Mayor Muriel Bowser’s (D) plan to replace the D.C. General Family Shelter with eight smaller sites in each ward of Washington, D.C., has come under fire throughout March due to concerns over transparency, cost and proposed shelter locations.
Bowser announced Feb. 9 that the city would fund new shelters to enable homeless citizens to move out of the D.C. General shelter, where around 280 families currently reside. The council is expected to vote on legislation approving closing the shelter on April 19.
D.C. General came under public scrutiny after the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who police say was kidnapped from the shelter by a janitor in March 2014. The Metropolitan Police Department recently renewed the search for Rudd based on information investigators received, focusing on the U.S. National Arboretum in a two-day effort beginning April 6 that met no success.
In addition to safety concerns, the shelter has been criticized for staff misconduct, unsanitary living conditions and a lack of high-quality facilities.
Seven of the proposed shelters, which will each house up to 50 families, are set to open during 2018. The Patricia Handy Place for Women in Ward 2 has already been completed and opened Feb. 10. The sites are located on property that the city already owns as well as newly purchased or leased land.
In her State of the District address delivered March 22, Bowser defended the proposed plan as a necessity to reduce D.C. homelessness, which has increased by 12 percent in the last five years.
“I urge us not to be distracted by arguments that are based on fear or convenience, or apples and oranges comparisons that falsely represent the cost of lifting our families out of homelessness,” Bowser said. “Because make no mistake, if we fail to act, we will fail.”
Critics, however, have claimed Bowser is intransigent in her desire to pass the bill. To pass the plan quickly, the mayor’s administration said it is unwilling to make changes to any of the proposed locations.
Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless Executive Director Patricia Fugere, who is also a Georgetown University Law Center adjunct professor, said that Bowser’s refusal to consider alternatives to certain shelter sites may harm the people her plan seeks to help.
Fugere pointed specifically to the proposed Ward 5 site, which is located in the New Canaan Baptist Church on Bladensburg Road Northeast, immediately adjacent to a large Metrobus depot. In the proximate area there is also a nightclub, a strip club and a waste-treatment facility.
Fugere stressed that this environment is not conducive to housing those who are currently homeless, particularly pointing to implications for children suffering from asthma. D.C. has one of the nation’s highest asthma rates at 18.5 percent, compared to the national average of 9.5 percent, according to data from the Children’s National Medical Center.
“We were really concerned about air quality problems especially with the incidence of asthma of young children in poor families being so high. It’s not a good sign,” Fugere said. “The more we learned about the area, the more concerned we grew.”
However, Fugere said that the mayor is maintaining an uncompromising stance on the plan’s components.
“We’re hopeful that the admin will recognize that the Ward 5 site is problematic and that it will be open to suggestions for alternative sites,” Fugere said. “The position of Mayor Bowser and her folks has been that this is a package deal and if one site gets peeled off the whole deal collapses.”
Critics of the plan have also focused on the proposal’s cost, which is estimated to reach $660 million over the next 30 years. This largely originates from plans to lease five of the eight proposed shelter buildings rather than use government-owned property.
Fugere, who has lobbied for design improvements that would incorporate more privacy in the shelters, expressed satisfaction that the District is willing to spend a large sum but voiced concern that the money will not be used to create the best spaces possible.
“We do have concerns about the money,” Fugere said. “We think due to the amount of money being paid to the developers they should be able to incorporate some greater amenities in their design.”
Additional concerns revolving around transparency and a potential conflict of interest stem from an article published March 16 by The Washington Post indicating that mayoral donors own many of the planned private property shelter locations. The leases would increase the value of these properties by up to 10 times.
Despite the rancor over elements of the plan, Andrew O’Brien (COL ’18), a member of Hoyas/Homeless Outreach Programs and Education, highlighted multiple advantages to decentralizing housing facilities for homeless families.
“The plan decentralizes [homeless shelters] and allows the families to be in more cohesive units that aren’t as sporadic or spread out as D.C. General. And it’s just a bad place,” O’Brien said. “A lot of people actively avoid D.C. General.”
O’Brien noted criticism of the plan has generally come from a genuine desire to improve the situation of the homeless population. He emphasized this resolve as a welcome change from the “not-in-my-backyard mentality” some have about sheltering homeless people in their neighborhoods.
“When you read the concerns of Ward 5, it wasn’t that they were concerned that they would be in danger of those who are homeless but rather the people experiencing homelessness would be in danger because of where it was,” O’Brien said.
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