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Bowser Unveils Plan To Close D.C. General Homeless Shelter By 2018

Majority of D.C. Council supports neighborhood shelters

The former D.C. General hospital has been used as an emergency homeless shelter for families since 2001.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
The former D.C. General hospital has been used as an emergency homeless shelter for families since 2001.

The troubled homeless shelter at D.C. General could close as soon as the winter of 2018 under a plan unveiled Tuesday by Mayor Muriel Bowser, with the roughly 280 families occupying it sent instead to "smaller, dignified facilities" located in neighborhoods across the city.

Bowser's long-awaited proposal, which was presented at a breakfast with members of the D.C. Council, is the first concrete step towards closing D.C. General, the former hospital that was repurposed as an emergency shelter for homeless families in 2001.

Since then, it has consistently drawn scrutiny from elected officials and homeless advocates, who say it is too large and isolated to help its vulnerable residents. The early 2014 disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd from the shelter brought new rounds of criticism, and renews calls to close it once and for all.

There are currently over 1,400 residents at D.C. General — 400 of them children.

"We are working really hard to fix a system that’s broken, and unchanged is unsustainable," said Bowser in interview on Monday, when she previewed the plan to WAMU 88.5. "And so if we’re serious about ending family homeless and chronic homelessness in our city, we can’t do everything exactly the same way. This is a bold change."

Smaller, neighborhood-based shelters

Under Bowser's plan, D.C. General would be replaced by seven neighborhood-based shelters — "short-term family housing facilities," as city officials call them — ranging in size from 29 to 50 units. All told, 272 new units of housing — largely private rooms, but some apartment-style units — would be available for homeless families.

Two of the facilities would be located on D.C.-owned land, while the remaining five would be in buildings leased and redeveloped by the city — including an abandoned church in Ward 1 and an empty lot adjacent to a church-turned-arts center in Ward 6.

And in keeping with her promise to involve the entire city in the fight against family homelessness — which has been on the rise as affordable housing has gotten harder to come by — Bowser said that seven of the city's eight wards would play host to the shelters. Only Ward 2 won't have one, though it is getting a 213-bed women's shelter and a planned day center for the homeless.

Bowser said D.C. officials and brokers scoured the city for appropriate locations that are close to transit and amenities, and asked developers and realtors to suggest buildings in their inventory that could serve for homeless families.

"In some cases, we had a very hard time finding locations," she said of the process, which initially started in the waning months of former mayor Vincent Gray's term.

Bowser and other city officials say that they hope to start construction on the majority of the new shelters by late 2016 or early 2017, with an eye towards completing them throughout 2018. By that winter, they hope, D.C. General will be emptied of residents and closed.

"As we are moving through time and we can open these sites, we will stop making placements at D.C. General. We will start making use of the new sites, take D.C. General units offline and shrink our footprint," said Laura Zeilinger, the director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.

Next step: selling plan to residents

Bowser said that keeping to that schedule will require a "strict timeline" of deadlines and approvals for the plan, which could still be derailed by opposition from the Council or community.

City officials briefed community leaders on the plan on Monday night, but wider discontent could be expressed at ward-based meetings scheduled for Thursday evening.

But at Tuesday morning's public rollout of the plan, a majority of Council members not only praised Bowser, but said they supported the plan — and predicted that their constituents would also.

"I fully support this," said Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). "Not only are we not opposed to this, but we will wrap our arms around this."

"Do not underestimate the capacity of our neighbors… to be supportive of this," said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). He added that the community leaders he had spoken to about the plan had already indicated they would back it.

The only hint of dissent came from Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who said his ward already hosted a significant number of social service facilities, including the motels where many homeless families that cannot fit in D.C. General are living.

"The saturation of services in any one ward, let alone a few neighborhoods, is unfair to the communities that surround those facilities. Further years of city planning has taught us that concentrating shelters and associated services ... leads to inequities in terms of delivery of government services for the surrounding communities and does little to help the individuals that those facilities, services, and homes were intended to serve," he said in a statement.

McDuffie said he doesn't oppose a family shelter in his ward, but will not back the location proposed by Bowser.

It remains unclear if the Bowser administration has planned for alternative sites if any of the current sites are taken out of contention. "These are the sites that we think are the best," said Bowser when asked whether or not she would be willing to consider other locations.

The Council will play a role in approving legislation to speed the renovation and construction of the new shelters. The two shelters on D.C.-owned land will cost an estimated $40 million to build, and operating all the shelters is expected to cost $22 million per year. D.C. General, by comparison, costs $17 million a year.

"We spend a lot of money inefficiently at D.C. General just trying to fix things almost every single day," said Zeilinger, who added that the new shelters "will be welcoming for families," unlike their institutional predecessor.

And though the plan would empty D.C. General, it does not directly address the hundreds of homeless families housed in motels in and around the city. Zeilinger said that they would benefit from the city's other efforts, including the construction of more affordable housing and renewed efforts to connect the residents with existing housing options.

Bowser said that she knows that there will be few "easy conversations" in the discussion of the plan to close D.C. General and replace it with smaller shelters, but that it's a process she is prepared for.

"People believe in a city as prosperous as ours that we need to do better by homeless families. I hear it everywhere I go. Do we know there will be pushback block by block? Yes. People will be concerned. We have done a lot of work to talk to them about why these facilities, why their new neighbors, will fit in on their blocks. We have to continue to talk about it and explain and hope people will be supportive."

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