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Debate On Replacing D.C. Shelter Finds That Bathrooms Are A Crucial Question

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Flickr user Eva M Lidón: https://flic.kr/p/zCtHCw

D.C. plans to replace its largest shelter for homeless families, D.C. General, with several smaller shelters, but there are still plenty of questions about what that means.

For instance, should the District invest in apartment-style housing for homeless families or are private rooms with shared bathrooms adequate? It was a point of tension during a D.C. Council hearing Tuesday.

"College students share bathrooms in their dorms many times and they pay a lot for college tuition when you look at it that way," said one Council member, Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7).

She explained that line of thinking: "If I can get two more families off the street versus a private bathroom, I think I'm going to choose to get two more families off the street."

Judith Sandalow heads Children's Law Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for D.C. children, pushed back against that argument.

"Those of those making the decision probably have not lived in a homeless shelter, I certainly haven't," she said.

The Council should be sensitive to what homeless families go through, she said.

"It's not like a college dorm, it's not like summer camp," Sandalow said. "We have families and children who have experienced a great deal of trauma."

Nassim Moshiree, an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, read comments from homeless families:

  • "Shared bathrooms pose a safety issue. You have to go to with your child into the bathroom each time and they're not cleaned often enough."
  • "Shared bathrooms aren't safe for kids, they should feel safe to go to the bathroom by themselves."
  • "My son wouldn't even be potty-trained when he was there because he was scared of the bathrooms."

Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she wants to end homelessness in the District by 2020. D.C. General holds as many as 1,000 people.

Advocates argue that if Bowser is serious about that goal, the city should invest in shelters that could be converted into apartments once everyone is off the street.

But the mayor's administration says there will always be need for some shelter, because ending homeless means making it rare, brief and nonrecurring.

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