), Burger King ($5.15 an hour), and a Loews Hotel in Annapolis (about $7 an hour)—and a stay at a friend’s house, she came to the shelter. “It’s gotten to the point,” she says—and then she stops, her words disappearing from her. She starts again after a long pause: “I have to look at my kids when I’m mad. Just wait. Just wait. I promise them.”
Griffin has yet to meet a social worker since coming to the shelter, but she has met a Jesse, a guy from the 50-and-up floor downstairs. Still, the kids feel very much alone at Federal City, at odds with the place. Griffin says her kids love their new “dad.” She turns to them for affirmation.
“Which one?” John asks.
“Jesse,” she says.
Tomorrow, Griffin says, she and Jesse are going apartment hunting. She seems hopeful as she takes her kids to beds dappled with Teletubbies and ratty teddy bears. After a round of 10 p.m. chores, Griffin will take her anti-seizure medication, drift asleep, and maybe dream of a way out.
A few hours later, I run into Wilkins coming out of the working-men’s-floor TV room. It’s his second night, and he’s having a hard time. He says he tried to write his wife a letter but scratched it out, explaining that it felt unorganized. And he still can’t find a Koran. We take a walk out to a gas station across the street for a pack of Newports, his brand. It’s as far as he’ll travel after dark.
When we return, Wilkins heads straight to bed.
At Federal City, everyone dreams of escape, in part to get away from a place that serves as a collection point for human error. People are here because they made mistakes—few have a dangerous edge. The working men’s floor houses mostly residents in their 30s and 40s, self-described “misdemeanor men,” who have done every kind of job, scam, or scheme. Most profess to be jacks-of-all-trades. And they all want to get out of Federal City.
Despite CCNV’s attempts at engineering demographically focused floors, the sheer number of residents makes everyone anonymous and cooped up. It’s a flophouse with progressive wallpaper. The staff has rigged the place to make it the kind of facility you want to leave.
The floors aren’t designed for introspection or privacy. It looks like a down-on-its-luck corporate office, each floor divided into cubicles and more cubicles. Most residents have surrounded their beds with donated clothes and keepsakes, turning their sleeping quarters into kiddie forts.
Each night, the three pay phones along the wall of the men’s floor are filled. It doesn’t help that at least one of the phones is always busted. Residents break up relationships on those pay phones, beg on those pay phones, and pray to Jesus, Allah, or whichever other spirits they can conjure on those pay phones.
The floor itself is another matter. By 9 p.m., an hour before lights out, it’s pretty quiet. The TV room is filled with residents watching the latest action film someone has rented. In the kitchen area, under flickering fluorescent lights, card games are under way.
Games provide the only real interaction between residents. But the conversation centers around only “What cards you got in your hand?” The game of choice—whist—serves as the floor’s unofficial pastime. Everyone plays. One round of whist (think spades, only more complicated) can take all night—which is good when the nights pass like long, slow, noisy trains.
Guys constantly float in and out of the room: Country, a guy with headphones planted over his ears, who always looks lit up; Jeffrey, a 20-year-old with an innocent face and expertise in playing dominoes and selling broken goods; Miles, a computer techie built like Buzz Lightyear, who moved into Federal City after he decided to boycott all District landlords as part of a deeply personal crusade; and James, an ex-paratrooper and weapons expert from North Carolina, who’s currently training to be a light heavyweight contender. And at the head of one table, there’s Watts. He’s always there.
Watts, dressed in tan pants and an argyle sweater, and sporting a Frederick Douglass beard, rules the table. He’s been here longer than most, 10 months, and has a certain command despite the fact that he’s missing one front tooth. When he sees two partners squabbling over a misplayed hand, he offers the obvious advice: “You have to remember, there’s always another game.”
He’s right, of course. Most nights go down the same as the night before. The only excitement comes when food orders arrive from the Rainbow City restaurant. Or when a mouse makes an appearance: It is quickly stomped to death, and the games resume.
The lack of surprise is built into Federal City, a place with a rule for everything. Break the rules, and you have to deal with Goldie (“just Goldie”), the “team leader” for the working men’s floor. The old days of running scams and partying in the shelter are long gone. In order to stay at Federal City, you must have a photo ID, and you must follow the rules: No alcohol or drugs on the floor—if they smell booze on your breath, you’re on your way to getting barred; no touching the windows; no yelling out the windows; beds must be made by 10 a.m.; you must be in bed by 2 a.m. five nights out of the week; no loitering in the hallways; no visiting other residents’ cubes; meals must be eaten in the kitchen area; sodas must be consumed in designated locations; chores must be completed in a timely manner; no reading materials in the bathroom. The list goes on for a full 13 pages.
