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A long black snake once slithered into the shack at the corner of Wheeler Road and Valley Avenue SE.
For the folks inside, the event wasn’t too remarkable. For years, their building has welcomed the rats, field mice, and bees that wander over from neighboring Oxon Run Park. And you can only imagine what sort of barnyard bacteria wash in with the flood waters that seep through the floor whenever a hard rain falls.
Since the shack looks a lot like a holdover from Anacostia’s rural past, the infestation isn’t all that surprising. “I’ve been walking by for seven or eight months,” says Anna Simmons, who just recently moved into the surrounding Congress Heights neighborhood. “I thought it was a barn.” As the spring sun beats down on the swampy fields that surround it, you can almost hear the chickens squawking.
But the shack is anything but a remnant of agricultural Washington. It’s just the opposite—a far-flung outpost of the urban welfare state. A peeling sign notifies passers-by that this glorified chicken coop houses the D.C. Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Congress Heights Services Center, where 10,329 Ward 8 residents come each month to collect food stamps, apply for welfare benefits, and otherwise receive the small favors of the District’s frayed safety net.
According to center manager Thomas R. Bythewood, the operation is one of nine such outfits across the city, divided roughly by low-income population within D.C.’s eight wards. But according to many of the Congress Heights center’s clients, the structure outdoes pretty much every other city building in at least one category: gloom.
“No one likes to walk through water, no matter what their station in life,” explains Bythewood, describing what the shack looks like after a flood.
Staffer Elizabeth Reynolds, who remembers entering the building one morning to the sharp stench of water-borne human feces, has seen worse: “You open the door Monday morning, and you don’t know what’ll jump out at you.”
Consider, for a minute, the architecture of gloom.
There are, of course, all of the old standards: the Transylvanian castle, the Siberian labor camp, the Blade Runner-era office tower.
Yet if it takes a turreted castle—or a gigantic police state, or a technology-addled skyscraper—to crush you like the bug you are, that at least acknowledges that you’re worth the effort. The Congress Heights Services Center, on the other hand, adds a level of pathetic insignificance to the formula: It mixes the gulag’s rickety jailhouses with modern society’s impenetrable bureaucracy. On a rainy day, when water seeps up from Oxon Run’s flood plain, it throws in a dash of horror-movie murkiness. Now there’s a recipe for some real gloom.
Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. When DHS moved into the former annex for overflowing public school students in 1977, it was supposed to be a temporary measure. The building itself, located on federal parkland, was only OK’d for use in education and recreation. No one thought DHS would be there more than a few years.
But as priorities and budgets shifted, the center just stayed put. Former D.C. Councilmember H.R. Crawford, a major Ward 8 developer, says he put money in the budget for a new building, but nothing ever came of it. No one followed through. “The bureaucrats just didn’t give it high priority,” says Crawford.
Maybe that’s because, from their perch on the bland inside, they couldn’t tell the difference. In no time, DHS managed to do what bureaucracies everywhere do: throw up a couple of partitions, install a coffee maker, and call it home.
Employees up and down the line complained that working in a shack hurt the center’s ability to reach out to its impoverished charges, but to no avail. Bythewood says he’s been complaining about the building since assuming command half a decade ago. Others have been grumbling a lot longer. “When I came here it was temporary, and that was 16 years ago,” says Marlene Richardson, who recertifies welfare recipients’ eligibility. “This building should have been down long ago.”
A little before 9 o’clock on a Friday morning, a woman named Nicole steps through the shack’s unadorned steel doors. To her right, a line stretches around the walls of a small room where people come to pick up food stamps. A couple doors down, beyond a metal detector staffed by four private security guards and an electronic health-care display, is a waiting room.
Nicole plunks herself and her toddler down on two of the room’s array of plastic seats, and she waits next to a grated window and a series of tattered signs advising welfare recipients of impending changes to the system. There’s a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips sitting on the busted floor air-conditioning unit, a few feet from the cheery nutrition posters that give the 20 or so assembled folks such messages as “Good Health: It’s in the bag.”
All in all, it’s a fairly efficient operation. People sign in at the receptionist’s desk, and before too long their names get called out by DHS officers, who usher them to interview rooms farther back. After waiting only about 10 minutes, Nicole and her daughter head for an interview.
Around them lurk a few signs that this isn’t your typical government structure. The hallways feature makeshift room numbers and makeshift signs. Sometimes this haphazard approach even produces a less gloomy brand of bureaucratic generica: On a poster reading “No waiting or standing in doorway or hallway,” someone has drawn smiley faces into all the O’s.
The good feelings, however, dissolve as soon as rain falls. The one-story center’s corridors flood up with mucky water whenever a strong downpour hits the area. Half of the building also has a different water problem: There’s no hot water, which makes a trip to the toilet paper-free bathrooms an even less pleasant experience.
Other pieces of the outside seep in as well. The weather tends to work its way through the shack’s thin walls, often rendering the building frigid in the winter and, when the air conditioners break, stifling in the summertime. In a back room, there’s a circular brown stain where staffers had to put a bucket—right next to a bank of photocopiers—to catch water dripping from a roof that looks like it was designed by D.C. school-repair bungler Gen. Charles Williams. Elsewhere on the ceiling, tile colors go from white to orange to brown and back, making you wonder just what it is that’s up there.
For a lot of the folks trudging to and from the shack, the message behind the decor—no matter what the employees do—adds up to one thing: utter indifference. “This is the worst one I’ve seen,” says Simmons, comparing Congress Heights with other welfare facilities. “I used to live down the street from another, and it looked 100 percent better.”
“This one looks like a damn shack,” comments Sally, a food stamp recipient waiting outside the building to catch the A6 bus. She gestures past the dusty employee parking lot to a stretch of building where wood boards have replaced the shack’s light-blue sheet metal walls. “It’s an insult.”
Just like clockwork, the Congress Heights Services Center will move out of its temporary structure in a couple of months, after 21 years of occupancy. According to DHS director Jearline Williams, the center is getting a new building—a former CVS drugstore on South Capitol Street—as part of an ongoing round of consolidations and building improvements at the agency.
“We’re very concerned about our facilities, about making sure sure we can provide the best for customer service and for our employees—and the two are very related,” says Williams, who took over the department last August. “After the assessment when I came here, we decided [the Congress Heights center] wasn’t serving our customers’ needs.”
For employees as well as clients, the move comes about 20 years too late. Bythewood and a number of his staffers say working in the shack—no matter how generically bureaucratic it looks on the inside—is an added slap to folks whose agency has taken its share of hits over the past few years.
“The truth is,” says one employee, “we have a very hard job….It’s a very technical job—we’re under court orders and so on. And it doesn’t make it any easier that we’re doing it here.”
But whatever difference it makes to workers, Reynolds says the biggest difference a new building will make is for the welfare recipients who see the shack’s every crack as a reminder of just what the bureaucracy thinks of them. Not coincidentally, it will affect DHS’s ability to reach out to its clients, as well. As it is, says Reynolds, “They’re like, ‘you want us to get a job? Look where you’re working!’”