D.C. General, located at 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE
D.C. General, located at 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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This fall, the District will shutter the dilapidated D.C. General family homeless shelter and end a dreary chapter in the history of homelessness in the city, Mayor Muriel Bowser said on Sunday.

The announcement comes just five months before the June Democratic primary and as Bowser, who is currently unopposed by any major candidate, runs for re-election as mayor. It also comes on the heels of Amazon shortlisting the District for the company’s second headquarters last week. In October, the Bowser administration pitched the land on which D.C. General sits as one of four sites where Amazon could install its campus, and of the four, it’s the only entirely self-contained site.

At the same time, it has been almost four years since 8-year-old Relisha Rudd vanished from D.C. General. Rudd was last seen on video at a hotel on New York Avenue NE with Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the shelter who allegedly abducted her. Tatum was found dead in an apparent suicide several days later, and Rudd is still missing.

Rudd’s disappearance sparked a push to close the isolated former hospital for good. But conditions at the facility, which hosts about 250 homeless families a night, have long been decrepit. Residents have lived with rodents and bedbugs—among other ills—and have had to seek medical attention for rashes, bites, and parasites.

In addition, D.C. General has become overcrowded since opening as an emergency shelter in 2001, when the now-defunct D.C. Village shelter became overcrowded. Today hundreds of homeless families live in hotels with which the District contracts to provide shelter while officials work to place families in longer-term housing. Last fiscal year, the hotels cost taxpayers $28 million.

From 2016 to 2017, overall homelessness in the District declined 10.5 percent and family homelessness declined 21.8 percent. But the total number of homeless people counted last January—7,473—represents a 40.5 percent increase since 2007.

Bowser initially promised to shut down D.C. General in 2018 when assuming mayoral office. In early 2016, she unveiled an ambitious plan to replace the former hospital with smaller shelters across the city. She faced scrutiny, however, over which developers were poised to profit from the construction of the new shelters. Then, the D.C. Council amended the plan by requiring all the sites to be public land.

Exactly when D.C. General will close has been a point of contention between Bowser and councilmembers. After they changed her plan, Bowser reportedly called Council Chairman Phil Mendelson “a fucking liar” in a hallway at the Wilson Building, saying “you know it can’t close in 2018.” The next month, a Council committee questioned the administration’s “credibility” in purporting that the changes would delay the shuttering of D.C. General until as late as 2020.

For the time being, Bowser appears to have figured out a way to make it happen this year. But half of the replacement shelters aren’t scheduled to open until at least 2019, so homeless families who would otherwise live at D.C. General will need alternative accommodations in the interim.

“We believe that this citywide challenge demands a citywide solution,” Bowser said in a statement on Sunday. “We know we can and must do better than D.C. General, and with the new, smaller short-term family housing we will be able to get more of our most vulnerable families connected to services they need to get back on their feet and into permanent housing.”

According to the mayor’s office, the D.C. Department of Human Services will “gradually and safely step-down the use of the hospital as a shelter” throughout 2018. Next month, the D.C. Department of General Services will “begin abatement” to prepare the facility for partial demolition, which will start in April. One building at D.C. General is already empty, and the entire property will be “vacant and closed as a family shelter this fall,” the administration says.

Although DHS has recently said it intends to rely on fewer hotels for shelter, it may have to use more rooms this year for families exiting from D.C. General. Construction on the replacement shelters in Wards 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 is still underway, and a site for the Ward 1 shelter was announced only last month. Bowser’s office says families will be moved from D.C. General to “permanent housing” and “other locations operated by the District” to make way for the demolition.

That may require an increase in funding for hotel placements, and for rental vouchers that enable families to afford housing on the private market once they leave shelter. This spring, Bowser will submit her budget for fiscal year 2019, which begins on Oct. 1, to the Council.

Nonetheless, because of the dearth of affordable housing in D.C., many families struggle to find decent apartments that accept vouchers. Homeless families, moreover, can face discrimination during the relocation process.

Recent efforts could help alleviate these difficulties. Last fall, the District set up an insurance fund to entice more landlords to house families leaving shelters, and this winter, it says it placed more than 400 families in longer-term housing through a special holiday campaign.

Whenever D.C. General closes and wherever the families who live there end up, the question of how the former hospital site will be redeveloped remains. The facility is located on Reservation 13, a 67-acre piece of land along the Anacostia River that includes a hodgepodge of municipal and social services as well as the D.C. Jail. It’s just south of the RFK Memorial Stadium site, which is set for massive redevelopment once the stadium is torn down.

A slice of Reservation 13 is currently being transformed into a mixed-use project by Donatelli Development and Blue Skye Construction. The Bowser administration also featured the majority of Reservation 13 in its Amazon bid last year.

Amazon revealed its top 20 picks last Thursday. The District is offering the company record-setting incentives potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars to come here. Amazon has said it will select a winner this year, with the first phase of its new headquarters to begin operating in 2019.