From Public Hospital To Homeless Shelter: The Long History Of D.c. General (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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From Public Hospital To Homeless Shelter: The Long History Of D.C. General

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
But first we'll return to the past, as we explore the history of this place that actually was never intended to be a homeless shelter. Until 2001, D.C. General was the city's public hospital. Hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians were born there. And many low-income residents entered its doors when they couldn't get help anywhere else. The hospital's history dates back to the very founding of the nation's capital. And for 200 years, it was a place where good intentions collided against the harsh reality of underfunding and mismanagement. Jacob Fenston has the story.

MR. JACOB FENSTON

00:00:37
In the 1960s, D.C. General Hospital was, like many big-city public hospitals, overcrowded and understaffed.

MR. MARTIN SHARGEL

00:00:45
We had to turn away people all the time. It was a constant triage of who was the sickest and who needed the most and how could we manage that.

FENSTON

00:00:54
Martin Shargel started working at D.C. General in the late '60s.

SHARGEL

00:00:58
In 1968.

FENSTON

00:00:59
He was a young doctor, finishing up his residency. The hospital was a mess.

SHARGEL

00:01:04
We had inadequate laboratory and X-ray services. We couldn't even find X-rays very often. It took sometimes days before people could locate files.

FENSTON

00:01:12
Shargel started organizing fellow residents and interns. He became the president of the association representing them. They put together a report showing that compared to other local hospitals, D.C. General had half the staff doing twice the work.

SHARGEL

00:01:26
We decided to have what we called a heal-in.

FENSTON

00:01:30
He led a peaceful rebellion of doctors and nurses. They would admit every patient who came in the door needing care, even though there wasn't room.

SHARGEL

00:01:37
The stretchers were lined-up, up and down the hall. They had no room assignments.

FENSTON

00:01:42
This tactic caught the attention of reporters and politicians.

SHARGEL

00:01:45
Everybody agreed that care was inadequate. Everybody agreed that there was overcrowding, everybody agreed that there wasn't enough money.

FENSTON

00:01:53
But, he says, things didn't change.

SHARGEL

00:01:55
It was mostly puffery. Nothing happened as a -- nothing substantial and material happened as a consequence. Promises, promises.

MR. TIM KREPP

00:02:04
If you are of any means whatsoever in, say, 1860, you would not come here. This is the worst place you could possibly come.

FENSTON

00:02:11
This is Tim Krepp, a local tour guide and historian. He's talking here about the 1860s, 100 years before Martin Shargel was protesting conditions. Back then, a health board report called the hospital very primitive, a collection of wooden shanties, and declared, "Charity under this guise becomes a curse."

KREPP

00:02:32
It's important to make that distinction between charity, which was to help folks -- and this was to get them off the streets, this was because, "We don't want to look at poor people. We'll ship them off to a workhouse somewhere to get them out of the way."

FENSTON

00:02:43
The hospital was founded in 1806, originally near Judiciary Square. In 1846, it was moved to its current location, on what was then the edge of the city.

KREPP

00:02:52
Back in the 1840s this wasn't the edge of anything.

FENSTON

00:02:54
Back then, Krepp explains, hospitals were for poor people, people who couldn't afford to have a doctor come to their home. So the hospital was built out here on the city's outskirts, next to the jail and the workhouse.

KREPP

00:03:05
The workhouse, the jail, and the hospital, in the 18th century, in the 19th century, this would have been one function. You would have had a hard time telling who was down here because they were a criminal, who was down here because they were poor, and who was down here because they were sick and had no better options.

FENSTON

00:03:22
By the end of the century, there were calls to close the dilapidated hospital, and rebuild a modern facility, away from the malaria-ridden banks of the river. It would be built on high land, at 14th and Upshur Streets, amidst the new upper-middle class neighborhoods popping up in Northwest D.C.

KREPP

00:03:38
And the citizens of Piney Branch, of Petworth, of Park View, all rose up in rebellion against it.

FENSTON

00:03:45
So the hospital stayed put, but in 1922 it reopened in a new brick structure, replacing the old hodgepodge. The sturdy new building was rechristened Gallinger Municipal Hospital. But just 20 years later, it was "a filthy place swarming with flies," according to witnesses at a U.S. Senate hearing.

FENSTON

00:04:06
One senator read from a letter complaining that, "Mice thrive on every floor and roaches, some of enormous size, infest every part of the hospital." In another rebranding effort, the name was again changed, in 1953, to D.C. General.

MS. CAROL SCHWARTZ

00:04:20
That hospital, D.C. General, was closed against the unanimous, the unanimous support of this Council. You know the Council very rarely has unanimous votes.

FENSTON

00:04:30
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, during a 2002 mayoral debate on WAMU. In 2001 the hospital was closed amid public outcry by Mayor Anthony Williams.

MAYOR ANTHONY WILLIAMS

00:04:41
People say, "Well, if we move to this new healthcare system, people are going to die." And my answer is, ladies and gentlemen, people are already dying. We have a horrible life expectancy for African American men, horrible statistics for diabetes, horrible statistics for HIV/AIDS.

FENSTON

00:04:56
During the late 1990s, the much-maligned hospital was draining city coffers, as the District struggled to get its finances under control. So the hospital would be replaced by an insurance scheme, the D.C. Healthcare Alliance. The mayor said it would provide better primary care than the old hospital, and save money.

WILLIAMS

00:05:14
What happens now, is I go to D.C. General -- I can go to D.C. General 10 times but no one's really keeping track of me as a patient in a healthcare system.

MS. SARA ROSENBAUM

00:05:21
Closing a hospital in a poor community is like shutting the schools, or closing a church. It is one of the great anchoring edifices of a community.

FENSTON

00:05:31
Sara Rosenbaum is a public health professor at George Washington University. She says the D.C. Healthcare Alliance has been a success.

ROSENBAUM

00:05:39
Our numbers rival the best numbers in the country.

FENSTON

00:05:42
But Rosenbaum says that doesn't mean people can easily get care. The empty hospital left a big void in D.C.'s low-income neighborhoods.

ROSENBAUM

00:05:50
The fact of the matter is that the supply of healthcare professionals in the United States is distributed very unevenly. They tend to cluster where the money is.

FENSTON

00:05:59
D.C. General dismissed its last patient on June 25, 2001. Just a year later, the doors were open again, a temporary solution for the city's growing homeless population. There were just 12 beds that first year. By 2010, the city had crammed some 200 families into a makeshift shelter designed for 135. Once again, overcrowding at D.C. General was making headlines. I'm Jacob Fenston.

SHEIR

00:06:43
After the break, D.C. General through the eyes of a child.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1

00:06:47
He's so used to chaos and noise. He's lost some of those natural reactions to stress.

SHEIR

00:06:54
That's just ahead as our D.C. General edition of "Metro Connection" continues, here on WAMU 88.5.

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00:07:01
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