Although many of the rules address legitimate safety concerns, the staff and floor monitors—a deputized rotation of residents—seem preoccupied by all of them.
The rules, for people who are anarchists by habit, have a winnowing effect. According to Sandy Royster, 2-South’s team leader, only 10 percent of the residents make it out with a job and permanent housing. Many residents, she says, leave within the first two weeks after they end up in some sort of trouble because of the stiff rules. On the working men’s floor, empty beds pop up every morning. At the end of a recent week in February, there were 67 empty spots, the majority recently vacated by rule-breakers.
Bishop says that the rules are geared toward making residents want to leave. She says shelters should not be in the business of providing comfort and enabling laziness. “I want them to remember they are not at home,” explains Bishop, who used to work for Florida’s correctional facilities in Gainsville. “They should be at home. We make things too convenient—the jails, the prisons. They get comfortable there….We need to do things to move people on.”
But in many cases, the rules keep away the ones who need shelter the most: the mentally ill. Christel Nichols, executive director of the House of Ruth, says that she receives mentally ill clients thrown out of CCNV on a regular basis. Nichols says the women are often thrown out because they’ve missed chores.
Stacey Futch, executive director of the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, which provides two daily hot meals and access to support services, agrees. She says that the high turnover is largely due to the fact that it’s residents who make up Federal City’s staff, not trained professionals. “I don’t think the staff is equipped to deal with some of the issues that homeless people bring with them,” Futch says.
The regimentation can make the place seem more like a holding pen than a rest stop. “It’s basically preparing you for prison,” explains monitor Larry Meeks, adding that staff seems to enforce the rules capriciously. “The rules are like their rules. If it’s convenient for them, it’s OK. As long as it’s good for them, it’s OK.”
Staffer Joseph Xavier admits that some of his colleagues are too quick to forget where they came from—the streets: “You see it when people who supposedly are homeless treat other people as homeless. They forget that they’re in the same boat.”
Indeed, this past fall 17 out of 20 monitors failed drug tests. Because the staff and monitors receive no pay for their services, there is great temptation to make out in other ways. The best of the donated food and clothing rarely makes it past the volunteers and into the residents’ hands, Meeks says. During a recent week, dozens of eggs brought up from D.C. Central Kitchen ended up in the hands of the staff only, according to several workers.
At the same time, residents complain that there are shortages in other supplies. Occupants from all floors attest that they have sometimes gone as long as two days without toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Meeks says his floor has resorted to raiding Union Station for TP on occasion. Two-South
tenants say they have had to wash their dishes
CCNV management offers jobs to staffers at far below the minimum wage. According to Bishop, the organization pays tenants $4 an hour for security work. Day labor provides another avenue of cash flow. Not only is this low-wage, risky work encouraged, at least one staff member doles out the jobs in the morning.
If residents want to work day labor, they might want to see William “Short Dog” Halmon at the security desk. He hooks them up with the rows of vans waiting at Federal City’s entrance by 5:30 a.m. The next day, Halmon says, he pays residents in cash. Of course, Halmon gets a cut, but he won’t say how much. “That’s private,” he explains. “That’s my business.”
By Wednesday night, Wilkins has started to break down. As he sits at a corner table in the kitchen on the working men’s floor, a light twitches overhead, unable to decide if it’s on or off. Wilkins says he hasn’t been able to get a photo ID; his driver’s license was revoked years ago when the fines started piling up. He was supposed to work day labor this morning, but the job never materialized. And he’s waiting to be accepted for a drug treatment program.
Wilkins admits that he has spent most of the day in bed. “None of the things I expected came about,” he gripes, fingering an unlit Newport, still dressed in the same tan outfit he’s worn since Monday.
The kitchen grows noisier with each hand dealt from the card game nearby. Wilkins can’t be bothered. “This place feels like an institution that has no means of teaching you anything that you don’t know,” he says.
Wilkins says he lived and volunteered as a monitor at Federal City when he first moved to the District, in 1990, from Alexandria. It was here that he devoted himself to the Muslim faith. Back then everyone called him by his Muslim name, Yahya. But now things are different. He has a wife, a son, and two stepdaughters. And he doesn’t feel the same support from the shelter.
Wilkins has finally found a Koran and finished the letter to his wife. “I feel like I can go home,” Wilkins says. “I can get a job in a month or two. I’d have to have access to a car.”
At 6 the next morning, Wilkins calls his wife for the first time in seven days. He talks to the kids. They ask when he’s coming home. Wilkins says he hopes it will be today. His wife agrees to meet with him in two hours to discuss the situation. When he hangs up, he cries.
At 9:20 a.m., Wilkins’ wife pulls up in a green Taurus station wagon. Wilkins runs to the car and pops into the front seat.
He never mails his letter. Instead, he gives it to me. He wrote: “It may seem right now that i have cut you and the family out of my life. There has not been a day go by that i do not think about you all. Please forgive me and i need your support. I promise when you see me you will see a changed man. It is going to take some time.”
At 5:55 p.m., Wilkins moves out of Federal City and goes home. He lasted five days.
Robert Egger would like to leave Federal City, too. As director of D.C. Central Kitchen, he has worked out of the shelter’s basement since 1992, turning donated food into meals for 3,000 hungry persons inside and out of the building. It was Fennelly who convinced him to set up shop at the shelter. In exchange for the use of the kitchen, he serves the residents one meal a day. Egger, who shares values and intentions with the people who work to keep Federal City viable, nonetheless says that the days when a big shelter run by an untrained staff could make its way are gone.
Egger says that with the new convention center under construction and the District’s booming economy, it’s the right time to sell the building (and its land, which he thinks might be worth as much as $40 million). He believes that the money from a sale could be used to replace Federal City with a new “one-stop” facility elsewhere, perhaps in the area north of Union Station. The new place could house an employment center equipped with job-training partnerships, revenue-generating businesses such as landscaping and catering, and an Orange Hat patrol. A portion of the sale, he argues, could also go to rehabbing about 100 units of boarded-up housing.
The new facility could include 600 to 800 beds and be overseen by a paid management team that would include unpaid volunteers. It would be a shared, professionally managed co-op where individual organizations would bring their talents together, in what Egger calls a “partnership of equals.”
“The time for organizations playing catch-up, or the time where we help organizations learn how to do their job, has passed,” Egger says. “If you’re not in the game, it’s back to the locker room. This is about capacity. It ain’t about good organizations vs. bad organizations. It’s about, at the end of the day, who can help the most people now?”
Bishop knows that the building has significant issues, but she asserts that erecting a new facility wouldn’t address the problems of homelessness. Egger’s idea, she says, would basically be an expensive way to commodify human misery. “That all sounds good if you’re into capitalizing on the homeless,” Bishop says. “My position is, I would not like to see any shelters anywhere. I’m downsizing as fast as I can here—I wish people would go on with their lives. I don’t think building a state-of-the-art shelter anywhere is a solution to homelessness. I’m saying, ‘Make do with what you have.’”
Egger responds that just giving people a roof doesn’t work, so why not slaughter CCNV’s sacred cow and go back to the drawing board? He’s watched city officials, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Community Partnership coddle Federal City for years with little visible improvement at
The building has always been CCNV’s biggest curse and biggest asset. Although Federal City has been almost impossible to maintain, no politician wants to be the one to kick some 700 people out in the cold. But, Egger says, an orderly transition would ensure that nobody ended up on the street. And given the past few years of CCNV history, he’s tired of waiting for the shelter to clean up its act.
Just after Snyder killed himself, the Washington Post and D.C. Council began to question Federal City’s finances. According to Fred Henry, CCNV’s current vice president, at the time there were no budgets and no real accountability when it came to handling money. When donations came, they were simply spent.
The situation took a darker turn in 1994. It was then that Gregory Keith Mitchell replaced Fennelly on the heels of a 60 Minutes expose that detailed criminal activity in and around the shelter. Egger says he noticed that past agreements for reimbursed food purchases weren’t being met. He thought something must be fundamentally amiss—and he turned out to be right. According to Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) records, Mitchell misspent more than $400,000 from 1994 to 1996, including $163,000 for personal use: a drunk driving fine, rent on his family’s town house, King’s Dominion passes, Armani suits, liquor, trips to strip clubs like Camelot and the 1720 Club, and a $3,000 computer.
