Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray is threatening to cancel a $2.8 million local contract with CORE DC to operate a homeless shelter as leverage against the company’s completely separate, federal contract to operate a halfway house in his ward.

Rev. Graylan Hagler calls Gray’s maneuver “political blackmail” and believes it’s a strategy to destroy efforts to open the 300-bed halfway house that will house men returning from prison.

“You know everybody, including Vince Gray, says ‘I support returning citizens,'” says Hagler, a longtime progressive voice and senior pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ. “But nobody wants them. It’s a two-faced mantra.”

CORE has a local contract to operate the Horizon, the temporary family homeless shelter in Ward 7. The company is also contracting with the federal Bureau of Prisons to operate a new men’s halfway house planned for 3701 Benning Road NE, the site of the old DC Eagle.

Gray, who has been a vocal opponent of the halfway house opening in his ward, filed a “disapproval resolution” two weeks ago that halted the renewal of CORE’s contract to operate the family shelter on D Street SE. Five councilmembers signed on, including Chairman Phil Mendelson, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, and At-Large Councilmember Anita Bonds.

Gray has not returned LL’s phone call, but Mendelson came to his defense. The chairman claims Gray’s resolution gives the local government “leverage” in CORE’s contract with the federal BOP.

LL is skeptical that the maneuver will work, and the chairman could not explain specifically how jeopardizing a company’s local contract to operate a family homeless shelter, and therefore those families’ safety and wellbeing, will hold any sway over a federal contract, the terms of which are controlled by the BOP, not CORE.

“I don’t care. It’s too big,” Mendelson says of the 300-bed halfway house. “It needs to be modified, and whatever it takes to be modified I support.”

Mendelson says CORE has refused to answer local officials’ questions about its plans for the halfway house. He says he previously tried to apply some political pressure by asking the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs not to issue CORE’s excavation permit for the Benning Road site. The agency ignored the chairman’s letter.

“No question we need halfway houses for individuals to come back to the community from the prison system,” Mendelson says. “But a 300-bed facility, I mean that’s just huge. It reminds me of the experience of DC General. Too large.”

A spokesperson for CORE declined to comment.

Mendelson also could not describe any issues with CORE’s operation of the Ward 7 shelter. Neither could Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who has oversight of human services agencies and does not support Gray’s resolution, nor could Laura Zeillinger, director of the Department of Human Services, which awards the contracts to operate homeless shelters.

“I am unaware of any concerns with the contract,” says Nadeau, who spoke with Gray before he filed the resolution. “He has also not indicated any concerns about the contract.”

The Horizon family homeless shelter.

In fact, Zeilinger says CORE is “providing excellent services to families at the Horizon,” and has been an “absolutely fantastic partner.”

“Anytime they have any issue or challenges or families have specific needs, they proactively reach out to DHS so then we’re able to work with them and support them to support families in the very best way possible and before issues become big problems,” Zeilinger says. “They are always seeking input from families they serve and seeking to improve the quality of services.”

CORE’s contract technically expired today, but DHS had the ability to extend it for 60 days while the Council considers Gray’s resolution. If it’s approved, and DHS is forced to find a new operator, Zeilinger says there will be a gap in services at the Horizon that the agency cannot fill. DHS is currently operating five hotels as homeless shelters, running vaccine clinics in some shelters, and operating hypothermia sites. If CORE’s contract is not renewed, Zeilinger says, families would likely be relocated to other shelters. She emphasizes that no families will end up back on the streets, but says “they shouldn’t have to experience that instability.”

CORE also operates the Aya family shelter in Ward 6 and recently won a contract to operate the new family shelter, the Terrell, in Ward 1, which is expected to open this month. Zeilinger says CORE’s work in the Aya is consistent with their work at the Horizon.

Gray’s disapproval resolution is only the latest in a years’ long battle to replace Hope Village, the notorious re-entry facility in Southeast that housed men returning from prison since 1978. The facility finally closed in April 2020.

CORE originally won the $60 million BOP contract in November 2018. Following failed legal challenges from the owners of Hope Village, CORE planned to open the halfway house on New York Avenue NE in Ward 5 in a building owned by developer Douglas Jemal. McDuffie wrote letters to federal officials opposing a new halfway house in his ward, the Washington Post reported, though he later dropped those objections. A group of neighbors also sued the city over zoning regulations for the proposed Ward 5 location. In December 2018, Jemal pulled CORE’s lease of his building, delaying the opening of the new halfway house.

Then, when CORE purchased the old DC Eagle building, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7F attempted to block its opening through a thinly veiled attempt to have the building designated as a historical landmark. The application argued the building should be preserved based on its original use as a meat-rendering plant. ANC 7F Chair Tyrell Holcomb issued a statement opposing the halfway house in Ward 7. He writes that the area needs more “economic development” and should not be “a dumping ground to place the least attractive facilities.”

The Historic Preservation Review Board rejected the application, clearing the way for CORE to begin helping men return to D.C. after prison. Until a new local facility opens, men are forced to live in other cities such as Baltimore while they try to find jobs and housing and rebuild their lives in D.C.

Gray’s opposition aligns with the sentiment in Holcomb’s statement about the economic development planned for the area. In January 2020, Gray released a letter saying he was “unalterably opposed!” and cited Cedar Realty Trust’s plans for retail development in the area.

“Siting a 300-bed halfway house next to this critical development will sound a death knell for this effort which Ward 7 residents have been vigorously and enthusiastically pursuing,” Gray’s letter says. “This is undesirable and inconsistent with the needs and vision for this area of Ward 7.  Surely, the federal government cannot have the intent of killing the hopes and goals of those who have worked so hard to bring desperately needed development to fruition.” 

Cedar Reality’s COO, Robin McBride Zeigler, sat on Gray’s Economic Development Advisory Council, which he assembled in 2017, according to the Washington Business Journal.

Rev. George Gilbert, of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Ward 7, wants the Council to reconsider Gray’s resolution. CORE’s homeless shelter contract should be based on data and their performance, not “any political disdain or even political gatekeeper,” he says.

“I believe that the people—the children, the mothers, the fathers—should be our issue, and not politics,” says Gilbert, who, through his church, works with returning citizens and the folks living in the family shelter. “We should not even be having a conversation about them not getting the contract without data, without showing due diligence of research” into CORE’s performance.

He adds that the property on Benning Road NE has been an eyesore for years and welcomes CORE’s re-entry facility.

Pinto, McDuffie, and Cheh did not respond to LL’s calls or emails seeking explanations for their support of Gray’s resolution. Bonds writes in an email that she signed onto the disapproval resolution at Gray’s request “to give him time to meet with CORE about their plans.” Bonds says she is hopeful the delay will be “well received by CORE, as I support locating halfway services and our returning citizens in the city.”

Hagler has heard that from local pols before.

“So you begin to wonder whether all this talk about economic development and racial equity means,” Hagler says. “The inmates are going to return. Now do they return to a place that’s beneficial to the city or to something that allows them to return to the life that put them there in the first place?”