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Of any ward in the District, Ward 6 should be the one most vocally in favor of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s family shelter plan. After all, the sooner smaller shelters are up and running, the sooner D.C. General goes away.
But it’s not that simple. Not for residents, many of whom expressed support last week for helping the homeless but were wary of past unfulfilled promises by the city. Not for the ANC commissioners, many of whom want the closure but are unsure of the proposed location of a new facility. And not for Charles Allen, the councilmember who is getting rid of a “disaster” that abuts his Hill East residents but now is likely faced with a vote to open a homeless shelter in an area of Southwest that already complains of too many public housing projects.
“Understandably, what pops into their mind, because they’ve lived in that neighborhood, is the Randall School shelter,” Allen says. “There’s a trust barrier.”
The school, which hasn’t been a school for years, was turned into a men’s shelter for a brief time a decade ago and nearby residents are still unhappy. At Thursday’s community meeting, grievances were also aired about the poorly maintained recreation center nearby, public housing projects, and other starts and stops by multiple administrations.
“I think that Southwest is an incredibly great and welcoming community. More neighbors are interested in this being successful,” Allen says, but that comes with a caveat. “They’re saying, ‘Convince me that you’re going to put the investments into the elementary school nearby, convince me that you’re going to be investing in the rec center nearby, convince me that you’ll be improving the Unity Health Care site,’ which is falling apart, and I’ve been advocating that it should be completely rebuilt with a combination of housing.”
D.C. General’s closure could mean any number of more attractive alternatives. When residents at the Ward 8 meeting asked Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner what will replace the facility once it is torn down, he replied, “I wish I knew.” But a now more than decade-old master plan for Reservation 13 envisioned housing, retail, and parks there. For a city already looking at alternatives for the adjacent D.C. jail and RFK Stadium sites, the east side of Ward 6 is getting a much better end of the deal.
The rushed timetable for all of this has diminished trust in Southwest. Before meeting with residents last week, the mayor’s office gave Allen and other councilmembers a briefing over the weekend. Monday night, Allen took the news to the area’s ANC commissioners, giving them a few hours’ notice before Bowser and her team rolled out the plan on Tuesday with community meetings on Thursday.
“I’ve been here 38 years, and you didn’t have the courtesy to come by and knock on my door,” said one resident unhappy with the outreach, a sentiment shared by many in the room. Maybe there’s no good way to deliver controversial news. “Is the process perfect? No,” Allen says.
Having seen the problems with D.C. General, though, Allen believes in doing something different. The plan of smaller shelters with more focused resources could allow families who experience homelessness to stay closer to neighbors and schools, giving them an anchor during a rough period. “Part of what I’ve tried to talk to people about is that this is a radically different approach. It’s a very different model. It’s a very different type of care. And so, we will see a very different type of outcome,” he says.
If Thursday night’s meeting is any indication, the neighbors in Southwest don’t seem opposed to helping the homeless. The Bowser administration has much work to do, however, in convincing them D.C. is up to the task.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery