Mayor Muriel Bowser released her new homelessness initiative Feb. 9, which proposes to close the homeless shelter at D.C. General Hospital and open up eight smaller neighborhood shelters in each ward of the District.
The council voted to approve Bowser’s plan last fall amid intense scrutiny of the D.C. General shelter. Criticism arose after the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd, who police say was kidnapped from the shelter by a male janitor. Complaints of staff misconduct and poor living conditions leading to disease and a lack of security services have also beset the shelter.
Since then, Bowser’s office has worked to identify smaller spaces around the city that will collectively house the same number of homeless residents, with the aim of avoiding the safety problems that a large-sized shelter such as D.C. General faces.
Bowser addressed these complaints and her plan to move forward and work with the D.C. Council in a press release Feb. 9.
“In a city as prosperous as ours, there is no reason we should keep families at D.C. General. The building is too big, too old and too far removed from the services that get families back on their feet,” Bowser said. “I have been working with the council on a plan that will create small, short-term family housing. These facilities will be modern, safe and dignified – and will bring us one big step closer to our goal of ending homelessness in the District of Columbia.”
Bowser’s initiative plans to create a new shelter in each ward of the District on property that the city already owns as well as newly purchased and leased property. The Patricia Handy Place for Women, a women’s shelter built to house 213 residents, was the first to be completed and opened Feb. 10 in Ward 2. The other seven shelters will each house 50 families and will open in 2018.
Bowser’s plan has drawn support from several public officials, including councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who lauded the initiative’s response to the poor conditions of existing shelters.
“I’m supportive of the Mayor’s plan to close D.C. General and to open smaller shelters across the city in our continued efforts to end homelessness in the District,” Evans wrote in an email to The Hoya. “I’ve called for D.C. General to be closed for several years on account of the terrible conditions of the building and ineffectiveness of providing the necessary services at such a large facility. I’m pleased that the Patricia Handy Center for Women in Ward 2 has already opened to start providing better, more personalized services to our neighbors in need.”
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro also praised Bowser’s plan in a press release Jan. 9.
“I commend Mayor Bowser on her commitment to solutions that we know work to end homelessness and to committing to closing the family shelter at D.C. General,” Castro said. “All families deserve a safe and dignified place to lay their children to bed at night, and the District’s plan to develop smaller, community-based programs across the city is a big step toward creating a system that works.”
However, the initiative has also drawn community criticism, especially regarding the decision to build the shelters with communal bathrooms rather than private bathrooms. Critics have said this lends itself to security issues, such as situations in which unaccompanied children would be sharing facilities with adult strangers.
Georgetown University Law Center adjunct professor and Executive Director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Patricia Mullahy Fugere cited multiple concerns with Bowser’s plan, including the industrial location of the shelter in Ward 5 and its impact on homeless residents struggling with asthma.
Fugere said her largest issue with the proposal is the lack of concern for more permanent spaces for the homeless community.
“An effort to close D.C. General is only ultimately going to be successful if there is more affordable housing that’s available for our low-income neighbors. Unless all of us as a community, both private and public sectors, are willing to treat the lack of affordable housing, we’re going to just continue to be treading water,” Fugere said. “We can’t lose sight of the ultimate end, which is getting people into someplace permanent that they can afford.”
However, Andrew O’Brien (COL ’18), member of student group Hoyas/Homeless Outreach Programs and Education, which seeks to address hunger and homelessness in D.C., said that a focus on permanent spaces for low-income residents may not necessarily be the solution to the issue.
“D.C. General is a permanent shelter, but it wasn’t a good shelter. I’ve met dozens of individuals experiencing homelessness who have told me that they often avoided D.C. General, preferring to sleep on a park bench rather than in an overcrowded and often unsanitary shelter like D.C. General was,” O’Brien said. “So just because it was a permanent epicenter of homelessness doesn’t mean that it was necessarily something that was positive for the homeless community.”
O’Brien also highlighted the risk of community backlash from areas where the new shelters will be built.
“Any time you see these people trying to build homeless shelters in new neighborhoods, especially heavily gentrified ones, there’s always a lot of what’s called NIMBY backlash, ‘Not in my backyard,’” O’Brien said. “But hopefully that won’t stop the $40 million budget for the project in creating a more humane and safe neighborhood-based shelter system.”
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