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At one point during Thursday’s at-times contentious meeting on a proposed family homeless shelter near the U and 14th Street corridors, a man accused Mayor Muriel Bowser of making its location and construction a “moral issue.”
“It is a moral issue!” replied some members of the audience at YMCA Anthony Bowen, who came out on a frigid evening to learn about and fervently discuss the proposed facility at 10th and V streets NW.
The meeting was one of eight that simultaneously took place across the District’s wards, all part of the Bowser administration’s plan to shutter the beleaguered D.C. General shelter, which houses about 260 families. Bowser began rolling out her plan this week, initially to members of the D.C. Council and then to Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. The Council must approve a legislative package for the smaller, ward-based facilities Bowser is expected to submit on Friday. Ward 1’s proposed family shelter, consisting of 29 units, would be built at 2105-2107 10th St. NW, close to popular bars and new developments along U Street NW.
But as Thursday’s community meeting showed, residents aren’t precisely on the same page about the plan. While many spoke favorably of the need to house D.C.’s homeless, emphasizing what some described as a moral obligation to do so, a vocal contingent appeared disaffected by the executive’s site-selection process. Critics expressed anger over not being included in the planning as well as concerns about the shelter itself.
“It’s my taxpayer dollars!” a woman who identified herself as Kimberly declared, asking officials about the per-unit cost of managing and developing the shelters throughout the city. Kimberly said she owned a property “across the street” from the Ward 1 site, and added that she had not heard of the plan previously.
Her sentiments were echoed by a man who identified himself as Mitch and who said he resides at 10th and V streets NW. Mitch noted that though his own uncle was once homeless and that he “supports the goal” of housing the District’s needy, he felt “uninvolved” in the development process—irrespective of its purpose.
“I recognize not everyone in the room has the same view,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in reply, having arrived minutes earlier from another community meeting. She said it would have been impossible to ask every D.C. resident whether they wanted a shelter at a specific site, pointing out that the projects could boost the values of local homes. “It was not an endeavor to keep something away from you.”
When a black Ward 1 resident later asked what the city was doing to combat the “covert racism” coded in terms of “fear of crime” related to the shelters, Bowser said the District’s housing system is for everybody. “We all live here together [and] we have an opportunity to change how we live better together,” she added.
Government representatives who were present urged residents to see the merits of replacing D.C. General, which is estimated to cost $22 million a year through the seven-ward model. (The decrepit former hospital currently costs roughly $17 million a year to run; it’s also been the source of safety concerns.) During her first year as mayor, Bowser started to implement a year-round shelter system that accepted families in advance of hypothermia season as a practical matter; the District’s shelters tended to see intense demand toward the end of each year, in part because residents have a “right to shelter” in hypothermic conditions.
Polly Donaldson, the director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, explained that operating D.C. General is in fact the city’s largest cost-driver among homeless services. Like the other replacement-shelter sites, the 10th and V lot was chosen based on location, public-transit options, cost, and, “most importantly,” availability, among other criteria. As Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said, “there isn’t a lot of land left” in the ward, which limited D.C.’s options.
“We’re bringing all the tools in the arsenal to this problem,” Nadeau said of reducing homelessness in D.C.
For some residents, such explanations weren’t enough: They demanded—at points shouting—for a release of the city’s site-selection process for the short-term shelters in the name of transparency. (“This matter is FOIA-able,” a resident who identified himself as a lawyer said to officials.) While it was immediately unclear whether and when this would happen, Bowser did say the District could release data on crime and public-safety incidents germane to similar family shelters.
Several residents voiced strong support for the Ward 1 shelter. Scott Simpson, a U Street-area resident and Howard University adjunct, noted that it would be part and parcel of the neighborhood’s “welcoming, inclusive community.” A woman who said she lives at 16th and Lamont streets NW said “there are things more valuable than property values” to the crowd. A father, pointing at his infant daughter and wife seated across the room as he spoke, said providing shelter for homeless families was “an incredible moral issue.”
“We can make Ward 1 the model for the rest,” James Turner, the chairman of ANC 1B, remarked.
The 10th and V shelter would include two- and three-bedroom units in order to accommodate families. It would also feature a playground, a computer lab, a common dining area, and wrap-around social services.
Photo by Darrow Montgomery