Mitchell was charged with theft of funds in March 1998. A few months later, he pleaded guilty to theft of $65,000, the amount that could be tied to personal checks and credit card receipts. Mitchell still insists that he did nothing wrong, that CCNV staffers always dined on donation money. When he spent the money on strip club outings, he says, he was accompanied by other staffers. “You work there, you have no money,” Mitchell argues, adding that the outings were basically compensation. “CCNV is not your standard nonprofit. The government knew this from the beginning.”
Although Bishop, who replaced Mitchell, has gone to great lengths to eliminate staff excesses (indeed, all but a handful of the staffers have since been replaced), financial messes are still being dug up. The IRS granted CCNV a waiver on a $90,000 tax lien put in place in the mid-’90s for failure to pay withholding taxes on employee salaries, but Bishop says her organization hasn’t filed 990 forms or an annual report for the past three years—since she came into office. Bishop explains that because of HUD’s investigation of Mitchell, putting together accurate financial reports has been difficult.
Futch, of the Dinner Program for Homeless Women, says that without a full-scale change in the way CCNV does business, she doesn’t think funding should continue to flow. Futch used to work at the shelter under Mitchell; she was the one who dropped a dime and called in HUD.
Futch says that without salaried employees and an outside board of directors monitoring the shelter, Federal City will continue to have serious trust issues. “As long as it’s like that, I wouldn’t give them a cent,” Futch says. “[It’s like], ‘Come on guys, get out of the ’70s.’ They are so proud they aren’t getting salaries, but their shelter isn’t being run worth a damn.”
A more serious problem at the shelter is about physical, not financial, health. Many residents leave the shelter via ambulance, roughly two to four a day, according to staffers.
Including Gordon, eight residents have died this past year—two from the women’s floor, one on the working men’s floor, and five on the 50-and-up floor. (Bishop failed to produce accurate records of resident deaths.) “We always accept some of them are going to die,” Bishop explains. “They don’t take care of medicine the way they should. We can’t always monitor that.” But other shelters do. If residents refuse to take their medication, they are sometimes shipped to a hospital, says Steve Cleghorn, deputy director of the Community Partnership.
Karen Dale, senior deputy for quality planning and external affairs with D.C.’s Department of Health, believes there should be adequate oversight of residents’ health. “It is important to have procedures around monitoring medication. There should be procedures to address that.”
The House of Ruth’s Nichols says the number of deaths at Federal City—especially when you consider that the shelter has a health clinic and men’s infirmary on site—seems high. At her Madison Shelter, which has held as many as 84 beds, only two residents have died in the last 16 years. “I think it speaks more to paying attention to what’s going on with the people,” Nichols argues. “How many of those were preventable deaths is the question.”
Reports from the D.C.’s Department of Health suggest that Federal City has other significant health problems:
* In 1998, Kurt Brandt, the acting chief for the District’s Division of TB Control, reported several cases of tuberculosis at the shelter. Despite CCNV’s testing of all residents upon arrival, he encouraged the staff to attempt a more extensive screening process. To judge from their intake process, no changes have been made.
* In October 1999, 33 out of 35 children were treated for whooping cough. The Department of Health subsequently found that CCNV had no record of how many children were living at Federal City. The shelter promised to keep records of children starting this past January.
* On Oct. 26, 1999, after reports of diarrhea among residents, the shelter’s water was tested. According to a Department of Health report, the test showed “more than adequate residual chlorine (3.0-3.5 ppm as compared to the usual range of 1.5-2.0 ppm).” New taps were put in place to prevent potential back-flow problems in the pipes.
* On Nov. 11, 1999, after complaints of dizziness, headaches, and nausea among residents, the Air Quality Division of the D.C. Environmental Health Administration investigated. Tests indicated “borderline insufficient ventilation.”
That same month, residents also reported infestations of mice and cockroaches. The Department of Health confirmed the complaints and reported its findings to CCNV management. The place is still overrun with vermin. Residents have taken to setting their own traps. One resident estimates that she kills at least six mice per day on the women’s floor.
Bishop says that in spite of the problems—and her determination to downsize—she hopes to open a new detox center, a new floor for women and children, and a 30-bed women’s infirmary by spring. She would also like to open a job-resource center in the basement within a year. Egger sees the new programmatic efforts as a clear sign that CCNV is attempting to justify another lease agreement, even though the number of residents has dropped in half—partly because of ongoing renovations—within the past year.
Egger maintains that CCNV should stop scrambling. “You don’t think people are thinking about this building and looking at it with big dollar signs?” he asks. “Let’s be practical. Let’s be part of the process so that we can get our portion of the sale of this building to build something new and modern.” Egger has made this pitch before, most recently to business leaders at the Bender Prize dinner, where he received a $250,000 grant for D.C. Central Kitchen. So far, few people in city government seem to be listening.
Cleghorn says that all options for the site should be discussed. “It has to be looked at,” Cleghorn says. “I think CCNV is struggling with what is their plan with the continued use of that site. Is it a plan that the District will buy into? They are trying to show they have the capability to operate an effective shelter. At this point, I think there is a little bit of evidence that they are making a real good-faith effort to do so. The other part is: They sit on some of the most valuable land in the District.”
Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose clearly thinks Federal City’s time is up. “That’s an awful lot of people in a falling-down building. It’s a white elephant; we’ve got to get out from under it. I think it needs to be phased out,” she says.
Although Fennelly praises Bishop and the current staff for sticking with the shelter, she says CCNV never should have based its existence on the building: “We were first a resistance community, and second a service community. We were never meant to be a Salvation Army.”
This past fall, renovations started up again at the shelter. The working men’s floor had just two working sinks and only a handful of working shower stalls. The women’s bathrooms were also in disrepair. The District government put in $152,000 to install new sinks and re-tile the floors. It is the first phase of an expected revamping that will eventually include repairs in the basement and first floor.
At the moment, the auxiliary programs—Unity Healthcare, D.C. Central Kitchen, and the men’s infirmary—operate in the basement, where they get the worst the building has to offer. When the toilets clog, Unity literally gets shit on; it has to shut down its facility several times a month, reports Sister Eileen Reid, RN.
Beyond Unity’s doors, it doesn’t get much better. Many of the rooms have suffered severe water damage. Huge holes pock the ceilings. The boiler room fills with steam that seems to saturate everything.
There are still other problems on the second and third floors. Half the rooms are cold; the others are overheated. According to Willie Jackson, CCNV’s director of maintenance, plumbing repairs still need to be made, the boiler room needs an overhaul, and the roof needs patching. “We got a couple bad spots,” Jackson says of the roof.
Two years ago, Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin gave CCNV $50,000 to fix the heating system. Three years ago, the District put on a new roof at a cost of $500,000 after spending $25,000 to fix the roof in the mid-’90s. The Williams administration is set to dish out an additional $5.6 million in repairs over the next six years. That will bring the total renovation cost for the building since CCNV took over to $20,577,000 (this figure includes neither the hundreds of thousands of dollars CCNV has spent on repairs themselves, nor the money the District pays in utility bills).
Someone yells, “Fire!” It’s 2:45 on a Friday morning, and a curtain located in a hallway adjacent to the bathrooms on the working men’s floor has just ignited. The flames are starting to crawl up the wall. Within minutes, Goldie and the floor monitors extinguish the fire and return to their desks. But the wall continues to smolder until it’s ablaze again and small clouds of smoke start to appear. A resident returning from the TV room notices the reborn flames and calls Goldie. This time, the staff calls the fire department.
By 3:40, a half-dozen firemen have put out the fire and are tearing down the Sheetrock to clear out the ash and embers. Their work offers a peek into Federal City’s foundation—rotted two-by-fours, so worn you can peel chunks off with your fingers.
“There’s a lot of people in here,” one of the firemen grumbles to himself as he leaves the building.
And most of those people have slept through the entire ordeal; no fire alarm went off. The ones who are awake are pretty pissed. A resident wonders why CCNV hasn’t conducted any fire drills, why those alarms never sounded. He wonders if it’s safe to go back to sleep: “They should take a wrecking ball to this place.”CP
Crystal Thomas, 39
“We came here together. We needed to save money. She got her job. I just got my [Supplemental Security Income]. We had to do what we needed to do. In two weeks, we will be married and in our own place. We are already married, but we are going to do it again with our families. We were living here, and we went to a motel for our honeymoon—we had two nights out. We went to the Budget Inn on New York Avenue. And we enjoyed that. That’s all we had. It was more romantic, anyway. It was romantic and special. We had a romantic dinner—crab legs, shrimp, and clams. And we had Victoria Secret, my sexy nightgown.”
