Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray listed all the revitalization happening near Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE in an interview with LL last week. The D.C. Department of General Services will set up its new shop at Senator Square. Cedar Reality Trust is “completely redoing” the Safeway shopping center nearby, Gray says. Across the street sit the Park 7 Apartments and the Department of Employment Services’ headquarters. And down the road a ways, the historic Strand Theater is planned for redevelopment into a restaurant and an adjacent affordable housing building. (That said, the Strand project has been in the works since Mayor Adrian Fenty was in office, and the D.C. Housing Authority just sent $6 million in tax credits originally promised to the project to a hospital in Los Angeles.)

Gray mentions these developments as part of his explanation for why he’s opposed to the federal halfway house that will open at 3701 Benning Road NE, right in the middle of all of it.

“They’re doing this halfway house,” Gray says. “A halfway house for 300 people in the same facility. Nobody over here likes it. The thing I’ve been trying to get done is to get them to recognize it’s just outsized. It doesn’t fit with what we’re trying to do over here.”

Gray’s opposition to the 300-bed re-entry facility for men returning from prison is not new. And as of last month, after unsuccessful attempts to get the answers he wants from CORE DC, the company contracting with the Bureau of Prisons to operate the re-entry facility, Gray is threatening the company’s local contract to operate the Horizon, the temporary family homeless shelter in Ward 7.

Gray was unavailable before LL’s story published last week, so he could not explain his thinking. In a subsequent interview, Gray expressed his support for people returning from prison but reiterated his opposition to the proposed facility in his ward that is supposed to help them re-enter society. He also confirmed that his “disapproval resolution” to end CORE DC’s homeless shelter contract has nothing to do with their operation of the shelter.

“The disapproval is trying to say ‘we’ve been trying to get your attention for months and what you’re trying to do on Minnesota and Benning is not of a scale that resonates with me in terms of re-entry programs,'” Gray says.

Gray believes the planned facility is too large to effectively serve men returning to D.C. from prison, but he did not have a specific number for a more appropriately sized facility. He says the BOP never responded to his efforts to reach them. LL’s email to the agency also went unanswered.

In September 2020, Gray began reaching out to CORE DC’s CEO and chairman, Jack Brown. The two exchanged letters leading up to February of this year. In a September 2020 letter, Gray requests answers to several questions including details about the construction of CORE DC’s new facility, its opening date, an explanation for the number of beds, and evidence that this halfway house won’t turn out similar to Brown’s facility in Brooklyn. According to a 2012 New York Times article Gray references in his letter, Brown’s company that runs the a halfway house in Brooklyn allowed twice the number of escapes as the previous year, provided “threadbare” services, and “repeatedly overstated their accomplishments.” An Office of the Inspector General audit of Brown’s company’s operation of the Brooklyn halfway house in 2015 identified issues with security, drug testing, and individualized re-entry plans.

In its response to Gray, CORE DC provided a list of community members and groups they’ve engaged with and talked about their approach to re-entry generally, but left many of Gray’s questions unanswered.

“With respect to the structure of the program, including how many beds it will include, we fully trust the BOP’s expertise in conceiving a reentry program that fits the city’s needs,” Brown writes in a letter to Gray. “Based on our experience, a single facility helps ensure consistency of services and compliance with the BOP’s Statement of Work.”

Gray sent two more letters reiterating his questions. CORE DC responded in February with a more specifics. They’ll provide housing, job training, transportation, and round-the-clock security, the letter says. Residents are required to take a breathalyzer test every time they return to the facility, submit to random drug screens, and comply with a curfew.

Earl Williams, a former president of the Federation of Citizens Associations, is one of the community members who met with CORE DC last year. He says he appreciates CORE DC’s willingness to meet, but the company was unwilling to bend to the issues he raised. Williams echoes Gray’s concerns about the size and location of the facility and supports his efforts to leverage CORE DC’s homeless shelter contract to get the company’s attention.

“The vast majority of the community is really against the size of the facility being located where it is,” Williams says. “Nothing is unanimous, but everyone I’ve spoken to or heard from is against a facility of that size being located in that particular area.”

Keith Hasan-Towery, chair of the Marshall Heights Civic Association, also met with CORE DC. He shares Gray’s concerns about size and location, but he says given the alternative, he ultimately supports the re-entry center as planned. Without this halfway house in D.C., men returning from prison will continue to live in Baltimore or even further afield as they try to rebuild their lives in the District.

“I do hope they can appease the concerns of Ward 7 resident and break up the 300-bed facility,” Hasan-Towery says. “But I think they’re tied by the federal contract with the BOP.”

He adds that he’s been impressed with CORE DC’s work operating the Ward 7 family homeless shelter and trusts Gray’s move to use their contract to get CORE DC to the table. “I trust that he’s going to do the right thing, because that’s who Councilmember Gray is,” Hasan-Towery says.

But at least 23 faith and community leaders aren’t so trusting. In a letter sent to Gray earlier this week, the 23 signatories criticize the move as “legislative blackmail,” and ask him to consider withdrawing the disapproval resolution.

“We want to be clear: the effort you are organizing has homeless families with newborns and young children concerned about [the] fate of the program they depend on day in and day out,” the letter says. “They are being left to wonder whether their lives will be uprooted. Additionally, this political maneuver jeopardizes The Horizon’s staff, who have worked on the front lines amid the ongoing public health crisis to ensure continuity of care.”

Gray was not available this week after LL received the letter dated March 9. His chief of staff, Sheila Bunn, says neither she nor Gray received the letter before LL sent it to them. In response, she says they are “appreciative of the faith community’s concern for people experiencing housing instability. Our only concern has been the operator of the facility, not those who live in the facility. The councilmember wants our residents who are experiencing housing instability and our returning residents to be in safe and productive environments.”

Bunn says the office is “working on various paths forward that will allow our residents to come back to a more humane facility for them to reintegrate into the community.”

At least on the size of the facility, some criminal justice advocates agree.

“Generally speaking, in all kinds of human services, we’d prefer people be served in smaller settings,” says Tammy Seltzer, director of the D.C. Jail and Prison Advocacy Project, which works with returning citizens with psychiatric disabilities. “However, at this point, you’d be asking the [Bureau of Prisons] to modify a contract that’s already been awarded. I don’t know if there’s a mechanism for that to happen, and it would certainly upend years of planning.”

She adds her disappointment with Gray’s opposition to the facility and his attempts to leverage a family homeless shelter over it.

“It’s inexplicable to me as somebody who knew Councilmember Gray when he ran the Department of Human Services, that someone with his background of helping D.C. residents would interfere with a homeless shelter for families to try and get the halfway house moved out of his ward,” she says. “I just don’t understand what has changed about him that that’s the position he’s taking now.”

The location for the halfway houses has been a political football for local pols since 2018, when the Bureau of Prisons announced its contract with CORE DC, a subsidiary of a New York-based company.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie opposed the facility opening in at least two locations in his ward, on Edgewood Street NE and New York Avenue NE, the Washington Post reported. And Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen opposed a location at Potomac Avenue SE, according to the Post. The proposed New York Avenue NE location ultimately fell through after developer Doug Jemal backed out of the lease agreement.

The location on Benning Road NE survived a push to designate the building where the facility will sit as a historic landmark and a behind-the-scenes effort from Chairman Phil Mendelson to pull the excavation permit.

Five councilmembers signed onto Gray’s disapproval of CORE DC’s local homeless shelter contract. If they don’t approve the resolution by March 29, the contract will be deemed approved. Asked if he will move forward with the disapproval of their homeless shelter contract should CORE DC call his bluff, Gray says “well, what choice do we have?”

“At that stage, the people of Ward 7 will be stuck with this, what they’re planning to build for 300 people,” he says. “Putting something with 300 people housed in this one place is just beyond reason.”