Residents of the Hill East neighborhood weren’t happy when the city, facing a spike in homelessness, announced it would add 100 beds to the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. To assuage their concerns, city officials took pains to stress that the increased capacity would just be temporary. The extra beds, insisted the director of the Department of Human Services, were “for this hypothermia season, period. End of sentence.”
That was seven years ago. When winter began in 2007, D.C. General had 75 family shelter units. Since then, the ostensibly temporary shelter has only grown. It now has 288 family units, which weren’t nearly enough to house all of the District’s homeless families during a surge last winter that saw hundreds put up in makeshift shelter spaces in motels and recreation centers.
Given that the city has never invested in making D.C. General a viable long-term shelter, it should come as no surprise that conditions there have been subpar. There have been reports of vermin infestations, sexual predation by employees, and abuse among residents. Public outrage over the shelter’s management peaked after an 8-year-old shelter resident, Relisha Rudd, disappeared in March, apparently kidnapped by a D.C. General janitor.
Now, finally, the city is preparing to make that investment—by closing D.C. General for good. Mayor Vince Gray released a plan last week to replace D.C. General with a network of smaller shelters scattered throughout the city, possibly as soon as fall of 2015.
“Closing the D.C. General Family Shelter,” the plan states, “which was not designed to be a family shelter and has provided a stop-gap solution at best, is in the best interests of families and the District.”
But the plan, short on details in an effort to take a flexible approach, raises plenty of questions about its feasibility and the core matter of whether the city’s homeless families will truly benefit from it.
The shelter plan is doubly bifurcated. First, the city is simultaneously seeking private property owners to lease out shelter space to the city and combing through its own inventory for properties that could be used as shelter. And second, the plan lays out two options for the shelter breakdown: either six small shelters of 40 to 50 units, or a mix of small shelters with one or more larger ones of 60 to 100 units.
The latter option is just a “fallback,” says Sakina Thompson, a senior official with the Department of Human Services. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services B.B. Otero is more categorical in her disapproval of that option. “Building something for 100 families would be like replacing D.C. General,” she says. “We shouldn’t do that.”
And so the hunt is on for smaller facilities, with a strong preference among administration officials for private property to lease. The city released a solicitation for property owners interested in renting out space to the government on Sept. 26. City officials anticipate that leased spaces would be ready sooner—perhaps in early 2016 or earlier if they require minimal renovation, as opposed to late that year for city-owned properties—in part because the city wouldn’t have to go through the slow process of working the spaces into the capital budget and keeping the city’s finances under the ever-thorny debt cap.
“The strategy of leasing buildings around the city is a more favorable one,” Otero says.
But leasing properties is no slam dunk. For the city to move as quickly as it wants, it’ll need to find private buildings that are mostly or fully completed, but with enough vacancy that part or all of them can become shelter units. That’s unlikely to happen in neighborhoods like Logan Circle or Georgetown or Cleveland Park, where rents are high and vacancy is low. Instead, the available candidates will probably be buildings in less desirable parts of town, far from public transit and amenities, where landlords are having trouble renting them out—in other words, in the low-income neighborhoods that already have an overconcentration of subsidized housing.
Otero is optimistic that property owners will be interested in the arrangement. “I think it’s a great deal for a developer,” she says. “In one swoop you rent out the entire building and get guaranteed income.”
But Otero also says the city wouldn’t spend extra to lease properties in expensive neighborhoods, even if that’s what it takes to prevent the shelters from being clustered in poor areas. And so it’s easy to imagine the city turning to boarded-up properties east of the Anacostia River, where landlords are eager to rent them out, and passing over the wealthier neighborhoods to the west.
For homeless families, there are certainly benefits to moving from D.C. General to smaller, better-maintained facilities. But there could also be substantial drawbacks. D.C. General, for all its problems, has a relatively central location adjacent to the Stadium-Armory Metro station. Relocating to a property on the city’s margins could mean much longer commutes to work and school for shelter residents, and isolation from friends and family.
Then there’s the question of capacity. One line in the shelter report jumped out at homeless advocates: “This Plan also recommends that at least the main building of the D.C. General Family Shelter should be closed in its entirety all at once, rather than in a piecemeal fashion, to avoid an unplanned expansion of the overall shelter capacity.” In other words, the city wants to do everything possible to ensure that the number of family shelter units doesn’t increase.
“Last year, the city ran out of space during hypothermia season and had to place families in rec centers,” says Marta Beresin, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “We actually need increased capacity.”
“In an ideal world,” concurs the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute’s Kate Coventry, “it would add capacity and do so in a flexible way, such as through leasing. That way, if we get our exit numbers up [of people leaving shelter for permanent housing], we can get by with fewer units.”
But Otero and Thompson are adamant that adding shelter units is the wrong way to go, because it might send the message that shelter is an acceptable choice for families with other options. “There’s a clear philosophical stance here: Shelter should be the last resort after you’ve tried everything else,” says Otero.
Extra capacity “doesn’t solve the problem,” Thompson agrees. “In order to make a change, you have to act differently. During the summertime, when shelter is not available, families find other means. When shelter is there, you fill up the shelter.” Thompson describes the planned one-to-one replacement of the D.C. General shelter units as a “concession,” since she and her colleagues had wanted to reduce shelter capacity.
But capacity isn’t likely to drop soon. The city anticipates a 16 percent increase in the number of families needing shelter this winter over last year, despite efforts to reduce the incentive to seek shelter and to move families more quickly into permanent housing. Brian Hanlon, director of the Department of General Services, which is conducting the city’s search for shelter spaces, says leases are likely to run at least 10 to 20 years.
According to Hanlon, some private developers have begun to respond to the city’s request for properties to lease. “We have already begun to get some pings from the market, and so we’re having some preliminary conversations,” he says. “In at least one case, it’s an empty lot.” That wouldn’t result in shelter as quickly as a ready-to-lease space, but Hanlon says it gives the city options, either to enter into a ground lease for the land and construct shelter or to have the developer self-finance and build the space itself.
Finding city-owned properties to use for shelter is no simpler. Last week’s report states that “there are currently few District-owned sites of sufficient size to accommodate the program needs,” and Otero says that vacant school buildings, one of the few obvious options, are a “terrible place” for shelter because they don’t have the infrastructure for apartment-style living, like private bathrooms. If the city goes exclusively with publicly owned property for shelters, Otero says, they’re unlikely to be ready before 2016 or 2017. If it manages to find all the space it needs through private leases, Otero concedes that the target of housing families in these new shelters next winter is still a “very aggressive goal.”
Under any course of action, the city will rely on D.C. General as its primary shelter for homeless families this winter. But with all the uncertainty surrounding the shelter’s future, it could retain that role for longer than anyone—the city officials charged with overseeing it, the advocates pushing for improvement, the neighbors who have long been promised its eventual closure, and most importantly the residents who endure its difficult living conditions—actually wants.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery