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D.C. Plan To Build New Homeless Shelters Faces First Test: The Public

A proposal by Mayor Muriel Bowser to replace the aging homeless family shelter at D.C. General with seven smaller, neighborhood-based shelters gets its first test Thursday night, as residents will be able to weigh in on the plan at public meetings.

The meetings — one in every ward — come only days after Bowser (D) unveiled the plan, which had been in the works since the closing months of former Mayor Vincent Gray's term. She hopes to close the troubled shelter at D.C. General by 2018, moving some 270 families to smaller facilities that would be built in seven of the city's eight wards.

On Tuesday, virtually every member of the D.C. Council pledged support for the plan. Some even predicted their constituents would welcoming the new shelters — or "short-term family housing," as city officials are calling them — to their neighborhoods.

"People were eager to embrace this," said Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), referring to the reactions of civic leaders in her ward after a briefing on the plan on Monday evening. Under Bowser's plan, a 38-unit shelter would be built on an empty lot along Wisconsin Avenue across from the Russian Embassy.

The plan could also get a boost from religious groups. The Washington Interfaith Network, a coalition of faith-based groups, says it plans on organizing people to speak in support of the shelters. Those supporters are being called YIMBYs, a play on the usual moniker used for opponents — NIMBYs, or people who say "not in my backyard."

Support varies by ward

In Ward 4, the plan to use a vacant apartment building near Kennedy Street has drawn mixed reviews from residents who have long waited for the commercial corridor to revitalize. But their concerns don't necessarily focus on whether a shelter should be placed there, but rather on how it will look and be managed.

"My sense is that people are, for the most part, open to the idea of having the facility in the neighborhood. People are hopeful that the facility can be an asset, if the facility is designed and managed well," said David Gottfried, a member of the Kennedy Street Development Association.

On Tuesday, a group in Ward 1 circulated a flyer hoping to drum up opposition to the proposed shelter at 10th and V Streets NW. The flyer cited concerns over possible congestion, loitering and decreases in property values if the shelter is built.

"This is not a winning proposition for our neighborhood that has made great progress over the years," reads the flyer.

Both Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) have said they support Bowser's plan. That's less the case in Ward 5, where Council member Kenyan McDuffie has said that the site Bowser has selected for a shelter isn't appropriate for that use.

It's an argument similarly made by some of the residents living near the proposed shelter, which would be on a dead-end street just off of Bladensburg Road NE.

"The mayor has chosen a location that is in the industrial area of the community. If the premise of the mayor's program is have families in the community, why sandwich this facility between nightclubs, marijuana facilities, auto-body shops, trash transfer stations and the Metrobus barn? What amenities will the families have?" says Kevin Mullone of the Langdon Park Community Association.

And while some Ward 5 residents say they would be open to a shelter somewhere else in the ward, others argue that it already houses a disproportionate amount of businesses and social services that other wards do not have.

But even if residents of any specific ward rise up against Bowser's plan, it remains unclear how much power they would have to derail it, in part because of how the plan is structured.

Tough math

For D.C. General to close by 2018, enough shelter space will have to be available to house the close to 300 families living there at any point. Should any one of the proposed shelters be delayed or taken out of consideration altogether, it could push back D.C. General's closure — which elected officials have been calling for for years.

Additionally, Bowser herself has alluded to how difficult it was to find the proposed sites — and that alternative options may not be easy to come by.

Bowser, who will attend the public meeting in Ward 6, has also been drumming the point home since last year that if D.C. General is to close, the entire city will have to chip in to house the families living there.

She has been urging residents to sign a pledge where the point is explicitly spelled out: "Every neighborhood, and every resident, has a stake in preventing homelessness and supporting people who experience homelessness."

According to Bowser's office, more than 12,000 people have signed the pledge.

"I expect the plan will be approved," says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

The locations for Thursday evening's meetings can be found here.

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