There were 570 homeless children staying with their families at D.C. General last winter.

Facing pressure to close the family homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, the city released a plan today replace the troubled shelter with a network of smaller ones scattered throughout the city.

The plan could see D.C. General shuttered as early as fall 2015, with homeless residents placed at as many as six shelters consisting of 40 or more units. The city is searching for appropriate buildings through a two-pronged strategy, simultaneously soliciting offers from private property owners to lease space to the District and reviewing the inventory of city-owned sites that could be converted into shelters through construction or renovation.

“Closing the D.C. General Family Shelter, 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,” concludes the plan, released today by Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services BB Otero, Department of Human Services Interim Director Deborah Carroll, and Department of General Services Director Brian Hanlon at the behest of Mayor Vince Gray.

When the shelter at the defunct hospital opened in 2007, it was intended to serve in an emergency capacity and on a temporary basis. Instead, seven years later, it’s the city’s primary shelter for homeless families, and it houses them year-round as other affordable housing options have grown scarce. Conditions are poor, and homeless residents are subject to abuse. Public outrage over the shelter’s shortcomings peaked this March following the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who had lived in the shelter with her mother for 18 months.

But closing the three-building D.C. General complex won’t be easy. The number of homeless families seeking shelter soared last winter; with D.C. General full, the city resorted to housing them in motels and, when those filled up too, on the basketball courts of recreation centers, a practice later deemed illegal. This year, the city anticipates a 16 percent rise in the number of families requiring shelter. The expected 409 family shelter units won’t come close to accommodating the 840 families likely to need shelter. That’s left some homeless advocates concerned that political pressure could lead the city to close D.C. General without adequate capacity to shelter all of D.C.’s homeless families elsewhere.

Today’s report recommends a one-to-one replacement of all D.C. General units with new ones before the existing shelter is closed. “Ideally,” the report states, “these facilities should be ready for occupancy before the start of the FY 16 hypothermia season, i.e. before November 1, 2015.” The city is required by law to shelter all homeless residents in need when temperatures with windchill drop below freezing, and so shelter placements spike each winter.

The plan lays out two options for replacing D.C. General. One would create six small shelters, each with 40 to 50 units. The second would create a mix of small (40 to 50 units) and medium (60 to 100 units) shelters. These shelters would be much smaller than the 288-unit D.C. General—-whose unwieldy size has been blamed for some of its problems—-but larger than the community-based shelters in the city that house 121 homeless households in buildings of 20 to 45 units.

The city issued a solicitation for offers from private property owners on Sept. 26. It comes with a rolling deadline, allowing the city to evaluate responses continually. According to the plan, the city hopes to have any construction on private sites completed in early 2016.

Renovation of city-owned sites could take a bit longer, due to the permitting and approval process, according to the report. These sites likely wouldn’t be complete until late 2016. “In addition, there are currently few District-owned sites of sufficient size to accommodate the program needs,” the report states.

Leased sites are estimated to cost the city a total of about $24 million in annual operating costs for six buildings. For District-owned sites, there would be an up-front cost of $48 million to make the buildings usable, but annual operating costs would be lower, at a total of about $18 million.

The plan calls for closing D.C. General’s facilities all at once, “rather than in a piecemeal fashion, to avoid an unplanned expansion of the overall shelter capacity.” That line could be worrisome to homeless advocates and families who were hoping for exactly that, so as to avoid another crisis this winter that will force the city to use unconventional, and often problematic, spaces as shelter. City officials, for their part, are counting on a program designed to move families more quickly out of shelter to clear the backlog and ease the crunch this winter.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery