City Paper is not for tourists
D.C. General, the city’s long-shuttered hospital of last resort, is one facility that’s used to being overused. In its pre-gentrification heyday, its emergency room swelled with indigent residents in need of care.
Though it’s no longer providing ER services, things have scarcely changed at D.C. General, which now serves as a shelter for homeless D.C. families. Maximum capacity, say D.C. officials, is 135 families.
By early January, there were more than 100 families in residence. On Feb. 4, there were 163 —-double the number of families from the same date last year.
On March 4, the District reached a troubling milestone. There were now 200 families taking up residence at D.C. General. That day, there were a total of 851 residents, including 400 children. The influx should hardly surprise officialdom, considering that as of late October,there were more than 400 homeless families on a waiting list for services.
Welcoming upwards of 60 families beyond capacity has strained the temporary digs. Shelter residents sleep on cots in hallways and in activity rooms, guarding their privacy via walls of bedsheets. The lucky ones get private rooms, some of which don’t have functioning heaters.
“Atrocious,” says Khristine Buchanan, 23, of her living conditions at the old hospital. Last night, she lingered at the building’s entrance doing her best impression of an OSHA inspector. She says mold and peeling paint embroider the stairwell, roaches and mice share the sleeping quarters, and the one elevator often goes out of service.
Buchanan moved in on Feb. 6 with her husband and young child. They took up residence in a 4th floor activity room, sharing space with two other families. “It was crazy,” she says. Her husband and son got rashes from bugs she thinks were “silver fish.”
When Buchanan noticed two mice in traps under a heater, she complained enough that her family was moved into its own room a few days ago. They had lived in the activity room for more than a month.
Other residents describe similar conditions—a near chaotic place overcrowded with families and their belongings spilling from trash bags. One described some of the private rooms as replete with trash and clothes, and pot being smoked at the building’s entrance.
Rainda Brown, 34, complains about the mold in the stairwell, and says that the heat does not work in the private room she shares with her daughter. They’ve had to double up on blankets at night.
A medical volunteer with Georgetown University says respiratory problems are the most common ailment among residents he’s treated.
Tonya West, 40, moved into an activity room two days ago. She shares it with 18 other people. “It’s all females in the room I’m in,” she explains. “All of us got little babies.” West says there’s often no food prepared, especially for infants.
The food isn’t much more suitable for adults, residents say. One night dinner was cereal. A typical dinner is something District authorities call a “rib patty” which Buchanan says is hamburger meat coated in BBQ sauce. “I feel like you’re in jail,” she says. “It’s jail food.”
Councilmember Tommy Wells, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, says he toured D.C. General during the historic snowfalls of early February. “I saw mold and ceiling damage was in the stairwells,” he says. “I did not see it in any of the units where the families are living.” He also heard complaints about there not being suitable food for infants, plumbing problems, and concerns over cleanliness.
Wells says of the facility: “It seems what was going on there was controlled chaos. There’s nobody that would want to be there… There’s nothing good about being at D.C. General.”
Wells added: “It’s not where I’d want my family to go.”
Nor was the last place that the city used to accommodate homeless families. On Oct. 22, 2007, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced that he would be closing down DC Village, an abandoned nursing home that had been converted to a family shelter.
In a press release titled “Closure of DC Village Gives Way To Best Practices,” the mayor’s office railed against warehousing the destitute in crumbling, infamous buildings.
“DC Village residents have complained about the poor living conditions for years including overcrowding, poor food quality and inadequate heating and cooling resources. Persistent problems with mice, roaches and bedbugs have been difficult to control and have long plagued the families as well.
‘One of our first major steps in changing the delivery of homeless services is the transformation of our family shelter system,’ said Mayor Fenty. ‘In the past we have accommodated families in emergency shelters where the conditions are not only unacceptable, but do not enable them to move beyond homelessness.’
Congregate settings, such as the model at DC Village have been shown to maintain people in environments where it is extremely difficult for them to address the issues that underlie their homelessness.”
At the time, City Desk wrote the closing of DC Village was good news. No one could disagree that the place needed to be shuttered. But no one knew that Fenty was just going to move the city’s most vulnerable to another hellhole.
Wells says that he recently had a meeting with Clarence Carter, the director of the city’s Department of Human Services. Carter assured him that “at least 50 families” would be moved to apartments by this Friday.
Yesterday, there were 195 families at D.C. General. Before she went inside for dinner, Buchanan had some advice for any family thinking of moving in: “Make this your last and only last choice.”