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Last night, neither the Zoning Commission, nor the Office of Planning, nor Donatelli Development knew what was up with the replacement of the La Casa community shelter. This morning, Councilmember Jim Graham said that “we are straightening all of this out right now.” And Michael Ferrell, the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless—which operates La Casa—had no idea what was coming next.
What’s happening, basically, is that the Department of Human Services is still pulling together the $10 million it needs to fund construction of the new facility. Four million has already been set aside in DHS’ budget, and the District has included $6 million in its annual request from the federal government (last year, for example, DHS got $17.2 million for permanent supportive housing). So if all goes well, the new facility should be fully funded by early next year. It won’t be the same kind of facility that’s there now, though. When the project was first designed, back in the Williams administration, night shelters were still in vogue among homeless services providers. The Fenty administration, however, is all about the “housing first” strategy: Moving people into their own rooms with keys and leases and the whole shebang. Therefore, Donatelli’s sketch for the building is pretty much useless; funding that the District already has will go towards having an architect draw up detailed plans. As it gets built, the District will solicit new bids for an operator.
All of this, of course, will take at least two years. In the mean time, regular users of La Casa are being moved to apartments at sites scattered around the city; DHS still needs to find housing for about 50 men before the shelter’s scheduled closing date on October 15. After the permanent units are found, shelter beds will not be replaced; the city’s winter homelessness plan allows for the use of D.C. General Hospital’s cafeteria for emergency situations.
Why are those beds going offline now, while the city pulls together the money to build something else? According to Laura Zeilinger, who oversees DHS’ homeless programs, the shelter can’t stay while Donatelli builds right next door.
“We’ve asked Donatelli to allow us to stay there for two consecutive years, through the winter season, because we understood that they were not ready to break ground yet,” she said. “He’s certainly been very flexible partner with the city, because he could have told us to move regardless, since we didn’t really have a legal right to be there….We need to move so his development can move forward.”