Anyone who’s even remotely interested in the welfare of the District’s least fortunate residents should read the Washington Post‘s damning investigation into the deplorable conditions at D.C. General, the city’s maxed-out, maligned, and only shelter for homeless families. The facilities are crumbling. Children are subject to urination in their mouths by day and roaches by night. Employees prey on residents’ poverty to goad them into sex.
Cue the calls to close D.C. General!
Not so fast.
No one has argued that D.C. General is a good place to live. Thanks to the Post story, many people have now learned just how bad things are there. But let’s look at what needs to happen for D.C. General to shut down. The city experienced a huge spike in the number of homeless families this past winter; the number more than doubled from the previous year until the end of January, when the city started placing homeless families on the basketball courts of recreation centers, a practice later deemed illegal. D.C. General was at capacity before winter began. It will likely be at or near capacity this winter, too.
Where should all these homeless families go? The most appealing option, of course, is to replace D.C. General with a better, more modern shelter. (Remember that D.C. General, a former hospital, was never intended to last this long as a shelter, or to house families year-round.) But good luck persuading any member of the D.C. Council to sign off on a new massive homeless shelter in his or her ward—-or persuading a mayor or mayoral candidate to back a plan that’ll likely turn off a whole neighborhood of voters.
OK, so how about opening a bunch of smaller shelters? The same problems apply: Even small shelters aren’t exactly politically popular. If we can’t muster the political will to open even one smaller shelter when our population of homeless families is exploding, instead pushing those families into deplorable conditions at rec centers, then how are we supposed to open a slew of them to replace D.C. General?
We could solve homelessness. That’s good policy and politics. But that’s not the direction we’re moving in. As long as housing keeps getting more expensive and rents keep outpacing wages, we’re going to have homeless families. Eliminating the city’s only shelter for homeless families in hopes of a future without them is simply wishful thinking.
As long as we keep housing homeless families at D.C. General, problems will persist. It’s not a building that’s well suited to its current purpose, which wasn’t the one for which it was built. It’s old, but it won’t get a major renovation since it’s ostensibly temporary and everyone from neighbors to councilmembers wants to see it eventually shut down. Residents of the Hill East neighborhood near D.C. General have been promised that the shelter would soon be shut down and the broader site replaced by a mixed-use, community-enhancing development. The argue, not without merit, that it’d be unfair to them to renege on that promise, renovate D.C. General, and make it permanent. It would be an expensive and difficult process, one that would require the temporary relocation of the shelter’s hundreds of residents—-who knows where to—-and would still leave the city with a single large family shelter, in better condition but not much easier to operate.
The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit that has a $13 million contract with the city to run D.C. General, deserves scrutiny from the city—-clearly it’s not doing its job as well as it should be, and so that contract should be re-examined. But the Community Partnership took over operations of the shelter in 2010 when the previous operator was canned for mismanagement and inappropriate contact with residents. Sound familiar? The residents of D.C. General deserve better management than they’ve received, but the track record of the past two operators does hint at the inevitable difficulties that come with having just one big family shelter housing hundreds of families.
The long-term solution to the D.C. General problem will require some political concessions on the part of the administration and the Council. Ultimately, a series of smaller shelters throughout the city would be a huge improvement on the status quo. One could imagine a compromise that’d place shelters at the planned mega-developments scattered across town: one at Walter Reed (Ward 4), one at St. Elizabeths (Ward 8), one at Hill East (Ward 7, bordering Ward 6), and so forth.
But unless and until that happens, D.C. General is most likely sticking around, more or less as is.
The city should of course do all it can to maintain a safe environment at D.C. General and fire employees who are acting inappropriately. Conditions there are bad, and need to be improved. But let’s remember the alternative. Let’s think about Sarah Drawn, who dreams of a room in D.C. General, problems and all, given her makeshift living environment that’s compromising the health of her 1-year-old son. Or Melvern Reid, who used to sleep in a laundromat with her grandson when it was too warm out for the city to be obligated to provide them shelter. For these people, D.C. General would be a lifeline, decrepit as it is.
D.C. General is a terrible place to live, and the city needs to do more to ensure residents’ safety. But closing it down could be much worse.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery