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The shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital has been filled to capacity for some time now. It was full when this past winter began, meaning that the city had to turn to motels and recreation centers to house all homeless families seeking shelter as hypothermia conditions set in. Families have been there for as long as three years.
But if Jim Graham has his way, it’ll be empty by year’s end.
The Ward 1 Councilmember and chair of the Council’s human services committee called this morning for the city to shut down the shelter by December of this year. Presiding over the budget oversight hearing for the Department of Human Services, Graham said he’d introduce an amendment to the fiscal year 2015 budget support act stipulating that the shelter be closed by the end of 2014.
“D.C. General must be shut down,” Graham said. “We must marshal the will and marshal the resources to shut this building down.”
D.C. General was home to eight-year-0ld Relisha Rudd before she vanished last month. She’s believed to have been kidnapped by a D.C. General janitor, who was later found dead in an apparent suicide. Her disappearance has heightened calls for D.C. General—-which opened as a shelter in 2007 and was never intended to be permanent—-to be closed.
But shutting down D.C. General, the city’s only large, dedicated family shelter, would require the city to find other places to house its homeless families—-particularly next winter, given that D.C. law requires the city to provide shelter for all families in need during times of extreme weather. The number of homeless families in the District swelled this winter, doubling from last winter before the city began placing families in rec centers, which a judge ultimately deemed illegal.
Graham says he wants to place more families into hotels. That’s not DHS’ preferred route: The agency alleged that the use of hotels contributed to the increasing number of families seeking shelter, and said that it had used all available hotel rooms by winter’s end. Like D.C. General, hotel rooms aren’t cheap; both solutions cost the city around $150 a night.
The administration of Mayor Vince Gray has embarked on an initiative to move 500 families out of shelter within 100 days—-a process DHS Director David Berns hopes will clear all families out of hotels and start to put a dent into the D.C. General population. Graham said he has confidence in the city’s ability to do so. But even then, nobody’s predicting excess capacity at D.C. General when the shelter population hits its peak next winter.
Graham’s push to close D.C. General appears to conflict with a roadmap released today by 20 advocacy organizations for addressing the city’s homeless crisis. That document calls for improvements at D.C. General and for greater availability of shelter year-round for families in need. Specifically, it calls for training D.C. General staff to better deal with situations like Relisha Rudd’s, hiring more social workers, allowing the construction of an outdoor playground, and using vacant lobby space for programming.
“Nobody wants D.C. General to be the place that we have families, but the reality is that it is going to be for several years, because we don’t have alternatives,” says Jenny Reed of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, one of the organizations behind the roadmap. “We’re concerned that if D.C. General closes down and there isn’t other shelter available in the city, we’re going to run into some of the same problems we ran into this year.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery