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Gray Plans To Replace D.C. General With Smaller Homeless Shelters Across City

D.C. General has been used to house homeless families for years, but now city officials are seeking smaller buildings located across D.C. to offer housing to families and children with nowhere else to go.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
D.C. General has been used to house homeless families for years, but now city officials are seeking smaller buildings located across D.C. to offer housing to families and children with nowhere else to go.

This post has been updated.

District officials have started looking for small buildings that will be used to house families and children currently living at the D.C. General emergency homeless shelter, a first step towards closing a troubled facility that has long been criticized for being an inappropriate and isolating option for the hundreds of vulnerable residents who live there.

As part of the plan, the city is seeking to lease buildings across D.C. that would be used to house as few as 15 and as many as 50 families in apartments, single-occupancy rooms and efficiencies. The buildings would be used as emergency shelters during the winter months.

The plan was drafted by D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services B.B. Otero in collaboration with the D.C. Department of General Services and Department of Human Services, and was submitted to Mayor Vincent Gray. It is being made public today.

"The collective sentiment is that D.C. General is not appropriate for families," says one D.C. official, who summarized the plan to WAMU 88.5 on the condition that they not be named.

"The best outcomes come when you have smaller units sprinkled around the city," they say, noting that large-scale shelters like D.C. General and its predecessor, D.C. Village, are "isolating" for residents.

Once a public hospital, D.C. General was converted for use as an emergency shelter for homeless families in 2001. (By law, D.C. has to offer shelter to homeless individuals and families when the temperature falls below freezing.) It has since housed hundreds of families at a time, and the average stay for many families extends past one year. The shelter again became a focus of scrutiny earlier this year, when 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who lived there with her family, was taken by Khalil Tatum, a janitor who worked there.

Since then, elected leaders from Mayor Vincent Gray to members of the D.C. Council have said the shelter should be closed once and for all, though they cautioned that doing so would require finding suitable alternatives for the hundreds of families and children still living there. Speaking at a Council hearing in July, Deborah Carroll, the interim director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, estimated that closing the shelter would take 18 months.

D.C. has taken the first step towards implementing the closure plan. On Sept. 26, the Department of General Services issued a Solicitation for Offers, a request to private property-owners for buildings or housing complexes that could be used for shelters.

The solicitation lays out specific guidelines: buildings have to be a minimum of 15,000 square feet, and be able to house between 30 and 50 families. Ten percent of a building's footprint would be set aside for services to support homeless families. Leases with owners would be signed for 10 years, with an option to extend for two five-year terms.

The benefits would be clear, say the officials: homeless families would live smaller buildings in residential neighborhoods, closer to schools and services. The new shelters would "create environments that are family-friendly... where children can thrive."

Advocates for the homeless, who have long argued that smaller shelters are better for families, are responding to descriptions of the new plan with guarded optimism.

"The idea of smaller shelters, whether they're privately owned and we're just leasing them or we buy buildings that are already built, that's a good idea," says Kate Coventry, who works on homeless issues for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. "I think the biggest concern people have is, will they replace it with a sufficient number of units?"

City officials say that they have moved 400 families out of motels and shelters and into other permanent housing units since April, and they used a similar model to the new plan: landlords were encouraged to offer up apartments and houses that could be used for families living in shelters like D.C. General.

But in September the Interagency Council on Homelessness estimated that D.C. General would fill up again during the first hypothermia alert of the winter. According to the council, 840 families are expected to seek shelter during the upcoming winter, up from the 723 that did last year.

In early October, there were 112 families at D.C. General, but an additional 65 were recently moved from motels to the shelter.

This worries Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has introduced a bill calling on the city to close the D.C. General shelter. Today he will host a roundtable on the measure at the shelter.

"My fear is being realized because right now we're moving families back into D.C. General from hotels, and this is filling it up. Once this hypothermia season starts, there will be terrific pressures to fill up those hospital rooms with families... and we're right back where we were," he says.

Still, he says the plan is a good place to start. "I think it's a move in the right direction, there's no question about that," he says.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, city officials working on the plan concede that the process of closing D.C. General will take time. "Is it immediate? No," says one. A timeline and the final cost could depend on how many private property-owners step up to provide buildings, and the conditions the buildings are in.

"I'm optimistic this will yield positive fruit, [but] I can predict what the market will yield... The key is that we have a critical mass," says one official with knowledge of the plan. If private options do not suffice, the officials say that city-owned land and property could be considered.

The plan could also be delayed by D.C. legislators who are skittish about homeless shelters being located in areas they represent. "We have this strange idea that people who are poor are less desirable in our neighborhoods," says the official. "It's going to take leadership and goodwill... [I hope] every member of the Council raises their hand and says 'I want one of those shelters in my ward.'"

The official says that the goal is to permanently move away from large-scale shelter options like D.C. General. "We've been there, done that, and we've closed them," they say.

Update, 12 p.m.: The city's plan has been made public, and it estimates that closing D.C. General fully could occur during the 2015-16 winter. According to the plan, six leased buildings with space for 40-50 families each would cost $24 million per year to operate and maintain, while six D.C.-owned buildings with the same capacity would cost $48 million in one-time costs and $18 million per year. The plan is below.

DC General Replacement Plan_Final_10!14!14

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