Gerel Pinkney, 44
“I have been here 90 days. It took me three times to get it right—I got barred twice. I got barred for bed count, bed abuse, and I had a warrant out for me the second time. This time I came from a drug program. What I want now is to try to get myself some changes. I want to learn computers, rebuild them, get certified. I did 13 years for a variety of charges. The one time I try to make some money—distribution of Dilaudid—I mess up on it. I’m dealing with parole now—I got urine [testing] on Wednesday, and I got to see my P.O. on Monday. My time is up here tomorrow. My last day is tomorrow. Tomorrow I will probably go to Emory Shelter. I’ve been through this before—it’s been from here to prison, back and forth. It’s tedious and tiresome. My whole life has been 3 feet by 6 feet. Who wants to hire you when you don’t have any job skills that make you unique? This April, I’ll be 45 years old.”
Jimmie Buford, 42
“If I could run it, I would be out soliciting for more funds, hard. I would get me a core group of people—residents—and get them involved. I would get hard-core residents who can articulate their feelings to the point that they’re able to communicate to both politicians at 441 [Judiciary Square] and up on the Hill, and still deal with the common folk down here. And be levelheaded about it. This town is nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism—it’s hard not to get caught up in that. There’s people in here with serious problems that need serious help. If they don’t identify themselves, they are going to become another statistic.You got to do something to stand out here. That’s what I do. I’ve been a skirt-tail pimp most of my life. I’ve done it all. Shit that I go through, I did it myself. You just have to keep going. You have to step up. Mitch Snyder used to have 10,000 people marching up on the Hill. It’s that type of grass-roots activism that’s needed again.”
Eric Robinson, 46
“I think it’s very appalling that CCNV has [residents] go out and work for a person, meet the [day-labor vans] outside every morning at 5:30, eight hours for $5 an hour. Actually, it’s 12 hours. You have to be out there at 5:30 pushing and shoving each other to get on that day-labor truck. CCNV is supposed to be helping us. They are not taking any interest in our well-being other than we are a source of cheap labor. I think there should be checks within the system. I feel used and like a dog. You are talked to like a dog such as ‘Motherfucker, if you don’t want to do it, you can go home. You don’t get shit for the day.’ Kinda like captive labor. Once you get on the truck, you are a captive slave. Training? You have no training whatsoever. If you have boots, hard hat, and gloves, that is your training. A couple of jobs I worked on, we got no breaks. This weekend, we did not get paid. This job was made through CCNV.”
Loveval Tribble, 28
“I’m ready to get the hell away from here. It’s time to go. I’ve been here three times. I’ve been here since Sept. 12. Time to go. I’m surrounded by crackheads, drunks, dope addicts. Staff ain’t shit, either. That’s just my opinion. The ones on this floor, they do their job, but half are crazy. It’s time for a brother to go. If this was a white shelter, it would be run better. I will be glad when they tear it down. Mayor Anthony Williams, fuck him—he’s a bitch. Mayor Williams right across the street. You think he bother to come over to the building and see how it looks? I’m ready to go down to Alabama to live. It’s peaceful down there. Everybody is friendly. I got family down there. I leave June 1. I hope I leave before then. My mother died in this shelter. She died in her room, March 25, 1996. My mother was 40 years old. She had a seizure. She went into cardiac arrest and had a heart attack.”
Edna Glee, 43
“My mood is fine other than when I have disturbances. Most of the time I keep dreaming that I get all my children back—to win the case against the people that stole my babies, to see everybody safe from Satan’s web. The lord was guiding my steps. First I went to Orlando, Florida. Then I came back here. I came down here trying to get justice. I wrote the president five letters—three before I left and two since I been here. He communicates with me in a certain way: Certain clothing that I wore, he would wear it. It sounds silly, but that’s the game people play. They came and stole my babies. I had many of them stolen—the last time I counted it was close to 20 or more. I came here to get justice.”
Tracey Griffin, 36
“I’m in charge of the chores. It’s like this: They get up. If they don’t, they don’t. It’s on you. It’s on you to do a chore. Doing a chore is like paying your rent here. It’s really up to you. If you want to make your life miserable, don’t do a chore. If you get barred or whatever, that’s the choice that you made—not me. By me being chore monitor, I know everybody’s name up in here. Everybody has to pay the rent. I ain’t going to say nobody miss a chore. We have some people that miss a chore. If they don’t want to do a chore, that’s on them. They have to deal with that on Sunday. I don’t have nothing to do with that. I can proudly say that.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.