A child outside D.C. General
A child outside D.C. General

Nearly everyone agrees that the D.C. General shelter is in rough shape. Nearly everyone agrees that it should be shut down before long. And yet those seemingly aligned sentiments are proving increasingly irreconcilable.

Last week, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the D.C. Council’s human services committee, called for shutting down the shelter at the former hospital by year’s end. The shelter was never intended to be permanent, and the subpar conditions there were publicized this spring following the disappearance of an 8-year-old girl who was living there.

But Graham’s push came into conflict with a roadmap released the same day by 20 advocacy groups. That roadmap called for improvements to D.C. General, including better staffing and facility upgrades. Advocates worried that a campaign to shut the shelter down could both undermine the efforts to make improvements and lead to a shelter shortage, since alternate sites have yet to be identified.

Yesterday, the matter arose again at a D.C. Council hearing, in a different form. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced legislation to compel the administration to allow a new playground to be built on the D.C. General complex, and to identify potential sites for it within 30 days. The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which works with children at D.C. General, says it’s received pledges of funding from Pepco and other organizations to build the playground at no cost to the city.

“Unfortunately,” said Cheh, “the District has to this point has not allowed the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project and its funders to install a playground at D.C. General.”

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells added, “It’s embarrassing that the Council has to introduce a bill to allow a free playground to be built at D.C. General.”

So why has the administration held out? Two reasons. First, says Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vince Gray, the city isn’t persuaded that the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project will actually be able to foot the full cost of the playground installation and site work. “There’s still some question about how much money has been secured from the private sector and how much the District government would have to put up,” Ribeiro says. The funding breakdown “would depend on the scale of the playground and how much site work would have to be done. It is our understanding that the District would have to put up some costs.”

But Playtime Project executive director Jamila Larson is confident the organization and its funders can cover the costs of the project. “Support from the business community, churches in the area, the [Advisory Neighborhood Commission], and the community at large has been overwhelming and it has been evident from the beginning that funding will be the least of our concerns,” she says in an email. “We haven’t sought out more donations until we get the green light but there is a lot of support already and even more waiting in the wings.”

The second concern, of course, is the future of the shelter. Gray has called for D.C. General to be shut down, and three administration offices—-the Department of General Services, the Department of Human Services, and the office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services—-are looking at all available properties in the District’s inventory to see if they might be suitable as replacement shelter spaces. If D.C. General won’t be around for long, does it make sense to build a new playground there?

Cheh’s answer is yes. Given that the allegedly temporary D.C. General shelter has already operated for seven years, there’s little reason to think its end is imminent.

“It won’t be solved straightaway,” Cheh said at yesterday’s hearing. “It may even be some years, and the children there deserve a place to play outside.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery