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Around 7:45 p.m. last Thursday, Mayor Muriel Bowser walked into a room packed wall-to-wall with Ward 1 residents who had come to hear her plan to replace D.C. General. As part of that strategy, which has put Bowser under the most public pressure she’s experienced this year, the District would build a 29-unit family shelter at 10th and V streets NW. The site is currently a vacant lot in an otherwise bustling neighborhood, where people with disposable income line up outside bars and wait for small plates at restaurants along 14th and U streets NW.
How the mayor’s administration chose that piece of land, located at 2105-2107 10th St. NW next to a historic church and within a stone’s throw of pricey rowhomes, has left some local residents feeling left out. Officials say the District conducted a careful site-selection process for seven short-term family shelters based upon a few criteria, including availability, access, and cost. Neighbors of the sites have cried foul, citing a dearth of transparency.
When U Street–area resident Alex first heard about the proposed 10th and V shelter, he said he felt “robbed of his voice.”
“It’s like David and Goliath here,” Alex, a homeowner who declined to share his full name because of reputational concerns and who noted that he tends to support expanding services for the homeless, said last Thursday. “If it had nothing to do with homelessness, there would be criticism about the size of the project and the like.”
“[Site selection] was a long process,” says Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services. “There was a solicitation that [the Department of General Services] put out a year ago, even before we came into office. We started looking both at the inventory of District-owned properties as well as what had come in through the solicitation. It was having eight sites that fit the criteria: We needed 30,000 square feet of buildable space; we needed to have availability in the market near public transportation…; and then being able to secure them all and hold them until we had all of them lined up was certainly important and challenging.”
“If it was easier, we would have done it faster,” she says.
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says he was “positively surprised with the favorable response from [his] colleagues” to the plan, adding that “site selection is not something that can be done by community meeting.” Still, the D.C. Council is expected to hold a hearing on a legislative package from the mayor’s office that puts in motion the D.C. General plan next month. Additional community meetings on the plan are also in the works.
Alex added that he’s especially skeptical of D.C.’s ability to manage the new facilities given the state of D.C. General, where more than 250 families live. Representatives of Bowser’s executive branch have extolled the proposed shelters’ built-in security and on-site wrap-around services related to mental health, long-term housing, and job programs. They’ve also pointed out that D.C. General now costs the city approximately $17 million a year to run. The new shelters, by contrast, are expected to cost upwards of $20 million annually to operate.
Across town on Thursday, in the basement of Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, dozens of Ward 8 residents likewise expressed their concerns about a proposed site at 6th and Chesapeake streets SE—for very different reasons.
Residents mentioned crime and a lack of amenities in the area. Why, one man asked, didn’t the city pick the east campus of St. Elizabeths, where a practice facility for the Wizards is planned.
Frances Rollins is the executive director of the Southeast Children’s Fund, which runs an infant and toddler care center on 6th Street SE, near the proposed site. Some years ago, Rollins says she inquired about who owned the land to no avail. (The District owns it.)
Rollins, whose nonprofit assists underserved families and runs a professional development institute, says her “major concern” is a lack of services.
“I just don’t see them putting a temporary facility at [that] location… and the residents of that facility having the services that the District says they’re going to have.” She’s also concerned about what will happen to current residents of the street “who are living in dire circumstances.”
Ward 5 residents have expressed as much concern with their site. Langdon resident Rhys Gerholdt sees the proposed shelter at 2266 25th Place NE as unsuitable for families and young children. The Ward 5 site is near a post-industrial cluster of clubs, a Metrobus depot, and a trash transfer station. The nearest Metrorail station is more than a mile away.
“If a boarding facility for dogs were there, I wouldn’t put my dog in that spot,” says Gerholdt, who lives four blocks from the site. He adds that he supports the overall goal of closing D.C. General.
At Ward 5’s community meeting, Gerholdt says he asked Bowser if she’d consider other sites for the shelter, and she said “no.” “Then what’s the point of community engagement?” he says. The Langdon Park and Woodridge South community associations will host another meeting on the plan Monday.
“When you look at what already exists in this neighborhood, it begs the question of why the administration thought this would be an appropriate place, particularly because they need a zoning adjustment [for it],” McDuffie says. “If you go to that block, I don’t think anybody would want to move a family there.”
McDuffie declined to say whether he would vote in favor of the mayor’s legislative package, as he had yet to see it.
Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, on the other hand, says she’ll vote for the proposed site, given that it’s part of a city-wide strategy and was apparently “the hardest to find.”
The councilmember says her office will continue to engage residents about the project; she’s not worried about surrounding property values decreasing because those in Ward 1 have only risen in the past decade.
“I think it’s fair to say we’ve found a location, and we’re going to stick with it,” Nadeau says. “But the conversation is still happening.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery